The Gospel reading for last Sunday was a famously perplexing parable told in Luke 16:1-13. As I stood up to preach, more so than usual, I prayed for wisdom; wisdom to know how much to say and how much to leave for the congregation to discover themselves. I began by recounting how a lecturer at college once suggested giving a title to a sermon to help as a framework and guide. So I called my sermon,
‘Dealing with passages that make you go “I d’know!”’
I don’t want to recount my whole sermon but through my preparation for that talk I kept finding myself reflecting on the role of the preacher within a congregation. This is not a new field of reflection for me or the church but its focus is sharpened when faced with a passage like ‘the parable of the dishonest manager’ as the ten to twenty minutes that I am allowed on a Sunday morning seems inadequate to do the passage justice.
Some dear Methodist friends of mine suggested I look at the Epistle and preach on that but I didn’t have that luxury get out clause this week and so I returned to my Bible to sit and go on the necessary adventure of going deeper into the text, exploring Luke’s full account of Jesus’ life, to allow the text to challenge my personal interpretative lenses and to open my heart to another world view.
I do not begrudge this task; in fact I relish it. These passages always seem to me to be an invitation by God to stop all other tasks and allow Him to reveal Himself through scripture. Am I alone in this view?
There is an increasing number of people in the pews on a Sunday who, due to the busyness of our culture cannot find the energy to think of the Bible let alone open it and explore it. I understand and appreciate their predicament: Where do you find the time to sit down and read? Where is the time to not just ‘get the pages read’ but also to allow the words to get under your skin, that they live and breathe in your very being?
Their attitude to the Bible fits on the broad spectrum present in any gathering. Some see the Bible like a crazy man who stands in the middle of the street and shouts swear words at himself; they don’t understand him and they’re too afraid to get close to him, so they walk away. Some see it like an elderly relative they want to visit but they never find the time so they satisfy their guilt by odd telephone call and keeping up to date through other relatives, but they never really get to know them. Others see it like a celebrity they spend loads of time studying them through the words of other people, gossip and Twitter and think that this means they know them but they have never actually met them. Then there are those that allow the words in the Bible to reveal to them the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who transforms lives, opens eyes and hearts.
Sunday morning worship in my context (and I’m sure we’re not unique) is a complex time of balancing everyone’s expectation as to the purpose of meeting. There is a large issue of consumerism which cannot be undone overnight and is so ingrained in us all that we cannot even see its impact upon our attitude to worship. These expectations impact on our preference to songs, prayers and the sermon. It’s the impact on the sermon that I want to explore briefly here.
After getting the kids up, dressed, fed and out the door on a Sunday any parent will earn my respect for just staying awake through a service let alone engage. For others Sunday morning comes at the end of a busy week, maybe of shift work on Saturday. Maybe they work on Sunday and they’re not looking forward to going straight there after their duty is fulfilled at church. We all come to Sunday with baggage and our minds on other things but we surely should al come to have those minds focussed on God, otherwise, what’s the point?
One thing we come together to do is read and study the Bible. Together. We read the Bible because it has proved itself, over 2,000 years, to be a vehicle of revelation of God in our lives. We listen to the words and expect to hear God speaking through them into our lives. Do we?
Then the preacher stands up. I expect (and I hope I’m wrong!) most of the congregation feel, in some part, “Oh good, now they will tell us what to do with that passage” or they see the sermon as the Word of God rather than the Bible itself (how often have you heard the worship leader say, “We’re going to have the Bible reading and then So and So will share the Word.”?)
I wonder how many of us want our preachers to not help and guide us to discovering God’s voice but rather to discover it and tell us what He’s saying. It’s as if we don’t want the preacher to help us prepare for the exciting adventure into the reality of God but rather to go, journey, discover and bring back the holiday snaps to share… which we will turn up to see but most of us will be bored senseless anyway!
I wonder how many of us succomb to the lie that we don’t have the time to ‘chew’ the Bible, so we go to church to be tube fed the pre-chewed meal whilst we do other things (shopping lists, breathe, decision making)?
And I wonder if, us preachers, actually perpetuate this because we enjoy the identity of ‘expert’ and ‘adventurer’? If the congregation did the work of going deeper into the Bible what are we for? Do we want to be the first discoverer of the sustenance, the gold, the pioneer who sticks their flags into the new territory of the reality of God?
In 1 Samuel 8:4-20 the Israelites turn to their final Judge, Samuel and request a King to ‘fight our battles.’ The Judges had sat and listened over the decision making, not as dictators but as facilitators (well that was the idea.) God was the decision maker and the Judges were there to ensure that Israel was staying faithful to their King. As Samuel takes the Israelites’ request to God in prayer, God responds,
They are doing what they have always done. When I took them out of Egypt, they left me and served other gods.
The history of Israel had been that when God revealed that they were to be co-labourers, that they were to be partners and not slaves, that they were expected to do something, they grumbled. They would rather mindlessly follow anything else but have to think and decided for themselves; freedom was too much and they rejected it.
We are still doing this. We would rather be told what to think, what to say, what to do. Freedom is too much for us and we’d rather delegate the hard work of leaving our borders and exploring the wide open landscape of freedom to someone else.