Thursday, February 21, 2008

When a Sermon is a Sermon

I wanted to think of a nifty post title and this is what I came up with. I read an interesting post by a congregate of another congregation, this what was the post said,

A sermon is not a motivational speech. It is not a life application message. Don’t tell me how to get along with my coworkers or bring passion back into my marriage. Preach a da*n sermon. Tell me what the text says and then let me see how you wrestle the Good News out of it.

That can be the only concern for a preacher when looking at a text. What is the Good News here? It is often easier to find a way to have it remind you of a life lesson that came out of a conversation with your young son, or to see how it could help you eliminate stress if you only prayed more or remembered to be thankful. Finding the Good News in a nineteen hundred-year-old book written in another language and cultural context is hard.

When it comes to preaching, the author is correct: it IS hard. It is also joyous when everything comes together--and that makes up for the challenge of presenting and preaching a good sermon. What struck me about this post was the reality of what a sermon isn't: it isn't a motivational talk nor is it a 'life application message' per say. It is delving into the text and finding a way to bring it and Jesus to life, 1900 years later.

But this isn't to say that a sermon cannot include motivation and life application, as the author points out. Sermons include many genres and parts--each part pointing to something deeper and meaningful. For many preachers, that something is always Jesus and how Jesus relates to our faith today. For a few others, Jesus has been relegated to something less--or as a mere by-product of living a full life. We've all heard preachers who preach mainly about one thing or another. Yesterday, I watched a video featuring the president of Union Theological Seminary (my seminary alma mater) when ABC News ran a story about a tele-evangelist and megachurch pastor whose primary message what that God wants you to be rich--both financially, mentally, and physically. When Jesus fits that construct, then that's when you hear the import of Jesus. But this preacher finds wealth to be very important and it is to the thousands who attend his churches and the estimated 1 billion people who watch him on television.

Joel Osteen is another preacher who preaches prosperity. His critics contend that he compromises the Jesus message by articulating wealth as being superior to poverty (whereas Jesus proclaimed those who are 'poor in spirit' to be counted among the best in the life to come. And yet, Osteen message affects countless thousands who flock into America's largest church in Houston, Texas.

As an aside to my point, the magazine Rev! pointed to an interesting new phenomena in their latest issue that explains that of the 100 top mega-churches in America (membership greater than 1000), 75 of their pastors never attended seminary. Isn't this interesting? While I don't think a seminary education will give you a special place in heaven, I have difficulty imagining a pastor not trained in the models of philosophy and Scriptural interpretation and deconstruction. These provide a serious benefit to the pastor as he or she nagivates the faith journeys of their congregation.

I think there is a common thread between these mega preachers and the Rev! story that bears a closer examination. Those who have the largest followings are preachers whose personal magnetism is the beacon of their ministry. Your local pastor may suggest that Jesus ought to be the true beacon--and if you ask either Osteen or other mega-church pastors, they would surely agree. And yet, their message is speaking about something somewhat different (and sometimes altogether different) from the message Jesus proclaimed 2000 years ago. It is so different that those who are responding to it explain how incorporating the preacher's message has changed their lives. And, I wouldn't doubt that lives are being changed all the time.

What I wonder about is how a preacher's message that draws thousands of souls to a life of prosperity is similar or different to the message Jesus proclaimed. Or, perhaps I might explain it this way: when is a sermon considered preaching and when is a sermon considered a 'life application message'? To me, when a message of Jesus is proclaimed that honors the poor in spirit, this is preaching. When a message is about how I can profit in one way or another, then that message is not preaching--it's something different. Is it better? Is it worse? Honestly, messages of prosperity can be helpful when we live a life of self-hatred and self-indignation. To me, we are children created by and with the image of God in us. We can be prosperous spiritually affecting our community with the good news of God's peace. But when the focal point of a sermon is reversed: when prosperity and the redirection of God's peace is pointed at our self-worth, then something has changed in the sermon that no longer makes it a sermon--it becomes something else.

And that's really all I am saying. I am not intending to make judgments here. I simply want to clarify when a sermon is a sermon and when its not. Am I splitting hairs? Reply with your opinion and let's share our thoughts.

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