7+ Years In, Preaching Anew

More than 7 years into ordained ministry, and 19 years since I first entered seminary, I have renewed my practice of preaching – both delivering and preparing the sermon.

I had always preached with a manuscript

Most of these manuscripts were not paragraph’d pages looking as if they belonged in a book, but a more free-form movement of phrases written not for reading but for speaking. I took pride in my words, in the development of my argument, and in the construction of these manuscripts that helped me to speak, I thought, naturally.

My process for writing manuscript sermons usually involved a reading Scripture, perhaps a commentary or two, and reflection, all geared toward finding that thread, that hook, that angle for my sermon. I would then spend hours sitting at my computer and writing the manuscript, usually over two or three sittings. With my thread for that Scripture set, I would work in a more-or-less straight line fashion from start to finish. Most of my sermon-prep time was spent on that manuscript, on that thread that got the ball rolling, on one particular insight into the text.

Army chaplaincy changed my preaching

7+ years into my ordained ministry, and many more years into my experience as a preacher (I preached several times/year prior to ordination), I went to my final phase of training at the US Army Chaplain Center and School for my Basic Officer Leaders Course as a Chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard. In addition to preaching for classroom assignments, I was given the opportunity to preach for a Holy Thursday service during our class five-day capstone field experience.

2016-03-22 11.10.08While at the Chaplain school, where I heard from experienced chaplains and had the opportunity to preach in a variety of training settings, it became clear to me that preaching to a very small group of Soldiers huddled around a Humvee in the field required a different method. For one, my computer-based writing process was all but impossible in the field. But more, delivering a polished manuscript sermon for a small group of Soldiers in the field who are experiencing the fatigue of training – or deployment – seemed to miss the mark. A manuscript designed for pulpit preaching wouldn’t work for such a setting.

I heard fellow students – mostly from traditions fairly distinct from my Lutheran church – preach. I found myself jealous as many of them proclaimed effortlessly without notes. I learned that the context of military preaching may require impromptu “Word of the Day” messages, or unexpected words of comfort spoken at a moment’s notice to a group of battle buddies grieving a fallen Soldier. No manuscripts for these settings, either.

Given these experiences and insights I committed to leave the manuscript behind – in my military ministry setting, but also in my civilian ministry. I had considered this years ago, wondering if the altars and pulpits in our churches served, unwittingly perhaps, as barriers between people and pastor. Making this decision to set aside the manuscript resonated with my earlier concerns about the relationships between worship leaders and the congregation of worshipers.

To be sure, the first few times trying this manuscript-less preaching in my civilian ministry were rough. My baseline for sermon preparation was still the manuscript, and I was trying to replicate my manuscript-writing process for my manuscript-less sermon. What resulted were very detailed, almost manuscript-like, notes prepared on my computer. As I tried to pare back my manuscript, I found myself almost vomitously uneasy just prior to preaching.

Journaling as sermon preparation

2016-07-30 23.36.39But then I bought a notebook and a good mechanical pencil and began journaling the Sunday texts by hand. I first write the text in the notebook, leading me to give more attention to each word than I ever did by simply reading the text. After writing the Scripture in my notebook, I simply write. Disconnected phrases. Questions. Insights gained from reading commentaries or other Scripture. Parallels to my life, to my congregation’s life, to my community and country. Connections to music or film or television. Anything. There is no structure yet. There is no thread I’m trying to weave. Just reflections and thoughts and questions. I do this for several days.

By Friday or Saturday I pull together a rough outline, prepare some slides to accompany my preaching (using Canva), and write a “Good News Statement” that concisely defines the point I’m trying to make, the Good News I’m trying to proclaim. Some or even much of what I had journaled in the past few days ultimately gets set aside.

It is not until Sunday morning that I actually rehearse. I’ll run through the sermon 2-5 times on Sunday morning before worship, focusing especially on my opening, transitions, images, and conclusion. Very little new material makes its way into my sermon at this point, but sometimes that happens.

And then I preach. I preach perhaps with a few notes in front of me, but also perhaps with nothing in hand at all. I preach with that outline and projected slides guiding me, and days of journaling, reflecting, wrestling, praying supporting my proclamation. I have a comfort level with the entire passage that I never had in my earlier manuscript method, which too early in the process narrowed my message down to a single thread or angle that perhaps wasn’t ultimately fruitful. And, free from the precision of a manuscript, I am able to add last-minute insights or images, perhaps that were noted only as I greeted people on their way into worship 20 minutes before I begin preaching. Again, my comfort with the Scripture text and the outlined movement of my message allow me to make such adjustments on the fly.

I have received very positive feedback since making the switch. “Pastor, your sermons without notes are 20 times better than when you use notes,” one church member said to me recently. The feedback is consistent – I’m more natural, “myself.” In this way, I’m more effective as a preacher, which is the goal. 

For any who have made their way through this post, I hope that perhaps my experience can be helpful for you if you’re working on renewing your practice of preaching. Or, I hope that my example might help any clergy considering reserve component chaplaincy to see just one of the many ways in which the military ministry can positively impact your civilian ministry.

Why I Left the Revised Common Lectionary Behind

The Revised Common Lectionary, as it appears in the front of the pew edition of Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

On many occasions I have been asked by friends and colleagues why I do not use the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in my congregation. Often these questions come from a place of honest curiosity. Sometimes they come from a place of liturgical condescension. Either way, my answer is rather simple – it’s mostly because of how the RCL treats the Old Testament. But there’s more.

So, here are the reasons why I left the RCL behind.

1. The RCL presents Old Testament texts only in relation to the Gospel text. This is pretty bad.

“[T]he Old Testament reading is closely related to the gospel reading for the day” (Introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary, 11). This is problematic in that Old Testament texts are chosen only in relation to a gospel counterpart. The result of this pairing is that the story of God’s grace and promise in the Old Testament is told in no sequence or narrative but only as it relates to, or previews, a gospel parallel. Whereas the gospel moves sequentially each week, chapter by chapter through the story of the life of Jesus, the Old Testament reading jumps around to provide no sequence or cohesive story of God’s work among the people Israel.

For example, for the six weeks from the Third Sunday after Epiphany through to the Eight Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, we read from parts of chapters 4, 5, and 6 of the Gospel of Matthew. For the first reading, we read from Isaiah 9, Micah 6, Isaiah 58, Deuteronomy 30, Leviticus 19, and Isaiah 49. While these pairings are appropriate and shed light on the context of the Gospel, as a unit these selections do not tell a coherent story of God’s movement among God’s chosen people.

The RCL identifies the “problem” of how to read and use the Old Testament in Christian worship (Introduction, 40-44). Bafflingly, it paints extremes of excluding the Old Testament altogether from Christian worship (on one hand), or of reading it only as Scripture and prophesies that have been fulfilled by the New Testament writings (on the other hand). It rightly recognizes that the Old Testament is Scripture that can be read and exegeted in its own right. Yet, it oddly suggests that attempts to do so would result in reading Old Testament texts “at eucharistic worship, or Christian worship in general, as though there were no linkage with Christian belief and prayer” (Introduction, 42). “No linkage”? This is laughable. The editors of the Revised Common Lectionary seem here to forget that Scripture is read in worship surrounded by Christian hymns, prayers, preaching, and sacraments.

For about half of the year the RCL offers an alternate cycle of “semi-continuous” Old Testament readings. In Year A this cycle begins in Genesis; in Year B in 1 Samuel; and, in Year C in 1 Kings. This semi-continuous cycle corrects some of what I find problematic in the RCL, if only for half of the year … much of which falls during the summer months (see #4, below).

2. The RCL is too focused on the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

There’s lots of Good News throughout Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament. And though the RCL covers lots of Scripture in its three year cycle, it does so with an unnecessarily limiting orientation to the first four books of the New Testament. Christian preachers are more than capable of proclaiming, and Christian congregations are capable of hearing, the wonder of God’s saving work without a requisite weekly reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This is especially true in liturgical and sacramental traditions, whose liturgies and hymns are filled with imagery from the Gospels.

3. The RCL skips the Old Testament during the most important season of the church year.

The RCL replaces the Old Testament reading with passages from the Acts of the Apostles during Easter. Acts is fantastic. This is true. But that it supersedes the Old Testament reading during the Easter season does a disservice to the relationship we claim exists between the Old Testament promise and the New Testament’s witness to the resurrection.

4. The year is all off.

I know. The church year begins in Advent, and the RCL has a beautiful internal integrity that flows throughout the cycle of the church year. Yet, most of our congregations follow a program year calendar that closely tracks the school year. Sunday School, youth group, men’s or women’s groups, and other ministries often meet during the school year, and often take the summer off. Attendance dips during the summer, and in August or September the programming kicks up – and so does the attendance. September is the start to a new year. Many of our congregations fit into the RCL’s December-November cycle awkwardly, at best. Meanwhile, the internal integrity of the RCL is lost as major portions of the life and ministry of Jesus are proclaimed during the summer months of low attendance and suspended Christian education.

5. The unity achieved by the RCL is overstated. 

When I share that I set aside the Revised Common Lectionary, I am often asked about the unity that the RCL fosters.

The unity of the church is found in Christ, in the proclamation of the Word and the sharing of the sacraments, and in our shared witness to the resurrection. It is too easy to overstate the significance of a shared cycle of readings – as if the unity of the church depended on the selection of readings for worship! Most of the “unity” fostered by the RCL’s cross-denominational use is experienced by clergy in text studies, online clergy groups, worship planning resources, and so forth. Very few and very far between are stories of Lutheran and Presbyterian laity gathering for lunch after worship to talk about their pastor’s sermons on the same texts. And while common practices across church bodies are perhaps desirable, the churches that use the RCL inhabit a shared theological space and heritage such that any variation in their Sunday reading schedules would hardly inhibit the unity they already have in liturgical practice or public witness.

“But you’re tearing the church apart by abandoning the RCL!” Congregations that set the RCL aside are hardly abandoning the unity of the church. A Christian community that selects an alternate lectionary or develops its own is more than capable of teaching and preaching and carrying out acts of service and care. Such congregations continue to proclaim Christ within and beyond their walls. Such congregations continue to follow the ebb and flow of the church’s principal festivals. Most continue to gather around Word and Sacrament. Setting aside the 1992 RCL is hardly a crushing blow to church unity. Claiming the lectionary is a linchpin to church unity does a disservice to the unity we share with Christian churches that do not use the RCL.

 


 

I didn’t depart from the Revised Common Lectionary lightly. I take seriously its wisdom and beauty and yes, its shared use. I’ve written prayers for Bread for the Day, a Revised Common Lectionary daily devotional. And, I have at times in my life committed to daily prayer rooted in the movement of the RCL’s daily lectionary.

Nonetheless, as noted above, I find the RCL lacking mostly for its treatment of the Old Testament, but also its calendar orientation that doesn’t fit well with the life cycle of my (and many other) congregations. When I began looking for alternatives to the RCL over three years ago, I considered the Narrative Lectionarya year-long program such as The Story; or a series of shorter-term thematic series. I ultimately landed on the Narrative Lectionary, and have found it to be a wonderful guide for using Scripture in worship, and I have found its online community to be faithful, diverse, and creative.

Originally published in August 2015. Lighted edited December 2017

Do Worship Leaders Hide in Worship?

It is an odd proposition – do worship leaders hide in worship? Even though they’re standing up front, in the most visible part of the worship space, leading the congregation in prayer and praise and acts of worship, are they hiding in plain sight?

Maybe.

Capture - Bob Merrit lectern

Grainy screen-capture image from video of sermon by Pastor Bob Merritt of Eagle Brook Church, showing minimalist lectern.

I’m struck after visiting two larger churches on Sunday – an evangelical megachurch, and a large Lutheran church. At neither service did any worship leaders wear robes. Use of a pulpit, lectern, or altar was minimal, and when a lectern was used it was an attractive but slim, minimalist stand. Much of the service took place with nothing standing between the worship leader and the congregation – no bulky altar, no robe, no imposing pulpit.

I saw the worship leaders’ bodies. Their movements and gestures. Their flesh and blood. There were no physical barriers separating them and us. They were open to us and to God. Nothing separated us.

DSC_1123

Presiding at the Eucharist, behind the large altar.

When a worship leader wears a robe, their body is somewhat hidden, their legs are not even visible. Standing behind a solid altar and pulpit, half of their body is obscured. There is something vaguely decarnating (rather than incarnating) about the use of altars, pulpits, and robes; that is, there is something about this experience that minimizes (or reduces) the humanity of the worship leader rather than embracing or accepting of the flawed yet real flesh and blood of the leader. When a worship leader wears a robe, the only thing that is not covered up is the head – prioritizing thought and speech over other aspects of their carnality. I wonder if we like robes precisely because of this decarnating, flesh-minimizing – even neutering – effect. That might be the case, but I think it could be to our detriment, and to the detriment of our mission.

DSC_0975

Preaching in/behind a wonderful, yet massive, pulpit.

When we minimize the real flesh and human body of the worship leader, we do something to the worship leader that we don’t do to the rest of the congregation. The leader is covered, robed, and somewhat beyond flesh. Yet the congregation is very fleshy, very carnal, very real. No robes for them. Nothing hiding them and their imperfections. The congregation comes before God and each other as they are. The worship leader doesn’t, but instead wears a covering.

The altar, pulpit, and robe are literally physical barriers that hide the worship leader from the congregation and which create a distance between the worship leader and the people with whom they are worshiping. Furthermore, in many of our churches, to use the altar the worship leaders often have to stand about as far from the congregation as they can while still being in the building, in order to get behind the altar that is against a far wall.

I understand that the altar, pulpit and robe all have their purpose and powerful symbolic meaning – drawing attention to the ritual act and the Word proclaimed rather than to the person leading that ritual act or proclaiming that Word. Nonetheless, I wonder if in our care to draw attention to the Word and Sacrament in such ways we don’t unintentionally create barriers and lose out on the chance to be a bit more honest about our carnality, our fallen flesh and blood, through which God promises to proclaim Good News and do great things. I wonder if we don’t miss out on the chance to cultivate a more personable, relatable experience of worshiping the God who comes to us in the flesh and blood of the person of Jesus Christ.

You’re not going to see me leading worship in jeans and a flannel shirt any time soon. But I am wrestling with this issue of how the way we worship shapes our messages, intentionally and unintentionally, for longstanding members and visitors alike. The way we use furnishings and liturgical garb in worship deserves scrutiny, particularly as cultural norms change over the years and the ways in which received patterns of worship may or may not carry with them the same meaning as they did in previous generations, particularly for those not raised within our church traditions.

Looking Ahead: the Church as tenant in God’s mission field

Looking Ahead to Sunday's readings and the Good News of God I will strive to speak that day, I am wrestling with how we understand the relationship between of God's mission and the church's mission. Stewardship themes also come through strong, especially in the Gospel.

Appointed readings:

Isaiah 5:1–7
Psalm 80:7–15
Philippians 3:4b–14
Matthew 21:33–46

(full text of readings here)

In particular, I am struck by the words of Jesus in Matthew 21:43:

The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Jesus speaks these words after telling the chief priests and the elders a parable about tenants of a vineyard who had been entrusted with tending the vineyard and producing a crop for the landowner. When the landowner sends servants to collect the produce, the servants are killed or beaten or otherwise rejected. The landowner sends more servants, to the same end. Finally, he sends his son, who is treated in the same manner. Jesus asks what will happen to the tenants when the owner comes, and the chief priests and elders replay that the owner will put them to death and lease the vineyard to others who will give the owner the produce at harvest time.

A few things to note here:
For one, it is clear that we are talking about tenants working in the owner's field. Are we willing to view ourselves as tenants working in God's field? We cling so tightly to notions of ownership – of our land, our homes, our clothing, our cars, our money, our gadgets – yet we can too easily forget that all that we have comes from God.

And if we are tenants, entrusted with land and work (as in the parable) or with goods and money and house and time and energy, how are we called to use these things? What does the owner – God – intend for us to use these resources?

And if we are not using these resources according to how God intends them to be used, today's Gospel reminds us that responsibility for their sacred use can be taken from us and given to another. "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." God's kingdom is not dependent upon us. It is God's work that extends beyond us and our churches, and God is glad to give the work of building his kingdom to whomever proves willing and able to carry out the work.

Another thing. In the parable Jesus does not imply that the grapes in the vineyard were neglected or in any manner unworthy. For all we know, the tenants might have done a good job growing the grapes, and for this reason would rather keep the valuable harvest for themselves rather than share with the owner. The problem is that those responsible for delivering the crop to its rightful owner have no interest in doing so. How do we seek to keep for ourselves what we rightly owe to offer to God?

In the Isaiah text, we see God's disappointment that his beloved vineyard is not yielding the intended fruit, and he withdraws his care for the field and allows it to go to waste. As in the above parable about tenants, it seems in this reading that no single field is indespensible to God's mission. God will sow seed and harvest fruit wherever there is good soil.

In the Psalm, the psalmist pleads with God to restore the vineyard … a follow-up, of sorts, to the Isaiah reading, reminding God of what he has done in the vineyard, and asking him not to let it go to waste.

The Philippians reading is great, but isn't speaking with me in concert with the theme set up in the other readings. 

In fact, as good as the Isaiah text is, if you wanted to go with the stewardship theme – in advance of the traditional November stewardship Sunday(s) – a text such as Deuteronomy 26 or Leviticus 2 could be helpful to set up a discussion of the proper use of that with which we have been entrusted by God. So too with the Psalm. Psalm 24 could be good for such a theme.

Blessings to all who are preparing and delivering sermons this week!

Trying to Get the Disciples’ Attention

Looking ahead to the Gospel reading for Transfiguration Sunday (Matthew 17:1-9), I'm struck by how calm – clueless? – the disciples are despite some pretty odd things happening around them.

Doratallmountain First, after leading Peter, James and John up a high mountain (as the parent of three young children, I can't help but think of Dora the Explorer when I imagine Jesus and his disciples climbing up a high mountain), Jesus "was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white." Yet, despite watching some pretty weird stuff happen to Jesus, the disciples say nothing.

Obi-wan-ghost Then, Moses and Elijah appear. Now, we don't know if these appearances were flesh-and-blood appearnces, or more akin to the ghost-like apparition of Obi Wan Kenobi in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (though, judging from Peter's offer to build shelters for everybody, Moses and Elijah probably looked real to him). All we know is that these two ancients show up in some form, with Jesus and his disciples, on top of this high mountain.

What happens next is strange for both what is said, and for what is left unsaid. Peter, trying to be a dutiful helper, offers to build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (did he think they were going to stay up there for a while?). But what is noticibly lacking from him or any of the other disciples is any surprise or awe that Moses and Elijah showed up in the first place. Two great pillars of the faith from centuries earlier, one who died and the other who had been assumed into heaven, show up atop a mountain, and all Peter can think to do is to pitch a few tents? Surely Peter's offer might reveal an attentiveness to hospitality concerns, but he seems to completely ignore or be oblivious to the completely sacred and momentous moment that is unfolding before his eyes.

To recap: Jesus' face is glowing like the sun, and his clothing is dazzling like a technicolor dreamcoat, only in white, not technicolor. Elijah and Moses show up, and Peter is looking for the tent stakes.

Finally, the voice of God echoes out of a bright cloud, using words to say what Peter couldn't perceive through wondrous, supernatural acts. "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" Peter, James, and John cower before the voice of God, and are scared as the dickens. Jesus comforts his disciples with a touch, as if healing them of their fear, and instructs them to "tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

Why, after all that they had seen, does the voice of God freak them out? God's voice booms out of the heavens at Jesus' baptism, using similar words, but there's no report that people were scared. Why would a voice from the heavens scare the disciples when a glowing face, dazzling clothing, and the sudden appearance of ancient forefathers of the faith could not inspire even an ounce of awe?

This passage is not ultimately about the disciples, but I find their response to the amazing works of God atop that mountain to be curious and worth pondering in preparation for Sunday's sermon.

Tomorrow’s Sermon, Today

Though I often finish the first draft of my sermons on Fridays, I usually work on the sermons through Saturday evening and even into Sunday morning.  But this week I'm done earlier than usual. Tomorrow's sermon is available today, over at my sermons blog, The Lutheran Zephyr: Sermons (which, if you're interested, has its own RSS feed and email subscription). 

In this sermon I continue a theme from my previous sermon, looking at the new things that God is doing in our Bible texts, and wondering about the new things that God is doing in our lives.

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.