Every Sermon a Miracle

journal

By Joe LaGuardia

How is it that a preacher can come up with a sermon each week?

I can’t speak for other pastors, but I’m quite certain that each sermon idea that hits me–especially on a weekly basis–is a miracle in and of itself.

There is something to be said about miracles, and a few weeks ago I wrote how miracles happen when we are willing to take a closer look at things.

But have you considered that your pastor’s sermons are the stuff of miracles too?

Pastors go about preaching in different ways, be it expository, narrative, or yelling words of doom.  No matter the style, however, something has to fill the 20 minutes it takes to persuade a congregation to connect with God, live into a new truth, and see life differently.

How easy would it be to stand at the pulpit and say, “This scripture lesson teaches us about this, and this is how it applies to our life”?

Sounds simple, but I imagine that a pastor would get fired if she did that every Sunday.  There is an expectation that a preacher will deliver a message that changes us from the inside out, and we want an award-winning one every week.

I liken this to love.  I can tell my wife, “I love you.”  It’s true and it may be convincing, but I have to express my love in concrete ways: doing kind gestures, taking time to listen, showing compassion.

Its the difference between telling my wife I love her and showing her that I love her.

A sermon is supposed to show us God’s truth and how that truth might impose upon or break into our life experiences.  This is why Jesus used parables to describe heavenly principles, such as the Kingdom of God.

If Jesus told me that the Kingdom of God is everywhere, I’d politely agree and move on.  But when Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was like a seed that grew exponentially without any help from the farmer (Mark 4:26-29), than the metaphor opens up all kinds of meaning for my life.

Its the art of “showing” that takes all of the work, and the illustrations that come about are a result of the miracles of God evoking effective sermon preparation.

There have been a few occasions when I arrived to church on a Friday, my sermon-writing day, with nothing in mind.  I may have the scripture lesson for Sunday.  I may even have the point I want to make or the sermon title.

But the beginning and the ending?  That’s a different story.

Once, I read Facebook post and had that “Ah-ha!” moment of clarity.  Another time, my wife said something about her day that inspired what I call a “point of contact,” that moment in the faith when we can connect something universal and conceivable and relevant to the biblical text.

Other times, I’ve put my anxiety aside and went for a walk.  Its a mind-clearing experience.  Birds, flowers, traffic, and even the litter I pick up around the church can be unlikely sources of inspiration.

Sermon ideas can come from reading.  I make it a habit to read the newspaper when it comes in the mail, at least one Christian magazine a month, and several books from different genres.  The material not only provides content for sermons, it also teaches the sermon writer how to organize or write sermons differently.

Nor is it unusual for pastors to gather together with other pastors in monthly groups to discuss sermon ideas and themes.  Several of us pastors in town do so and find the experience quite enriching.

When I was called into full-time pastoral ministry years ago, I had to face a certain truth that scared me: I need to write and preach a sermon every week.  Without God’s intercession and those miracles that continue to surprise me in new ways, I wouldn’t have much to say come Sunday morning.

Bully Pulpit does not communicate the compassion of Christ’s contemporary voice

Some preachers put the “bully” in bully pulpit.  All of us can tell at least one story of a preacher who said something that went over the line simply because he thought he could say almost anything from the pulpit.  In fact, the pulpit plays such a central role in most Protestant churches, that many preachers end up abusing their office simply because they fill pulpit, thus usurping the sanctity of the pulpit altogether.

My wife tells one horrific story about her old pastor who compared sin with a “dirty” feminine product.  She was entering middle school at the time and suffered from the awkwardness that accompanies girls her age.  Her family stopped going to that church, and it took her years to sit in a Baptist church without getting uncomfortable.

One of our parishioners at Trinity tells of a funeral she attended for a stillborn baby.  The preacher, hired just for the occasion, declared that “that baby” died because the first-time parents did not attend a church.

Although these two stories are certainly not the norm, abuse from the pulpit happens more than many Christians care to think.

I am not without excuse.  I too too have shared some ignorant things from the pulpit a time or two.  Yet, we pastors must take great care to balance the challenge of the Gospel with what the early twentieth-century preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, called ‘pastoral care on a community scale.’  Just because we pastors are called to be truth-tellers doesn’t mean we have the right to be jerks.

There have been several trends in churches that have undermined the sanctity of the pulpit.  One trend is to elevate the authority of the pastor to that of congregational theocrat.  The pastor is the only one who can declare what is right and wrong in the church and to set the precedent for what doctrines are God-approved.  If a person questions the pastor, then he or she is not in agreement with God.

A second trend is to remove the pulpit altogether.  I am not referring to those churches that have replaced a heavy wooden pulpit with something like a podium.  I’m referring to churches that have watered down their witness so much that there is very little mystery or spiritual engagement in the sermon.

By moving the pulpit to the side, the pastor risks doing everything for God and the congregation by providing all of the answers even to life’s most difficult questions.  The congregation only needs to take notes, follow the proper equations, and everything will fall into place.

Upholding the sanctity of the pulpit assumes, however, that those who commandeer it understand it as a vehicle for God’s Word.  It is also a reminder that no one person can speak for God.  The preacher may change from time to time, but the pulpit–and the Spirit that resides in the pulpit–should remain the same.

Furthermore, the pulpit points to the mystery and rich textures that pervade the Word of God.   Yes, the preacher delivers a Word from God, but it’s God’s job to plant that word deep into the heart of churchgoers and cultivate a harvest that produces the “fruit of the Spirit.”  The preacher can’t do it all; he’s not superman when it comes to how people hear the Gospel.

The pulpit also brings people into God’s presence.  It is a tool for pastoral care, expressing how God is moving in the midst of grief, hardship, conflict, and uncertainty within the community.  The preacher knows the audience to whom she speaks because she is a fellow sojourner with them.  The sermon allows God to deliver a Word of healing and hope to the entire Body of Christ.

As the season of Lent is upon us in three weeks, let us all come back to the heart of worship, starting with the person filling the pulpit.  May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts, and the sermons that result, be pleasing to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.