It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
I'm increasingly convinced that the way we do ministry is a stumbling block to the vast majority of people in this world, and that we all – myself included – ought to get fitted for millstones. In fact, I wondered as much in my Sunday sermon, assuming that my sermon itself was a stumbling block for some who were bored by my droning. This increasing awareness is causing me to seriously re-think the tasks of ministry, including – the topic of today's post – preaching.
If I'm honest in analyzing my preaching, I have generally begun each sermon with some sort of in real life story – about my family, something I saw in the community, or an event from the news – but after this opening image, I inevitably shift into what I hope is an accessible but intelligent theological reflection on what the Good News is for my congregation and the world that day. Now, I think that I've generally done an adequate job in the pulpit. But still, I'm questioning this method – in part because after the down-to-earth opening image, my sermons often become theological essays. And I wonder – do my people really need a theological essay, or are my pseudo-intellectual attempts at theological sophistication just a stumbling block along their walk of faith?
I did something different this past Sunday. I strived, with mixed success perhaps, to stay in real life rather than shift into some other theological realm. Not that the sermon was devoid of theology – quite the contrary! But my goal was not to write for seminary professors, colleagues, or The Christian Century readers – a vanity to which I (and perhaps many Lutheran pastors) must confess – but to speak to people who, more often than not, are intimidated by Bible Study or prayer, or lost within the ritual acts and proclamation of worship itself! Yet, at the same time, these same people are drawn to our Lord and to his church because of a faith that is planted within them.
I'm going to continue fiddling with my preaching style. Surely, each sermon will not contain large quantities of personal testimony, as did yesterday's sermon. And surely some of my sermons will be lousy dribble. But nonetheless, I am striving to preach somewhat differently than I have in the past, to more honestly and faithfully proclaim the Gospel in real life rather than escape into the comfortable – to me, and to many in the clergy class – confines of orderly theological paradigms.
All this being said, I think I had better go get myself fitted for a millstone. Even if I don't wear one around my neck for a swim in the sea, having a millstone in my office (or a miniature – they're quite large!) would serve as a good reminder of the care I must take when proclaiming the Gospel and carrying out my ministry.
Woe to me if when I become a stumbling block to my neighbor! Lord, forgive my sin, and grant that in all I do I might lift up my sisters and brothers, rather than cause them to fall down.