During Your Own Sermon!
2009-05-12 by David Howell

Our weekly blogger (not Brett Younger) seems to have gone astray for the moment. So, we thought you might enjoy this sermon.


Law and Grace in the Pulpit

Luke 15:11-32


       Every week you tell yourself to start the sermon earlier, so on Monday morning you pour a cup of coffee and take out the file for the next Sunday. 

What were you thinking when you decided to preach on the prodigal son again?  What could there possibly be left to say?

          The story has been worn so smooth in the telling and retelling that you’re tempted to start the sermon by asking, “How many think you know just about everything I’m about to say?  Is there anyone left who hasn’t heard a preacher suggest that we should call this the parable of the waiting father?  If I point out that feeding pigs would be particularly disgusting for a Jew will that be news?” 

You once heard about a minister who preached the parable from the point of view of the fatted calf.  Maybe you should try that.

          Or you could preach about the poor cook trying to throw together a barbecue at the last minute.

          You could talk about the prodigal’s mother.  Or the grandmother?  The little sister?  The family’s pastor? 

          What about a sermon on the harlots in the far country?  Does anybody ever think about their feelings?

          Once you heard someone suggest a three point outline of madness, badness, and gladness.  Or was it sadness?  Wouldn’t sadness be in there?  Or what about this outline—he wanted his ten, he fell into sin, and he came home again.

          The story has become so tired in the preaching and repreaching that it makes you tired just thinking about it.  It’s almost a relief when the phone rings. 

          Bessie calls each Monday.  She’s an accomplished sermon critic.  It’s like having Pauline Kael in the fifth row every Sunday.  Bessie teaches the Rebecca/Ruth class and feels the need to tell you everything that happens there.  You know she liked the previous pastor more than she likes you so you always pretend you’re listening. 

          On this occasion she has a new issue, “Pastor, do you know what your little Minister of Education said to me yesterday?”

          “No, Bessie, I don’t.”

          “He asked if I thought my class would be more comfortable meeting in the parlor.”

          Scott’s a fine Minister of Education—and there are precious few of them—but he should have asked before running headlong into this particular fiery furnace.

          The Rebecca/Ruth class is all that’s left of a senior adult department that was thriving only three short decades ago.  They meet in the largest room in the church with a grand piano, a stained glass window of the Good Shepherd, and the only American flag you haven’t hidden.

          When Charlotte’s bursitis isn’t acting up, there are five women meeting in a space that will seat 100.  At the other end of the hall there’s a young adult class running 25 in a parlor that might hold 15 comfortably.  

          Bessie continues, “I’m not one to complain”—it’s good that she can’t see you roll your eyes, “but he needs to respect his elders.  We’re the people who built this church.  We worked hard.  We earned our place and you can’t give it to people who just showed up.  Do you think your precious thirty-year-olds tithe?”

          You try to make it clear that you understand how much the Rebeccas and Ruths mean to the church.  “Bessie, I know how hard you work.  I appreciate everything your class has done.  In fact, the Rebecca/Ruth class is probably my favorite class in all of the world.”  You say this with your fingers crossed. 

          Bessie has just given up and said goodbye when the phone rings again.

          This caller begins, “You’d don’t me.  My family lives about a hundred miles from you.  We raised our son right.  His father and I dropped him off at church every Sunday.  My son doesn’t work hard, but as long as he was under our roof I knew he was safe.  But now he’s at college and he’s an English major.  We thought he was going to get a nice business degree.  He’s spending money like the government is going to bail him out.  I think his fraternity may have a few drinkers.  I need you to invite him to your church.  I know he’s up on Sunday mornings, because when I call he’s always out.  But you can’t tell him I asked you to call.” 

          You’re off the phone before you realize that you’ve agreed to call a college student and act like you pulled his name and number out of the campus directory at random. 

His first question is going to be, “Did my mom tell you to call?” 

You decide to answer, “Yes, of course she did.  You know your mother.”

          You don’t get back to the sermon for three days.  Every Monday you make a list of things you need to get done, and every week you learn again that you’re not in charge of what you’ll get done.  You have to respond to fifteen e-mails.  You think of church before the internet as the good old days.  The chair of the stewardship committee is worried about last month’s financial report and wants you to talk to the committee about it.  You spend too much time preparing for Wednesday night.  There’s a reason no one picks Judges for the Annual Bible Study.  And then, horror of horrors, you get the shocking news that on Sunday morning—without you even noticing—an eleventh grade girl wore flip flops while taking up the offering.  You could make money selling bumper stickers at preaching conferences that say, “Church happens.”

          On Thursday you tell yourself, “I have to write my sermon and I have to write it right now.  If the Holy Spirit shows up great, but I need a rough draft by the end of the day.” 

When you went to seminary, some dear church people gave you a complete set of The Broadman Bible Commentary.  At the time, you thought it was the most liberal thing ever written—now, not so much. 

          You read material you’ve read before:  how the younger son would have been expected to keep at least some of the inheritance to support his father in his old age.  You’re relatively certain your children aren’t saving to support you either. 

When the son comes to his senses the word used is a medical term.  Doctor Luke describes the response of a person who has awakened from a fainting spell.  You wish you had rich doctors in your congregation so that a detail like that would jump out. 

          Then you find something.  The Talmud describes the ceremony of the pessausa.  A father disowned a son by taking a pot filled with burnt corn and nuts and breaking it in front of the house.  It’s like the shun of the Pennsylvania Dutch.  No one was ever to speak to the boy again.  The pessausa was applied only to Jewish males who married immoral woman or lost money to Gentiles.  The prodigal must have wondered if his father would disown him.   Now that’s interesting, somewhat. You’re just not finding much that’s going to move them to the edge of their pews—unless you actually throw a pot of burnt corn.

When you took preaching at seminary—which is for many the high point of their lives—you thought that every week you’d be examining textual variants and parsing verbs, but it’s been a while since you opened your Greek New Testament.

You wonder if there’s anything on desperatepreacher.com.  What would you get if you googled Fred Craddock plus Luke 15?  What would happen if you suggested that the younger brother is like Sarah Palin’s future son-in-law Eli?  Would it be wrong to describe the party as tailgating at a Georgia game?           

Just before you give up for the day, you find something in The New Interpreter’s Bible.  Your favorite New Testament scholar and my dean, Alan Culpepper, writes, “In the end we all return home as sinners, so Jesus’ parable invites us to trust that God’s goodness and mercy will be at least as great as that of a loving human father.  The elder brother represents all of us who think we can make it on our own, all of us who might be proud of the kind of lives we live.”

That’s pretty good.  Your church has lots of proud people.  You’ve got some who think that “charter member” implies infallibility.  You have wealthy folks who believe the money they give puts them in charge of who gets a party.  You have deacons whose mothers must not have hugged them nearly enough. 

And you understand the older brother.  You feel underappreciated much of the time. 

HHhhERIt’s time to write the central idea.  Your first preaching textbook insisted that every sermon needs a focus of ten words.  You’re going with, “This church is filled with elder brothers who need to repent.”  It’s eleven words—close enough. 

On Sunday morning, you tell the old, old story, yet again.  Once upon a time there was a father who had two very different sons.  The younger is completely unreliable, and the older thoroughly dependable.

          One day the older brother overhears his irresponsible little brother ask their father for money so he can go out on his own.  The older brother thinks: “Now, he’s gone too far.  Dad’s going to hit the roof.” 

But to his amazement, the father writes the biggest check any of them has ever seen.  The younger son slaps a “Party Animal” bumper sticker on the back of his camel and rides off.

          The older brother never says a word.  With his baby brother gone, he has even more work to do—though not much more.  He works in the field all day every day.  Every muscle aches.  Each night he works late and falls asleep exhausted only to get up early the next morning to do it all again.

          Then one evening as he comes in from the field, sweat dripping down his face, he hears music.  It’s the first music he’s heard since his brother left.  He smells charcoal briquettes and asks a servant what’s going on: “Your brother’s returned and your father’s having a barbecue.” 

Can you believe this?  This young upstart ne’r-do-well ungratefully demands his inheritance, takes the money to Las Vegas, blows every cent on booze and bad women, and when he comes slithering home, his father throws a party.

          It’s easy to understand the older brother’s reaction.  We know this feeling.  It’s when you find out that your friend who never goes to the office on Saturday is paid more than you are.  Why is the world so unfair?  Why can’t people get what they deserve?  Why do some have everything handed to them on a silver platter?  The unfairness of almost everything makes us keep track of the unfairness of almost everything. 

          The older brother confronts his father with what he knows to be the truth:  “All these years I have worked like a slave.  And I’ve never had a party.” 

          You’ve told this story so many times.  You know it so well that your mind wanders and you look at your congregation.  You really look at them.  There are older brothers so far out in the field that they can’t hear the music.  Scribes and Pharisees get lost in the rules.  Bessie just wrote on her order of worship.  You’re going to get a call in the morning.

          A few prodigal sons, wandering in the far country, haven’t figured out it’s time to come home.  Sometimes sinners waste their lives running from the rules.  The college student with whom you had an awkward conversation isn’t there, but one of his fraternity brothers, who had the misfortune of going to college in the town where his parents live, is there on two cups of coffee and four Tylenols. 

          Then it hits you—something you hadn’t recognized before, something you wished you had thought of on Monday morning.  Your congregation isn’t just elder brothers and a few prodigals.  The room is filled, more than anything else, with waiting fathers and mothers. 

          Bob Parsons sits on the back row, because he has trouble walking.  His son is an alcoholic.  Bob’s never been good at tough love.  He’s always waiting with open arms and a new pair of shoes, a ring, a robe. 

If she had been there, Lee Ann Seely, who’s in the choir behind you, would have been praying every day for the prodigal, his father, his brother, for everyone and everything.  She prays as though she is helping God carry the burdens

Fran Patterson, in the balcony with the youth, would have been constantly e-mailing the prodigal.  She would send a care package during finals even though he dropped out.

Donella Ware, always on the third row, would have invited the prodigal’s mother for coffee.  She would have listened carefully, like a real friend. 

Claudine Marion, on the left near the front, loves planning parties.  She would have had steaks waiting in the freezer and a recipe for charcoal-grilled T-bone fatted calf with broiled onions cowboy style taped to the fridge. 

          Dan Freemyer is on the right, halfway back.  He would have gone to the pig sty to get the prodigal, taken him to Dan’s house, showed him to the shower, loaned him his best suit, and gone with him to talk with his father. 

Why didn’t you see it before?  God’s church is filled with people who love like God does.  You are surrounded by saints who want to welcome you and anyone else who will come to the party of God’s grace. 

          These loving people are the way God is waiting to embrace you and Bessie and the freshman with the hangover.  God loves us all—even ministers—through God’s family.

          You’re coming to the end of the sermon.  The older brother stands in the yard feeling sorry for himself.  His father asks him again to come in and have some fun.  Then the father walks toward the party he had hoped would bring his complaining child back to life.  As he looks at his angry son, the father feels old.  The music from the party drifts from the house and hangs in the air between them. 

Then suddenly the father is no longer tired.  The joy of his heart overflows into his feet.  He begins to dance, hoping the music that he can’t resist will bring his child, his true inheritance, his delight, back to him.

Standing in the pulpit, during your own sermon, right there in church, you hear God calling you to come home, inviting you to see that there’s a party going on and join in the dance.

Brett Younger




Do You Read This Blog?
2009-05-07 by David Howell

If so, email us at office@goodpreacher.com

We need to know how many people are reading this blog. It will help us with our planning.

Just put "blog" or "I read the blog" in the subject line.


Philip a Mother?
2009-05-07 by David von Schlichten

Is Philip like a good mother in his willingness to help the eunuch understand the Scripture and to welcome him into the kingdom? A good mother is also instructive, patient, and open.

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator 

Idea for using Acts 8
2009-05-05 by Susan Cartmell

This might be a week to use the story in Acts (Acts 8: 26-40) to illustrate the gospel. The story in Acts is just so remarkable that it is a shame to overlook it. Perhaps it is a great way to show how the disciples and all of us depend on Christ to find our way.

The story of Philip baptizing the eunuch really preaches itself. The way that the angel of the Lord directs Philip, and shows him where to go to meet this exotic and unlikely disciple reminds us of how much we depend on God. It also demonstrates how smooth things are when we allow God in Christ to guide us. Philip went to a places he never expected to go and spoke to someone he could hardly imagine meeting. While it was so improbable, it also turned out to be so successful. Perhaps the story could illustrate the way that life unfolds when we recognize Christ as the vine to our branches.

This might be a time to just re-tell that story in all its remarkable detail, and then sum it up with the gospel passage.

(I need to apologize for my first blog entry. Somehow only the final paragraph posted. I did not figure out my mistake until today. Thanks for your patience.)

Do You Read This Blog?
2009-05-05 by David Howell

If so, email us at office@goodpreacher.com

We need to know how many people are reading this blog. It will help us with our planning.

Just put "blog" or "I read the blog" in the subject line.


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