September 21, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: February 8, 2016

Roberts Pk UMC Windows 2

This is part four in a series of iMonk posts that Michael wrote back in 2006. We have edited them and now present them each Monday. His subject was “the sermon,” and the series was called “What’s Wrong with the Sermon?” Here is Michael’s explanation of the approach he took:

In this series of posts I will be examining the sermon as it is currently done in evangelicalism. My method will be a bit backwards. I am going to examine the most frequent criticisms of sermons — something I hear all the time from my peers and student listeners — and see if there is truth in the criticisms.

Past posts:
• Part 1: The sermon’s too long
• Part 2: The sermon’s boring
Part 3: The sermon — I don’t understand it

• • •

Roberts Pk UMC Windows 3What’s wrong with the sermon?
(4) The sermon — it isn’t practical

To gain some idea of the state of contemporary preaching, survey what is being preached at any ten successful megachurches in your state, or any ten churches who very much want to become megachurches in the future. Compare these sermons to the sermons of any group of “great preachers” of the past, or well-known expositional, exegetical preachers today.

The differences are more than just pronounced; they are stunning. Aside from the fact that someone is talking, it can easily appear that these sermons have no similarity to one another at all.

There will be many differences. Length. Titles. Use of illustrations. Theological depth. Use of the Bible. The effect of technology. Foremost, however, among the observed differences will be the focus on “practical,” “How-to” messages in contemporary churches. Contemporary preaching, especially in the successful megachurches that are populating the western landscape, has become primarily focused on “practical,” “How to be” and “How to do” messages.

Many of these practical sermons are the heart of a church’s appeal to its seeker, market driven, target audience. These would include sermons on how to be a successful parent, how to deal with stress, how to find a mate or have a happy marriage, how to manage money, how achieve goals and so on. The similarity of these messages to the titles of self-help books or the results of surveys on “what would you like to hear at church” is no accident. Today’s practical preaching is very intentional in its approach, and what is successful in one church will be mass produced- right down to the illustrations and outlines- for hundreds, even thousands, of other preachers.

The New Testament is a practical book. It is a discipleship-oriented book. Jesus taught his disciples through an intensive kind of training that covered “how to pray”, “how to enter a community and minister”, and “how to cast out demons.” Christianity has always valued spiritual guidance, mentoring and practical wisdom. The premise of wisdom literature- and especially Proverbs- is the practical nature of the Godly life.

So I am not at all surprised that there is a recovery of a concern for practical discipleship and application. In many ways, this recovery is necessary, healthy and welcome. Somewhere in any church, there should be someone talking about these “real life” issues. The New Testament’s pastoral letters, both in their description of the qualifications of leadership and in their admonitions about general church life, assume this level of teaching is going on.

One might even suggest that Paul’s pastoral ministry had fallen short of the ideal because of the fact that he had to spend so much time going back over practical matters with his young churches. Look, for example, at how much time is spent in the discussion of whether to eat meat offered to idols. Much of that discussion sounds very familiar to anyone who has been around young Christians. It is the “how far can I go?” and “what can I do?” questions that are the focus of so many practical sermons today.

One of the most important lessons that I learned in my New Testament studies concerned two different kinds of material in the text. The first was kerygma, or proclamation. This was the “Biblical story” told with a focus on Jesus as messiah and Lord. It is what we see particularly in the book of Acts, and it is what Paul is often referring back to when he is talking to churches in his epistles and reminds them of what they heard from him (or others) when they were converted.

The second type of material was didache, or instruction. This is the teaching material that we find primarily in the epistles and the gospels. It is not a proclamation of the Biblical story, but application and practical teaching regarding life lived as a Christian. (Sometime I need to write why the term “Christian Life” is singularly unhelpful.)

But if we examine “didache,” we discover something interesting about the connection of application to the Biblical story. Look, for example, at Colossians 3:1-17, one of the greatest of the New Testament application passages.

Col. 3:1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your* life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Col. 3:5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:* sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming.* 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self* with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Col. 3:12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

What is easily discernible to any student is the fact that didache is a subset of Kerygma; application is a continuation of the proclamation. The practical and the theological/doctrinal are not separable. The life Paul describes is a direct result of understanding the exaltation and ascension of Jesus. It is a continuation of the Biblical story into the lives of Jesus’ followers.

It is also plain that didache isn’t ANY kind of practical advice. It is teaching specifically focused on the life that belongs to Jesus. It isn’t about getting a better parking space as a sign of God’s favor. It is about being a light in the world so that Christ is evidenced and glorified.

The implications for preaching are obvious, I believe. There are two errors lurking here. One is to ignore the practical in favor of the theological and doctrinal. The other is to allow the practical to consume the message without reference to the Biblical story.

Practical preaching that isn’t related to the bigger picture of God, the Gospel, Grace and the Kingdom of God becomes a an encouragement to moralism rather than a connection to Jesus. A steady diet of application without the theological context of the Bible’s own emphasis on the story of Jesus risks creating a church centered around values and behavior; pragmatism and concerns of the “culture war.” That was the program of the Pharisees, and Jesus not only opposed it; he was amazed at its shallowness.

Much Christian “worldview” preaching runs the risk of displacing the Gospel with applications, and often with applications that leave a Bible student scratching his head and turning pages.

I would suggest that practical, “How to” preaching, no matter what form it takes, has an appropriate place in the total Christian approach to preaching. Here the Puritans were good guides. Their sermons were purposely structured to be theological in a first movement, and applicatory and practical in the closing movements.

Practical preaching that strategizes the use of “how to” messages to gain the interest of seekers runs a serious risk of removing the contextual content of the Christian story, and an even more serious risk of pandering and deception. Those of us who listen to the modern seeker preachers and wonder if the Gospel has been displaced and obscured by accident or on purpose probably have an answer: this is an attempt to gain a hearing by moving what most needs to be heard down the list, and moving what people want to hear up the list.

I am more concerned with the message that exists between the lines of “practical” preaching: the message that God is about making our lives “better”. Is it the Biblical message that we have secret, practical knowledge others don’t have? Are our marriages always better? Are our children happier and more obedient? Do we have better finances and less stress? These implied “outcomes” are serious departures from the Bible’s message.

In fact, loyalty to Jesus has the frequent result of causing temporal difficulty. We may have less money and more stress. If our family is not the typical Christian family, we may have family conflict. Jesus predicted all of this in unmistakable detail. Paul’s career as a missionary apostle was highlighted with suffering, trouble, rejection, burdens, risks and losses. It was all worth it for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the church, but Paul was not telling anyone the message of Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now.

Many of today’s practical preachers are more than subtly influenced by the prosperity Gospel and the secular motivational speakers and gurus. The similarity between many of these presentations and Oprah Winfrey is not accidental. The problem can be stated simply: Some preachers will preach whatever they know will attract a crowd, and the secular world offers a constant array of tactics to gain that crowd.

One must almost admire the sheer, unmitigated greed of men like Joel Osteen in completely abandoning the Gospel and appealing directly to the desire of Americans for money, houses and success. His nationwide following attests to the power of preaching prosperity rather than Christ. One must also say that if Paul’s admonitions to Timothy to faithfully preach the Gospel of Christ are the Word and will of God, then men like Osteen are defying the Almighty right down to the specifics.

Practical preaching need not go down this dead end. There is a place for the didache. There is a place for application. There is a place to talk about life and the many problems human beings face.

But the proclamation of the Gospel is always an announcement of the story of Jesus, and the implications- be they practical or not- must be seen in the light of Jesus. When Jesus promised his followers “life abundant”, we must affirm that Jesus’ own example shows us what the abundant life looks like in this world where Jesus turns everything upside down.

We don’t define abundant life with cultural definitions. Jesus defines that life. That’s why he can ask a rich man to sell it all and follow him. He knows what is real life and what isn’t.

God’s people need practical instruction. They need it wedded to the “cost of discipleship” and the Lordship/example of Christ. “Seekers” may need to hear many things, and the church may find a way to be helpful and serve people with classes and instruction, but to those without Christ our primary ministry and message must be the Gospel itself. That is not to say that the Gospel must be the subject of everything we do as Christians, but it is to say that whatever we do, teach or preach, it must be the Gospel that brings everything else into focus, and gives significance to whatever we are doing.

RPUMC window 3Suggestions for preachers:

1. There is a strong temptation to imitate the “how to” preachers who are drawing larger crowds by talking about things other than the Gospel. Be faithful. Preach Christ. At the same time, be clear that Christ redeems everything, and there are applications of our faith to every kind of situation and problem.

2. Follow the example of the Puritans in putting specific applications either into your message or accessible in handouts or web sites. (No, the Puritans didn’t use web sites, but it sounds cool.) There is nothing commendable about impractical preaching, and we must not overreact to the errors around us by committing another error ourselves by offering little or no application.

3. Remember that you may be able to have several sermons with different emphasis; some more theological and some more practical. This could also be done with follow-up in small groups. Marriage, for example, is a subject where specific application should never be ignored, because the scripture puts practical application and theological foundations together.

4. Remember to help your people see their problems and concerns in the true light of the Gospel. The Bible has principles for parents, but its message of universal sin and depravity makes it clear that we can expect our children to act like sinners. The temptation of many good Christians is to believe that “principles” from the Bible will provide insurance or a way to “fix” what is broken. (I see this everyday as people bring their children to our school and say that they can be fixed by religion.) The Gospel is about loving a wayward child more than it is about insuring there are no wayward children. In other words, much practical preaching simply ignores the true implications of the Gospel that may involve suffering with God in a fallen world.

5. “How to ” messages are famous for simplifying what is not simple. There is no way for a marriage to succeed with 5 or 8 or 10 “Simple” steps. This is a particular kind of American idolatry that the church should be busy rejecting. The Gospel makes us into people who see and follow Christ. It is not a collection of “how to” steps. The Christian publishing industry has often put Christian authors into the category of “inspirational” messages. We should remember that salvation is not a matter of knowing some “inspirational” thoughts to help us get through the day.

6. Preaching practical topics may be an occasion where some in a congregation find much fault with a preacher for not being as practical as other sources of “inspiration.” The preacher may feel inadequate, or feel that he is letting down his congregation by not being more helpful. If this motivates the preacher to provide more practical resources and to think in practical terms for subjects such as prayer, family devotions and the use of money, then good can come from those concerns.

7. Many preachers are reluctant to preach practical application because their own house is not in order. They do not talk about the devotional life because they do not have one. They do not talk about money because they are up to their necks in credit card debt. They do not do application on marriage because theirs in in desperate straits. If this is the case, then it is the pastor who needs the Gospel and practical discipleship, beginning with honesty, repentance and restoration.

8. Applicatory preaching is an invitation to pastoral care. When we begin to apply the faith, our people will come to us with their problems. There is no escaping this. Our people are not as good as they look. All is not as well as it appears on Sunday morning. Some preachers do not come “down to earth” because it is in those earthly valleys that real hurt and complex human brokenness dwells. We should not complain if our people turn to other “healers” if our presentation of the Word heals them lightly or not at all.

Christianity is a both practical and highly impractical. God’s wisdom and the answer of the Gospel to our dilemmas are not in the same category as the human wisdom many want when insisting on “practical” preaching. The greatest error is to ever move away from Christ and his Gospel by emphasizing what we can or should do over what God has done for us in Christ.

At the same time, we should ask “How does this look in real life?” Paul’s letters are full of practical instruction, and this is often neglected by preachers who are more comfortable in the more theological parts of the Bible. If the theological, the Biblical and the practical are properly related in a congregation, that church will produce disciples who know, confess and worship, but who also live, choose and follow.

The Gospel leads us to practical discipleship, but it doesn’t create a religion of simplistic success principles. Good preaching leads to practical application without obscuring the Gospel itself.


  1. I’ve stopped listening to the sermons in the church I currently attend. I read or write instead. This is all tied up with some complicated feelings about ‘The Church’ in general, but my experience is that most sermons I’ve heard have had little relevance for my actual life. Or, they use language and ways of thinking about the world that no longer make sense to me.

    I listen to Rob Bell’s work, for ‘teaching’ that is meaningful to me. I’ve been thinking of trying to tackle Jung too. Can anyone recommend any introductionary material to Jung, or his psycology?

    • How do those sermons fit into the patterns IMonk described above?

      • Some of them are very practical. There’s one about healthy living, a whole series on learning to forgive, and another on politics and guns. They’re not just simple ‘how to’ messages; they seem to carry a weight of deep reflection, personal experience, and an understanding of human psychology. But you’d get a better idea by listening to them, they can be found on Rob Bell’s website, under ‘The Robcast’.

        Rob Bell also tries, as he puts it, to put in a deep base note of good news, in everything he does. And it’s often about the Holy Spirit’ in the sense of, ‘what is God doing in the world, right now, and how can I be a part of it?’

    • Ben — I can’t help you with a specific Jung recommendation, but for good, pastoral preaching, you can’t beat St. John Chrysostom. Many of his sermons are still in print. I also like the Desert Fathers, especially St. Isaac of Syria. Those are what I’d read if I had to drown out an awful sermon!

      • + 1

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        With St John Chrysostom, remember he was known for a LOW opinion of women, even by the standards of his time.

        Which gives more weight to his endorsement of Junia (NOT “Junius”), the female “apostle” mentioned in one of St Paul’s letters.

        • HUG, have you every read any of Chrysostom? He actually did not have “a low opinion of women.” His preaching must be taking in context, like everyone else’s – he was speaking to problems he encountered in his day, particularly with the Empress who was in power at the time, who was not the best example of a Christian or an Empress. He was actually quite patient and kind toward women who really wanted to follow Christ’s teaching. He was emphatic that there was nothing wrong with women coming to church and receiving Communion during their periods; some were superstitions about that then, and a few are even now. They should read St John.


    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > ways of thinking about the world that no longer make sense to me

      Yes, lots of this.

    • BEN,
      I think most folks don’t attempt to comprehend Jung past his one-liners . . . but even those one-liners give an insight into his world . . .

      take this excerpt from Col. 3:7-10
      ” 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self* with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. ”

      and examine this one-liner from Jung:
      ” Thinking is difficult. That is why most people judge.”

      I like to think Jung likely was influenced by his exposure to sacred Scripture when I reflect on some of his insight into the mysteries of our flawed and wounded human nature. 🙂

    • >>I listen to Rob Bell’s work, for ‘teaching’ that is meaningful to me.

      Ben, I had the pleasure of hearing Rob Bell once in person at the church he founded in Grand Rapids. Only thing approaching a “megachurch” I’ve ever experienced and it was positive for me in spite of my discomfort with crowds. Don’t know what Michael would have said if he had been there. His brush gets a bit broad at times. I was glad I went, but would not have continued traveling fifty miles to attend. His Nooma teaching series on DVD and Love Wins pretty much bring you up to speed.

      If you are being led to study Jung, I don’t have much help and would point out that as far ahead of his time as he was, he is speaking from fifty years and more in the past. Richard Rohr lists Jung as one of the shapers of his spiritual understanding, and you might better study Jung thru him to get to the core. I consider Richard to be the most cutting edge Christian teacher currently available. He has a number of books and other teaching media you can study if so inclined, but I find his daily meditation to be a good nourishing meal. Definitely living in the 21st century with an awareness of all the gold nuggets left along the way by some within the church and others like Jung, along with the whole mystical spiritual tradition world wide.

      I sense that you are trying to find your way in this 21st century and would hope you might give Richard a try. His link is up above under Links. You could go to his site and search Jung to see if anything helpful came up. You could also subscribe to his daily meditation to see what you think of it.

      • Thanks Charles.

        I read one of his meditations on love this morning. I’ll give them a try, I think

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    I would add a simple #9: No gender jokes. Just stop already; the talks-too-much woman, the dude with no fashion sense, football-whatever, … Just stop. Nope, still not funny, Stop. Please.

    Most comedy clubs have stand-up nights; go try it there – with an interactive audience – and see how it goes.

    Can any pastor attending any pastor’s retreat/conference please make a point of making this a point.

    • Don’t forget talking about how divorce is reprehensible and shameful always and everywhere, and then trying to lighten the mood with “now, I never said anything about murder…”

  3. Does the Puritan practice mirror the medieval progression of literal, typological, moral, and anagogical meaning in interpretation, answering the questions “What does it mean,” “What does it reflect,” “What do we do with it now,” and “What does it say about the future/afterlife?” I’ve thought recently that that would be a good model for preaching, or at least personal devotion.

  4. Steve Newell says

    If “Practical” means more self-help or a list of “to do’s”, when why do I need to attend worship. I can listen to a Tony Robbins presentation on self-help.

    What makes a sermon practical if it bring the Gospel to me. On Issues Etc., they have a simple approach to analyzing a sermon to see if it is a Christian sermon or just a lecture.

    1. How often is Jesus mentioned? If not much, then we have a problem.
    2. If Jesus is mentioned, is he the subject of the verbs? Who is doing the actions? If it is Jesus, then he is the center of the action. Is Jesus active or passive?
    3. If Jesus is mentioned, and He is the subject of the verbs, what are those verbs? Are verbs action based on our behalf?

    I know that many will argue that this is not practical in the 21th Century. If what Jesus has done for us not practical, the Christian faith is only a moral code.

    • I admire the practicality of this comment on how to practically be practical

    • If what Jesus has done for us not practical, the Christian faith is only a moral code.

      What’s wrong with that? Galatians 5:22-23.

      • If anything, Jesus is the perfect example of following that moral code, right?

        To look at it another way:

        “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

        While worded poorly…is fairly accurate. I’d probably get rid of that “without a Cross” part, but the rest kinda holds up as true and biblical. And especially Christian and Gospel.

      • Maybe this is something I used to understand but no longer can about most of evangelicalism or Christianity as a whole.

        Isn’t the goal to have the Fruit? Isn’t the goal for people to follow Christ?

        Why do so many take issue if people don’t actually bend the knee or worship Jesus as Lord, but still follow him? Is it a tainted purity thing? Is it we secretly believe you don’t *really* do the things Jesus wants us to do unless you also say the prayer/follow the process/regularly go to church?

        Last night’s Superbowl and today’s online reaction to it applies strongly. When did love and peace become demonic agendas? Why do the people following the Prince of Peace so strongly hate those who say we should be peaceful? Do they not really believe Jesus’ message? Or is it just a sin thing, a death to self thing, a Law thing, with no grace in the way at all?

        no real answers. just observations

        • Do we preach Jesus crucified at the expense of Jesus’ ministry and purpose on earth? Does it all come down to eternal reconciliation with God because of sin and hell through Jesus’ death and resurrection, or is there an element of liberation theology, good news for the poor, justice for the suffering, etc?

          Like HUG has said, does it all come down to A Personal Salvation and Only Personal Salvation?

          Are we in any way honoring Christ and God if “preaching Jesus crucified” is the only or main goal of a service?

          Is Jesus nothing more than the eternal lamb sacrificed to save US US US from the Father’s wrath that we “so justly deserve” for merely being born and existing? What other stones does this almighty Father want to give us and call “love”? An entire ministry of 3 years reduced down to 3 days.

          Just asking and wrestling.

          • Both/and, not either/or.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            “Does it all come down to eternal reconciliation with God because of sin and hell through Jesus’ death and resurrection”

            Most of the time: Yes. Sadly. That’s it, done, please move along in a calm and orderly manner.

            “good news for the poor, justice for the suffering, etc?”

            Nope. The poor will always be with us; Jesus said so. So no point in getting too worked up about that.

            Seriously – that was one STUPID thing for Jesus to say. It is a license for just being a Jerk; I’ve heard that line too often. As a god he should have realized what a trap that statement is/was.

          • Could even God have written a Scripture so absolutely clear that NOBODY could have twisted it out of context?

          • That Other Jean says

            Eeyore, perhaps God could have written such a Scripture, but the people who did the actual writing and the people who selected the writings that made into the Bible certainly left us a contorted, contradictory puzzle.

          • TOJ, Maybe what they left us, even in spite of themselves and unintentionally, was something more like a zen koan than an authoritative oracle.

      • Steve Newell says

        The Fruit of the Spirit is something that we cannot produce on our own, it is the result of the Holy Spirit. On our own, we can only produce the works of the flesh.

        • How so? And wouldn’t that contradict Jesus’ words about others who weren’t the disciples doing good works?

          Also, does that line of thinking lead to *only* Christians can do good works? So literally anything good someone else does, whether Jew, Muslim, Agnostic, Atheist, or Evangelical (lol), actually means it’s bad and wrong and demonic and should not have been done?

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            Yes. The Fruit response is not helpful; at worst it is a poetic way to duck the question, at best it is a rats-nest that that requires such immense qualification that it is not far from being equivocation.

            There will be something about Universal grace vs. Specific grace… It becomes hard to tell Fruit Of The Spirit from “Use the force, Luke”

          • LOVE the idea of universal grace! Rather than those haves and have nots.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            Oh, it does not mean that at all. It means there is a Lesser Grace that everyone has – which is why pagans and atheists can do good and kind things. Whereas Specific Grace is the better grace that results in the Fruits and Salvation. So a kind act by a Christian is derived from Specific Grace, and the kind act of a Pagan via Universal Grace.

            It is still completely a Have and Have-Not structure; but with a built-in dodge for the lack of demonstrability.

            Gotta love those Theologians.

        • Also…how is that not gnostic thinking to the core?

  5. High pitched voice, tell some jokes laugh, maybe show a video, sudden switch to deep low pleading voice, solemn, solemn, solemn, a laugh to relieve tension, an illustration, up and down text reading, monotone repeat of last verse, solemn summary of last verse, high pleading voice, normal speaking tone, low pleading, low pleading, hushed tones, pause, semi-upbeat prayer, pause, middling energy for next event.

    There’s the formula.

  6. Moderator…could you delete my comment? If I have issues with my pastor’s sermons I should probably air them with him rather than publicly on this blog.


  7. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Wait.. There was a suitcase? Did that fit in somewhere? I nodded off part way through. 🙂

  8. Another brilliant article from Michael, but I suspect either the times have changed or the iMonk audience has changed since then. Because he leaves a gaping hole that almost every comment on the thread has touched on. The hang-up that most of us have at this point is not between “practical” how-to sermons and Jonathan Edwards wannabe screeds – it is quite simply that the words don’t come from a world that we know, and don’t apply to the world that we live in. For the most part, I don’t even conceive of the world in the same terms as is assumed in many sermons. For example, I don’t understand how any sane person with a reasonably functioning moral compass could believe that it is ethical or just for Jesus to be killed for my sin. Side-stepping the issue of whether retributive justice is even ethical at all, one has to admit that it is neither just nor good to kill someone for another’s crime. And then we believe that in spite of that, some people are eternally damned because – what? – they lacked sufficient knowledge of God? Or take Jesus’ odd command to “turn the other cheek”. So now empowering bullies is ok? Should we not have had the Civil War? Should LGBTQ just sit down and shut up? All that to say that a great many of my friends and I all agree that our worldview is significantly different from what is acceptable from most church establishments.

    • Christiane says

      ” Or take Jesus’ odd command to “turn the other cheek”. So now empowering bullies is ok? ”

      I once heard a story about this that it had something to do with it being okay for a Roman soldier to slap someone, but it disgraced the soldier to hit someone back-handed, which the soldier would have to do if the person ‘turned the other cheek . . . not sure of the source of this story, or if it is credible, or how even it would dishonor the soldier to backhand someone . . . but I offer it because someone else out there might know more about it and could share with us

      • I’ve heard that a few times myself, and it’s always struck me as belonging in the “forwarded from Grandma” category, but a user on another (non-religious) forum summed up why much better than I could: “Jesus said ‘Do not avenge yourself,’ not ‘Avenge yourself really cleverly.'” I would welcome being wrong about this, though.

        Now, that doesn’t mean don’t seek justice (civil/criminal justice being the original context of “an eye for an eye” at the start of the discourse), though. I would say that’s still okay, even obligatory, because it’s not personal revenge.

        • But he DIDN’T say, “Don’t avenge yourself.” He said, “Turn the other cheek.” Completely different, and – imho – the very definition of empowering a bully.

          • Yes. And remember, Jesus was preaching to first century Palestinian Jews under the yoke of Roman oppression. Why wouldn’t the Zealots and other rebels get pisse- off at him? He was telling their people to be doormats instead of fighting Roman injustice.

    • Perhaps there is a difference between Jesus “being killed for my sin” and Jesus “dying for my sin” (voluntarily – “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us”. I John 3:16a [NRSV] ).

  9. I believe in the resurrection and the life. I’m convinced that Jesus lives with me, with us, today, and that he is with us in suffering love, and that he will never part from us, from any of us.

    But the preaching I’ve heard, with very rare exception, has not helped me see his presence in my life any more clearly than I see it on my own, nor helped me hear what he may, or may not, be saying to me in scripture or in my life. I listen to the scriptures read from the lectern, and as best I can I feed myself on them, and let them confound me, and know that I’ll never figure it all out. I also try to listen to the sermons, but know beforehand that not one of them will stay with me the way the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount and the Nunc Dimittis and the Magnificat stay with me, with all their confounding and paradoxical and harrowing power. I frequently wish the preachers would just stop, and let the words of scripture speak for themselves in the liturgy and the readings and the sacraments.

    • Robert, this is the world I inhabit now, also. I go not for the sermon but for the readings and the Supper–Word and sacrament.

  10. It seems so easy
    to stay inside the darkness–
    then the sun rises.

  11. I’m trying to imagine ole Preacher Sisson, the hell fire & damnation, no drinkin’ no dancin’ no pitcher show minister of the little Georgia country Southern Baptist church I grew up in, preaching a sermon about stress.

  12. This is the only fire sermon I put any stock in:

  13. Practical is not pragmatic.

  14. “The preaching of the Enlightenment was a kind of lecturing on all possible subjects, agricultural, technical, political, or psychological, but the dimension of the ultimate was lacking.” – Paul Tillich, “A History of Christian Thought”, Ch IV: “The Breakdown of Universal Synthesis”, p. 449.

  15. I think I read these posts from a very different place than many of you, for two reasons:

    First, I love sermons. I admire the craft and care that goes into building a clear exposition of a biblical text. I listen for key phrases and thoughts that I CAN take with me. I argue and discuss the sermon (in my mind) with the preacher. Most of all though, I go into a sermon with an intent to be receptive rather than critical. I may not be listening to a great preacher, or the preacher may be having an off day. Nevertheless, I have faith that the text is inspired by God for my edification through the ministry of his Spirit. When listening, I try to keep my focus on the text and find something — anything — that looks like light shed on the text by the preacher.

    I just love the medium — spoken word is not a popular medium these days, and I suppose that makes me some kind of throwback. Yet I persist in loving and valuing this most ancient of art forms for what it is and what it can be. Even when the speaker lacks skill or insight, I still appreciate the sticking out of the neck, the courage to put it out there, and I give props to those who try. It’s not easy. And I have to say, I think most of the commenters here would be a pretty tough audience.

    Second, being a pastor (2 years in) it’s part of my job to actually deliver sermons. So I know that “not easy’ part pretty well. I mostly feel inadequate to the task. In fact, I have learned that Sunday afternoons are my hardest times. On Sunday afternoons, when all the hubbub has died down, and I am alone with my thoughts, I am regularly swamped by waves of self-doubt over my inadequacy as a preacher. I know what a good sermon sounds like, and how it feels to hear it, and I fear that I seldom actually achieve that. One of my most common prayer is something like, “Lord, help me not to screw people up…” Followed by “I know this was pretty bad, but please use it to bring someone closer to you in spite of my lousy work.”

    Even though I am still pretty new to it, and even though I have a congregation who loves and appreciates me, I have still heard all of these complaints. Complaints outnumber any other kind of comment or question by tenfold. Often the complaints are buried in a jest or behind a smile, which may make the person offering the “suggestion” feel better, but doesn’t really soften the barb for me. Instead, it just makes it more difficult to respond to the complaint earnestly and seriously. What I would LOVE is for people to just tell me ONE thing that they found at all helpful. When it happens (occasionally) I find that it often isn’t about the main point at all, but some throwaway comment, or minor point just catches people in the right way at the right time. And when it happens, I am soooo grateful.

    As for sermons being practical…I’m still working through what that means. I’ll probably try to write something about that another time.

  16. Well, here I am throwing a monkey wrench into things. This is one of the things about which I could not agree with Michael, even before I walked through the Orthodox door. I personally grew greatly disillusioned with “practical” sermons, even ones that managed to avoid x-steps to making your problems go away. What I needed was something simple to do, easy to remember, consistent with what Jesus said to do, and non-coercive. I’m even still a bit impatient with evenly mildly exhortative sermons. Yes, I need truth about my life addressed – I also need some good news, not so much how-tos, even well-intentioned ones. A lot of the time, addressing the truth about my life has to go deeper than preachers who follow Michael’s advice can give. More and more I see that the things in my life that need to be addressed are about ontology, not morality.