About a week ago, I got to preach my first actual sermon. Prior to this, I had been a part of a house church and I had co-led a small group Bible study for Quest Church, but I had never actually preached in front of an actual congregation, behind an actual pulpit.
Couple thoughts regarding the experience.
- Sermon prep is HARD work!
For one thing the text I had to preach on was pretty difficult:
Matthew 5:10 (TNIV)
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I mean the plain sense of the text is pretty clear. Jesus is saying that people who get beat down for doing good (no good dead goes unpunished?) are blessed.
But there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface.
Read in the context of the Sermon on the Mount (SotM), Jesus is using this verse and the ones that follow (Matthew 5:11-12) to prepare his audience to hear the heart of the sermon – the idea of fulfilling the law (Matthew 5:17-20). What Jesus does in the whole of the SotM is a radical reconceptualization of what it means for Jews to follow the Jewish Law. In a way, this last part of the Beatitudes serves as a transition point between the blessings of the Beatitudes (sort of an appetizer) and the main course of the meal (fulfilling the Law).
From a preaching standpoint, that’s a lot of material to unpack. But that’s just dealing with how the verse was heard in the time it was preached and that’s only part of what a good sermon does.
The other part is tying the original message to a contemporary application and that was also difficult. Because while it’s easy to find present day examples of Christian persecution in the world, a lot of that persecution happens far outside of America. I wanted to find a way of talking about persecution much, much closer to home.
In trying to communicate all of this (the historical context along with contemporary application), I went through a bunch of drafts, trying to cram all this information in. The first drafts were hopelessly academic and abstract – a reflection on all the research I had done. While that might have made for a nice essay for grad school, it did not communicate well to the intended audience.
Thankfully, I have a mentor who’s helping me prepare for my eventual church plant and after reading one of my later drafts, he gave me some really great advice about how to boil my ideas down to their essence. The sermon you see above would have been a mess without his advice.
Granted, this was my first sermon and I learned a lot in the process (both the prep and the preaching) but I gotta say, it was WAY harder and took WAY more time than I thought it would.
But you know what? I loved it!
Well, most of it, because…
- Perspective – short term
I’ll be totally transparent and honest here and admit that after preaching my sermon, I was left wondering how much good it did.
Because here’s the thing. I thought about all the times that I’ve been in church and just let the sermon drift on by me. Take the average Sunday morning service. On the Monday after church, if you asked me what the sermon that Sunday had been about, probably two thirds of the time, I’d have a really hard time recollecting. And that’s assuming I stayed tuned in during that Sunday’s sermon.
Preaching is an art – a kind of performance art. You do all this prep work beforehand and then you present what you’ve come up with and then it’s out of your hands. Once it’s out there, it belongs to the audience and they’re free to accept, reject, forget, or even completely misunderstand it.
It’s quite a sobering experience.
- Perspective – long term
Despite those doubts about the actual effectiveness of my sermon, I realized something else.
While any given congregant might not be impacted by any particular sermon, I was still struck by the awesome responsibility that preaching is.
A moment ago, I likened preaching to an art, and that metaphor works here as well. The long term impact/influence of a great artist usually isn’t contained in any one piece – it’s recognized in the body of their work. But in order to have that impact, the artist must have a vision that they are trying to communicate – a vision large enough to encompass a lifetime of work.
The thing that struck me about preaching is how important it is to have some larger vision about what the Bible (more specifically, the Gospel message of Jesus) is about. What is the grand narrative of the Bible into which the Christian life is lived?
This should be a narrative that’s large enough to make sense of all that goes on in all areas of the universe – from individual tragedies that befall particular congregants, to societal upheavals, to local/national/global political dynamics, to discoveries in the area of science.
It should make sense of ethical dilemmas both mundane (what to do when your co-worker keeps stealing your red stapler) and profound (how to weigh the benefits of stem-cell research with the need to respect the dignity of human life).
It should also be accessible to the average congregant. It shouldn’t be some complicated theological construct that only Bible geeks can understand, but at the same time, it should be able to hold up to critique both from within the realm of Christian thought as well as from without (for example, it should be able to offer a compelling response to the New Atheism movement).
One thing I want to make clear here. I’m not saying that every person who wants to go into full time pastoral ministry should have an understanding of the Gospel that can live up to all these standards (I know I don’t have that!) but tI think it is something to which pastors should aspire (I know I do) because, again, as with the artist, the larger the vision, the better the chances of long term impact.
All that to say, the act of preaching drove home to me the enormity of the task that I’m taking on as I work towards planting a church after I’m done with grad school. Clearly, I have a lot of work to do.
- Audience feedback
For the bulk of my adult life, I’ve been involved in bands. From my mid-twenties to my late-thirties, I spent more time in bands than out of them. In fact, it was because of a band (Harrison, RIP) that I made the move out to Seattle almost five years ago.
During all that time with a bunch of different bands, audience reaction was never a big deal for me. From a show where after playing our first song, only three kids remained (of the hundred or so that were there when we started the song) to playing in front of almost a thousand people opening up for My Chemical Romance way back in 2005, as long as I was having a good time on stage, it didn’t matter to me how the audience reacted. Of course it was nice to hear from people who said they enjoyed the show, but even when we got an icy reaction, I didn’t care.
Preaching was a slightly different experience for me.
I had to preach the sermon twice on Sunday morning and I’d say that the earlier service reacted better to my sermon than the later one. And I was surprised at how much that affected me. Now for the most part, I feel good about how I did at both services but I have to admit that for one of the first times in my life, I understood what musical artists mean when they say they feed off the energy of the audience.
By the way they laughed and looked up at me, I got the sense from the earlier service that they were right there with me, and I gotta admit – it was a great feeling. I was able to relax and be a bit more spontaneous in my delivery. And I don’t want to suggest that the latter service was unengaged or hostile – far from it – but they didn’t laugh quite as loud and some of the expressions I saw weren’t as supportive as what I saw earlier. And I have to admit that it got me to question what I was communicating. Had I missed something in my research? Was my application completely off base? Was this the wrong message for this audience?
I stuck to my outline (I didn’t really have a choice) and made it through the rest of the second service just fine, but I was struck by how much just a small bit off difference in audience reaction subtly changed the way I thought about and delivered the message.
Because here the thing…
- I delivered a challenging message
The way this verse is usually preached, the people in the congregation are made to feel that they are among those who are being persecuted for righteousness – maybe they experience workplace ridicule because people know they’re Christians – and so they should take comfort in Jesus’ message that theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I took a different approach. I tried to say that the kind of righteousness that the world needs today is one that is based on relationship and reconciliation. And that’s a nice message, but I took it one step beyond. I made the case that if one really takes the task of working towards relationship and reconciliation seriously, it means that one WILL encounter persecution.
The kind of relationship and reconciliation I was challenging Quest with is the kind that works across divides.
Take a look at Matthew 5:43-44:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
There are two ways to pray for someone who’s persecuting you. One is to pray against them, the other is to pray on their behalf, for their benefit. Jesus’ admonition to love one’s enemy and the Greek word behind the word “for” both suggest the latter approach. And I would suggest that the only way to pray on behalf of someone who’s persecuting you is to understand why they’re doing so and that means stepping out of your own shoes and into those of your enemy even as they’re persecuting you. (Gosh, I wish I had used this bit in my sermon!)
Quest is full of people who work hard against all kinds of injustices and violence on behalf of the victims of that injustice and violence. That’s already extremely challenging, difficult work but I was asking them to do more – to understand the oppressor and to pray FOR them. But how do you pray on behalf of an unjust system that traps people within cycles of homelessness? How do you pray on behalf of a perpetrator of human trafficking?
I was asking Quest to step into the realm of the impossible for the sake of righteousness.
Which brings me to my final observation.
- The importance of conviction
I started this post talking about how hard it was to do all the sermon prep, but the thing I now realize is, even though almost all the research I did on this text never made it in to the actual sermon, it did give me the confidence I needed to deliver a challenging message. So even though I knew I was delivering a message that some might not recieve well, I believed in it. I could back it up if challenged. I believed that this was God’s word for God’s people at this church at this point in time. And I couldn’t have gotten there without the time and the research.
All in all, the experience was a tiny glimpse into what I’m ultimately working towards – planting a church back in Hawaii.
It was a sobering look into a part of what I’m getting myself into and on the one hand, I’m beginning to realize all the work I have yet to do to really be ready. At the same time, I’m also realizing that as far as I still need to go, I know it’s something I can do. More importantly, it’s something I want to do. When it comes to preaching, I know I still have weak points in my preparation and my delivery but I want to get better.
In other words, despite all the difficulties, despite all the work, despite the long road ahead of me, I want to continue pressing forward. Although I normally don’t like speaking in such grandiose terms, I do feel like God has been preparing me for this. All the crazy randomness that I’ve lived through, all the seemingly meaningless dead ends and odd experiences, all the years of doubt and frustration – they’ve all led me to this pursuit that I never, ever would have chosen on my own.
God really does work in mysterious ways.