“Don, you need to get what you’re saying into the trough so the pigs can get to it.” I had never been criticized for having a vocabulary before then. It was an interesting experience. The person who gave me this advice had been a public school teacher before training to be a minister. I knew what he was telling me. The way I spoke reflected my years of reading and learning to speak in a more accurate manner. I was concerned with communicating succinctly. Young preachers need advice most of the time. Mistakes are made. But learning experiences derive from them (see, I did it again). Communication is meant to convey truth. I try to do that every time I stand before a congregation. I began to wonder, though, how this person regarded his former students and future congregations.
Lay people are usually surprised to learn most preachers have a process of sermon development. We call it homiletics. It is its’ own academic discipline. How we get from text or idea to the sermon is as important as how the message is delivered. Carefully choosing the words we use is important. Often, when editing a sermon, I revise how I phrase statements to better communicate a truth. I may still miss the mark. But I am closer than I was.
I do the hard work involved to craft a sermon (or homily) because the people who listen to me make an effort to be there. COVID-19 has changed many things we do as “church.” Sermon crafting and lay people making an effort to hear the message remains the same. I do the work out of respect for the listeners. I try not to ramble, tell too many silly stories, or talk down to my congregation.
Feeding the Pigs
Jesus says, “do not give what is holy to dogs or cast your pearls to pigs or they will trample them underfoot and turn and maul you.” (Matthew 7:6) The choice of words is interesting. Both dogs and pigs were unclean animals. Few people kept dogs as pets. In many cases, they were considered nuisances. However, Roman leaders would keep dogs. And Greek neighbors raised pigs. What’s more is that Jesus offers these words after the famous “Do not judge lest you be judged” passage and before “ask and it will be given to you.” Curious.
These words about dogs and pigs do not appear in the parallel passage in Luke 6. Using the word pigs, Jesus describes discernment rather than condemnation of the outsider. He gives practical advice here. His listeners, including us, need to remember to whom we are speaking. There are truths that do not communicate until the listener is ready to accept them.
My fellow student was partially correct in his advice. But in our context of southern Appalachia, pigs are not highly regarded. They are food. Very few are kept as pets. When fully grown, we call them “hogs.” He was not using the word in the way Jesus was.
Respecting the Listeners
It was my turn to advise. Another student said regarding one of our teachers, “I wish he would bring it down to my level.” I understood. But I replied, “What he is trying to do is bring you closer to his level. (The teacher) is giving us knowledge we need to do our jobs. We are supposed to reach up to it.”
Months later the student said, “that was good advice. I tried harder and it worked.” I knew the teacher did not consider us “pigs” or in any way beneath him. He was a scholar. But he believed other people could be at his level of understanding. He respected us.
Preaching provides holy pearls. Bart Ehrman tells the story about being invited to give a Biblical Studies lecture to a church. A lay person asked him later why her pastor never said anything about what he had learned in seminary. It is a good question. My guess it is fear borne from a lack of respect.
Seeing Pigs Instead of People
I have been accused of some terrible things in the past. “You are trying to get us to think.” Another place it was said, “you preach like you are trying to teach us something.” There are people who will not learn. That is a fact of life. There are many more people who will learn something. But they only will if the teachers and pastors will respect their intelligence and ability to grasp new understandings. Yet, too many of us see pigs instead of people.
“My people would never accept…” or “how can I possibly say this to my church when…” are excuses I hear from colleagues. I want to say, “Well if I believed you thought about me that way I would not take a cup of water from you.” I have some thoughts to keep in mind.
Preachers offer pearls. But we are not oysters. We don’t make the pearls. We didn’t discover them. They are gifts we share.
Congregations are made up of people who live in certain places and have learned how to live in those places. Every move I ever made involved me learning those things quickly. I once had a church member say to me, “you can’t move you have (this place) in your heart.”
Christians generally want to know more about their faith. They seek answers. More importantly, they want to know what to do with the answers given.