Trying on Millstones

MillstoneColor Yesterday I updated by Facebook status to read, "Chris thinks he ought to get fitted with a millstone."  This was in reference to Luke 17:2:

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.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “Trying on Millstones

  1. I find that reading the sermon notes of my confirmation students (7-9th grade) is a helpful dose of reality on this score. Their ability to pick out the theme or illustrations is directly related to how far I veer into the academic/theoretical.
    Even before I discovered the new “The Hardest Question” blog, I had landed on questions as a way for me to keep things grounded … i.e. What is God offering me in this text/passage? What is God asking of me? What am I doing to respond?

  2. Let’s say you’ve miraculously acquired the knack of giving perfect sermons. (Not picking on Chris here, BTW.. which I know/hope Chris realizes.)
    You’re still going to give those perfect sermons… standing at the same place, in the same room, in the same building, at the same time(s), on the same day of the week…. forever?
    When does the time of worship become a stumbling block?
    When does the location?
    When you start talking about location, do you want to talk about why a specific location or a specific building, for whatever reasons (“It’s too dark & dreary!” “There’s no parking!”) become stumbling blocks? Or do you want to talk about how the very fact you have a building, any building at all, is a stumbling block?
    Clearly if you’re going to talk about the sermon as a stumbling block, you can look at the entire rest of the worship service/liturgy. Why stop there? The Book of Concord–stumbling block? Well… I’d better stop there for now.
    What does it mean to be a congregation (for lack of a better word) with no building? Or no worship schedule? Etc.

  3. I pondered that text a bit, too. I agree that this really works better if you start back a bit further. And I wonder if even the story before, of the Rich Man and Lazarus might not be part of the same subject. The Rich Man is the stumbling block. He’s so short-sighted that he doesn’t miss Lazarus by being busy. No. His desire for Lazarus to leave heaven to serve him (Why not just ask for water?) shows that he sees Lazarus being beneath him as part of his happiness. This is a scandalous attitude. This is what leads to millstones. This is the kind of problem in the field of the church that will one day be uprooted and thrown into the sea at a word.
    Your preaching is not a stumbling stone in this sense. The passage is a rough one, and you were right to mention all the other things that we see in it and struggle through or leave undone and ask for more faith to fulfill. If you want to find a millstone situation in your life, it would be one where someone else’s unhappiness served your happiness. You may not have any.
    Then there’s the question of stumbling children. That’s less likely done by talking over their heads and more likely done through disliking them. I’ve seen pastors do that. That won’t be fixed by a strategy. But it can be fixed. The first thing to do is to try to remember what it was like to be a child in church. Which adults did you like and why?

  4. i have always understood the millstone mentioned in the Bible to be a warning to those who would abuse children, not simply bore them.

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