Plagiarism from the pulpit has been a topic here at the One-T Saloon for a few weeks now. I weighed in on that sad theme last Friday. “One t” Scot McKnight invited me to broaden the topic by writing on the temptations of the pastor regarding preaching. These posts will be personal musings and oftentimes confessions. I’ve been in the preaching world for over 45 years as a pastor in my own churches and as a guest speaker in many others. I am not without experience in falling for most of these temptations, so I am not throwing stones at anyone. I will try to not only describe the temptation, but also to offer “a better way.”
I notice that when the topic of the pastor as the spiritual leader of a congregation comes up here at Jesus Creed, there is a set of commenters who push back on the very concept of pastor. I know that we live in a crazy world of competing ecclesiologies. If you’re down on the pastor concept, comment if you want, but know that many of us here will not be persuaded by your insightful criticisms. I am writing as a veteran pastor for pastors in the traditional sense of the pastoral calling. I personally count it an honor to be called an “under-pastor” of Jesus Christ, the Senior Pastor.
Now on to our topic. Preaching temptations are like remoras sticking to sharks and whales. Preaching is a massive reality and it attracts little irritants that cannot survive without a host. How startling is it to be called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as one who casts the seed of the Word of God’s in-breaking kingdom? With Paul we ask, “Who is sufficient for these things?” As large and weighty as the task is, we feel called to it, are gifted and trained for it, ordained for it, and engaged in it. We ought to lose our breath each time we step up to preach. So mighty a creation is this thing called preaching! Yet, look. Here comes the remora.
For the called, gifted, and trained preacher, the first temptation is prayerlessness. Trained in biblical skills, homiletical energies, and with a winsome personality and ability to “talk good,” the preacher markets all the ecclesial packaging, but may not deliver the goods. Forgetting that his or her words are not eternal, the preacher (here’s a throw-back phrase) “waxes eloquent” to no transformative, eternal consequence. No amount of gifting, influential personality, A+ transcripts, exegetical finesse and homiletical genius will move anyone toward Christlikeness. We Christians are up against ominous powers and if we think our fleeting qualities will ever do the work that only the Spirit of God can do, we are of all people the most ill-informed.
I hear you. You say you are a praying person. “I pray at the pot-luck, at the finance committee meeting, the ladies sewing club, at the wedding (and reception), the local clergy gathering, the hospital bedside, the graveside.” These vocational prayers will never substitute for sermon-focused prayers. You have been set aside, or as Eugene H. Peterson writes, “lashed to the mast” to speak for Almighty God. Prayer is visualized and verbalized dependency. Prayer is the first Beatitude in practice.
I hesitate to write, “Now here’s what you do to fix this.” Just like I would be hesitant to tell you how to be intimate with your spouse, who am I to tell you how to stay intimate with God in the preaching task? You know when you’re merely preaching as a function and when you’re a co-laborer with God in a vibrant, sometimes urgent communication mission. Here is what I have learned to do. I have endeavored to cultivate a running conversation with Father, Son and Spirit about the converging factors of congregational life, the biblical text(s) at hand, the disciplines of study, the needs for sermonic creativity, and the condition of my own life vis-a-vis the lesson of the text. We must never think our sermon is a thing apart from ourselves. Our honesty about the journey we are all on as Jesus-followers is as valuable as our integrity in handling the holy Word. I know that if God’s Spirit does not breathe eternity into my instant puffs of wind called words, I still may be affirmed as a good speaker. Good speakers are a dime a dozen. Meaningful prayer regarding the sermon is what God seeks so he may weld eternity to my fleeting words and transform those words into life-changing energies. Nothing and no one else in the universe does that. God alone. Prayerfulness is the hidden work of sermon-making.