Submit Your Own!
Feedback on Tom's Sermon
By David von Schlichten
Your sermon abounds with meaty ideas, and your congregation will savor it and find it nourishing.
What if you tightened the focus? You have three or four sermons here, all valuable. I recall some people saying that Nora Gallagher's sermon, posted about a month ago, also was a little too full, so you're in good company.
You probably don't need this piece of advice, but here goes: I have a parishioner we shall call "Ethel," and I often speak to my wife of "The Ethel Test." I ask myself, "Would Ethel be able to follow and use this sermon?" If not, I make revisions. Ethel is about seventy, blue collar, minimal education, average intelligence.
I also think that your sermon would take root in the consciousness of your hearers better if you had an every-day-type illustration that helped to concretize the message for people.
Well, put all this in the for-what-it's-worth category.
Thanks for your intelligent sharing, Tom. Your contributions are always helpful and engaging.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
By Tom Steagald
We are a typical Southern congregation--smallish, with a wide variety of ages, educational backgrounds (blue collar to professionals--one dentist, three engineers, management types as well), economic status, etc. We have two former mayors and folks who voted against them. We have an increasing numbers of young adults, but have grown in the older demographics too. We are not Bible-toters for the most part, but some of our people are quite literate in Scripture and tradition. My arrival has initiated three Bible studies a week and renewed interest in the history and traditions of the Methodist movement.
We have several families with children/relatives deployed or just back from the war zones; there are hawks and doves in the pews.
Does that help?
By David von Schlichten
Thanks for submitting a rough draft of your sermon. I pray we can get some discussion going here at the cafe or in the hot tub. I encourage people to submit their thoughts.
Before I respond more to your stimulating and conscientious sermon, could you give me a description of your congregation? In what context will you preach this sermon?
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
For Our Encouragement
By Tom Steagald
ISometimes we moderns (or post-moderns) think of the Bible, Holy Scripture, the Word of God, as irrelevant—or if not irrelevant, exactly, then antiquated—a vestige, an artifact, something from another time and yes, valuable, in a way, and to be honored and looked at, surely; but mostly (for many of us) to be looked at in the same way we look at other museum pieces.
At least that is how some view it.
The Apostle Paul takes a different view, however: "whatever written in former days was written for our instruction..." he says, by which he means it was written not just for whoever read it first but also for whoever reads it now. It is an audacious claim, in a way.
Most Christian scholars (and even many pastors and Bible teachers, I among them) remind us over and over again that each text has a discreet history. That our Isaiah text, for example, for the morning, possessed its first best meaning for those who heard and read it first.
The stump—Isaiah meant and the people understood the stump to mean the end of the Davidic line of kings, the remnants of what had been the great promise of Israel as a blessing to the nations, an ensign to all people everywhere of God's gracious presence and rule, the throne of David as the tree of life not only for the Hebrew people but for the world. And now it is dead. Not only dead but cut-off, chopped down—the glory of Israel and God's presence so much firewood for the pagan kings.
The stem's new life and growth, but not regime change, not exactly. This stem comes from the root of Jesse—Jesse, you will remember, was the father of King David—and this new stem shares DNA with what was, to all appearances, dead. If the old certainties were hard and cold with the passage of time, a new green appears, a new branch, as remarkable and miraculous as the notion of long dead Jesse producing a new son from the dust of his long-dead loins.
Isaiah saw, and the people hoped for, a new king—one for their own time. This new king would be like the old ones but not like the old ones. He would be what all the old kings should have been: a means, a channel, of God's presence and rule among the people. He would be blessed with such spirit as to rule justly...
IINow, we Christians read this text and we think immediately of Jesus—he is the stem growing from the stump! He is the king to come! The babe born in Bethlehem is the one who is blessed with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord: he is the One who will just justly: not by what he sees, not by what he hears, which is to say he will not be swayed by appearance or spin, but he will know the truth and he will speak the truth and the truth will set us free. We Christians read Isaiah 11 and we recognize the prophet's description, hail the prophetic depiction: this is Jesus!
Not so fast, scholars and others warn. This text was written 700 years before Mary had the first twinkle in her virginal eye. Isaiah is speaking to his own people, telling them of good news for them, light for their darkness. This text has a discreet history. It meant something originally, not just interpretationally...
And yes, yes, that is true. There is a time-specific quality to these texts—the prediction is for sooner rather than later; and the Apostle Paul, student of Rabbi Gamaliel, knows that as well or better than any scholar or preacher we could name. And still he writes that this writing is for our instruction, for our encouragement, that we too might have hope—real hope, grounded in the promises God made to Israel. Paul says that our understanding of the Scriptures does not displace its original meaning but confirms the promises made long ago, fulfills the vision by using it and extending it—a new king, yes, a Once and Forever King!
IIIIsaiah preached to a people walking in great darkness that there would come a light; that war would soon give way to peace; that soon and very soon they would see the wolf lying with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together... that there would soon be shalom, a peaceable Kingdom, where cows and bear would graze, where lions would eat straw like the ox, where children would no longer fear to play where the adder's dwell...it's poetry, of course, but Isaiah's point was that there would be no more hurt, no more pain, no more destruction or death or pain, for the earth would soon be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea..."
That was Isaiah's message and war-weary Israel's hope: for a new king, a child, to lead them to that peaceable place. And it is a message for us, too, Paul would say, we who ourselves are so war-weary, who see that on the mountains and in the valleys and everywhere else it seems there is so much hurting and destruction, so much fear and distress. No, we do not discount the original word of Isaiah; in fact, we count on that word, for that is our hope, too, is it not? Peace now. Peace ultimately—in this world and in the world to come?
Do not lose hope, Isaiah says to his people, and Paul says that we, too, whether 700 or 2700 years later can take encouragement and instruction from Isaiah's word, old as it is, and find reason ourselves to hope. That the steadfast word of God stands steadfast to make us steadfast. That we may be filled with all joy and peace in believing, that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
IVI find myself drawn to the Hebrew Scriptures during the Advent season. I do not preach as much on the First Testament at other times in the year; but at Advent, without fail. I am not sure it has always been so. Early in my ministry I preached with relish on John the Baptist and Joseph and all--but how many times can you tell of John's God-craziness without it becoming banal? How many times can you quote Auden's insight that Joseph is the first Christian because he had to accept and act as if the Incarnation were true even without proof? I mean, all that is good stuff, but where does it get traction for us?
And so I turn to Isaiah again—noting its discreet history, of course, the waiting of the Hebrew people for more and better than they have received, their hope against experience for a king who will be the presence of God's justice and reign among them. But in the text I also see our own experiences and waitings gathered together.
Hans Frei has written that, for Easter proclamation, it is impossible for preachers to duplicate the agony and the awe, the despair and the wonder of the empty tomb. We already know how the story ends. And indeed, in our Advent preaching, it is impossible for us to in anywise capture all of what waiting meant for the Hebrews. Still, Frei says, preaching will be convincing or true by virtue of its embodying or echoing of what he calls "universal experience." We are all of us waiting—but for what? For Whom? I think that in this consumeristic age, where one evidence of our lostness is our ever-changing assessment of "what we have always wanted," the naming and tapping of our deeper desires proves therapeutic. If, as Kathleen Norris has written, the "twin religions" of America are optimism and denial, the prophecies of Isaiah prove, if not palliative, then therapeutic, and ultimately curative.
If we are weary or bored—which is to say if we know the Story too well, its arc and players, its conflict and conclusions, where we are and where we are going; and if we wonder what it all might mean when we have heard it so often and it seems so passé, really: peace on earth, goodwill among all God's people? What could be a more unrealistic word given the temperatures of our times? We know where we are; we fear where we might be headed. And so it all seems...
If it all seems like and empty gesture—these carols and scriptures, these words of sunny hope when all around us is the gloom of economic and international, ethnic and religious tension—if this Advent drama seems a morality play from another time, an antiquated vision: then perhaps we look back. We make sure the old time religion is old enough. We go back to where we have come from, the rock from whence we are hewn, find echoing in that quarry the plea of Israel which is a harbinger of our own plea: that God might come to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and make peace not least.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed is God who has promised the making of a deeper and lasting peace yet. Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.
VIf you have ever been to Sabbath services at a synagogue, you may remember there comes a moment when the rabbis go to the ark to remove the scrolls. The ark is the central fixture in the sanctuary, the focal point. If our sanctuary were a synagogue, the ark would be where our choir loft is. Every eye is immediately drawn to it.
Now, when I say ark you may think boat. No, not that kind of ark. At Temple Beth El, the ark is marble and gold and once graced a European synagogue, as I remember it, then it was brought to New Jersey, and then to Charlotte. It is massive, a great block of white and gray, carved and encrusted with Hebrew letters, and there in the middle, a hole, almost, an opening into a kind of grotto, covered with curtains. And at a particular point in the service the rabbis go to the opening, turn on the lights which illumine the Torah scrolls in the grotto, pull back the curtains and remove the scrolls.
The scrolls themselves are beautiful—adorned with velvet covers and bells so that when the rabbi walks them through the sanctuary, which he does so that people can touch the covers and even, sometimes, kiss them—they ring. The scrolls ring, announcing the coming of the Word. Bells—the sound of parties, of victory, of Good News!
Back to the pulpit—where the rabbis take the covers from the scrolls and unroll them to the place where the reading will commence. The rabbi says, "For instruction shall come forth from Zion..." and the people respond, "The Word of the Lord from Jerusalem."
Instruction—the Hebrew word is Torah—meaning guidance, divine direction, the word of life, the Word of the Lord, coming to us from another place and time, yes, but with the power of a visitation of angels.
The prophet stands among us, and so does the Apostle, with encouragement, counsel: take heart, do not fear, be joyful as the Spirit gives you gifts: the King is coming. Has come, will come again�that with one voice our elders and our progeny, the children of Israel and the people of the Church might sing praises to God.
Coffee, Arts, and Sermons
By David Howell
Enjoy a cup of Mistletoe Joe this week and the art of The Katherine E. Nash Gallery, which is located in the Regis Center for Art, at the University of Minnesota. The gallery’s beautiful 4,900 square foot exhibition space has hosted shows from both nationally, and locally renowned artists. See link below.
The Festival of Homiletics will be held in Minneapolis (a city of the arts), May 19-23.
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