Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sermons and the Spirit

Recently, as I prepared a sermon about the role of the Holy Spirit, I found myself thinking about how the Spirit works in the process of the preacher preparing and presenting the sermon and in the hearers hearing the sermon. While I work hard at being true to the biblical text I choose, I have learned to accept some unavoidable truths. Sometimes, I miss the mark. Often people hear something other than I preach.

Sometimes a sermon can deal with a whole text as chosen by the preacher. Often, it cannot. In some cases, the chosen text is the sermon or, at least, it shapes the core of the sermon. Any chosen text should inform the sermon; though all preachers, this one included, is capable of choosing a text and springing forth from it, which is not always bad.

In both college and seminary preaching classes, I was taught better. The preacher must be true to the text! In my mind, I can still hear Dr. Ham Kimzey saying that to our class. He was critical of those preachers who chose a text and then “sprang forth from it.” For the most part I agree with my former teacher, who, by the way, was the first honest and consistant liberal Baptist I met. Unlike some liberals, he never hid his light under a bushel basket. He let it shine. As a result, fundamentalist-leaning students sometimes held prayer meetings on his front lawn. Dr. Kimzey thanked them saying, “I need the prayers and you need the practice.” I digress . . .

. . . but that is my point. Spring forth is not always bad. What is always bad is misusing one’s text, using it to say what it does not and cannot say.

Sometimes a text leads one in a direction never intended by the author . . . but perhaps not unintended by God who inspired the author/s and inspires the reader and preacher. Maybe it is a Spirit thing.

It works the same for those who listen to sermons. I am constantly amazed by what others hear in my sermons. Often what they hear is not at all what I said. Did I miscommunicate? In some cases, I am sure I did; but in other cases, I’m not so sure. In some cases, I have come to believe that the Spirit moves in mysterious ways to take the preacher’s sermon as preached and cause it to speak to the needs of those who hear. Surely, in more than some of the cases, for the Spirit do this, there must be some reinterpreting so that the hearer may hear what she needs in and through and in spite of what the preacher actually said.

I don’t always like that what people sometimes hear in my sermon is not what I said; but I have seen lives altered in positive ways by what the hearer heard in what I did not say.

The presence and work of the Spirit in preacher and hearer makes coming to church both safer and more edifying than it might otherwise be. Thus, I pray:

Come, Holy Spirit; dark is the hour.
We need Your filling,
Your love and Your mighty power.
Move now among us; stir us we pray.
Come, Holy Spirit; revive the church today.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Fish Story

Although it has been a while since I have seen a critique of children’s fairy tales, I am always amused when I do.  Someone occasionally points out how violent and cruel many fairy tales are. This leads to concerns that those poor children forced to hear these tales are being taught to be cruel and violent. 
I’m confused by most of this.  I grew up hearing and reading fairy tales and today own a copy of all of Grimm’s fairy tales.  I am not a pacifist, but I am a long way from being violent or cruel.  Maybe I lacked sufficient cognitive ability to understand these violent and cruel tales.
I also grew up reading the Bible, having received my first when I was five years old—four months before my sixth birthday.  The Bible, unlike the fairy tales, gave me some problems.  It starts off with lies told to God and a brother murdering another brother, and it goes downhill after that.  Violence and cruelty is everywhere, often instigated by God.  Given how much violence and cruelty there is in the Bible, should we prohibit children from reading it?

The problem I had with the Bible was the result of how the Bible was presented.  What I heard from preachers and Sunday school teachers was that everything in the Bible was factually true.  No one ever said that to me regarding fairy tales.  Fairy tales were stories.  There were lessons to be learned from the stories, but they were stories.  The big, bad woof was not disguised as my grandma and waiting just up the road for me. 

Okay, not all the violent and cruel stuff in the Bible is just a story.  Some of it is all too real.  But might it not be helpful for us to acknowledge to children, not to mention adults, that some of the events in the Bible are stories—stories told to get across a very important point?

The saga of Jonah, the reluctant prophet is a case in point.  As a child I was enthralled by it and deeply bothered.  God had a mission for Jonah which Jonah didn’t want to do, and therefore he ran from God.  God, in order to get Jonah, causes a storm (that’s how I understood it) that threatened the lives of an entire ship’s crew.  To save their lives, the crew was willing to kill Jonah.  A big fish swallowed, but did not digest, Jonah and three days later vomited him onto the shore. Jonah did God’s bidding and was mad about it the whole time.  Afterwards, Jonah pouted under a bush that grew up overnight. 

While enthralled by the thought of a man surviving for three days in a fish’s belly, I was bothered by the story that presented God as willing to put other men at peril to get this one man and of men so cruel as to be willing to sacrifice a life to save their own skins.  Even to a child, such images seemed contrary to the image of the God revealed in Jesus.

Then one day college Professor Ham Kimzy said of Jonah, “This is a story.  The truth is not in the facts but in the story.”  With this realization, Jonah took on new interest and importance.

Read the story of Jonah. Skip the sermon, and learn the truth—God has a mission of redemption and invites us to join him in the mission.