The answer is No. The sermon is not really about that prosaic structure at the end of the human leg, and if I were sedate and sober by nature I would probably have given it a duller but more dignified & revealing title — something like “The Art of Preaching” — but as I began to put some thoughts together in response to occasional questions, I found myself unable to resist a curious image used a couple of times in the Bible.
First, by the prophet Isaiah several centuries before Christ, when he is consoling the Jewish people during one of the worst times in their history [52:7]. Before newspapers, radio and TV, when news arrived in the form of human messengers, this is how he imagines someone coming across the hills around Jerusalem with word that the long captivity in Babylon is over: “Behold, how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good tidings.” Fast forward now a few hundred years to the Apostle Paul, who chooses to quote part of this sentence in a letter to his church at Rome. Only part of it — the part useful to him — because he has no qualms about changing a verb tense, or omitting a few words, or even splicing verses together from widely separated places in the Old Testament if any of that helps make his point.
This is an incidental comment, but it’s important for understanding some differences among present-day churches. It’s obvious that scripture, for Paul, was not sacrosanct in the way it is for many readers of the Bible. A man told me once that in quoting the Bible I must never leave out a single divinely-dictated word, never paraphrase a verse instead of quoting it exactly, and never use part of a verse without quoting all of it. Paul, who worshipped God rather than a book about God, would have thought this man’s elevator stopped short of the top floor.
So when Paul quotes Isaiah’s poetry for his Christian friends he leaves out the phrase about the mountains because it isn’t useful at the moment. Instead of Isaiah’s messengers striding across the hills of Jerusalem to announce a Jewish victory, Paul has in mind those who proclaim a different kind of victory: “How beautiful,” he exclaims, “are the feet of those who praech the good news of Christ.” Beautiful feet. It’s pure poetry, of course, so no one here was literal-minded enough to have Gary take off his shoes and socks before we called him to lead this church.
But there are always some Bible readers who have difficulty separating its poetry from its prose, its language of emotion from its language of literal fact. So, in deference to these readers, The New English Bible avoids the risk of literalistic absurdity by calling the preacher’s feet “welcome” instead of “beautiful.” And in an even deeper bow to readers not at ease with poetry, the popular Good News Bible omits the whole reference to the messenger’s feet, and simply says his coming is “wonderful.” Does it dumb down the Bible a bit, this scrapping of the poetic metaphor? It does, and we lose a passing chance to increase literacy, but at least we still get Paul’s basic meaning — which is that he can’t imagine anything better than preaching the good news of Christ’s life.
Well, I feel the same way, so I’m asking your patience this morning while I share some thoughts about the act of preaching, even, if you will, the art of preaching. Now is this were only something I do away from our relationship, it would be presumptuous to talk about it from the pulpit. But since you hear preaching almost every Sunday of the year, you undoubtedly form opinions about it, just as I have done during a lifetime of trying to make it as useful as possible to an audience. Here, then, is a look back.
I am convinced, first of all, that a sermon should be not only a declaration of what one passionately believes, but an art form as well. An art form because sermons, like buildings and statues and symphonies should be constructed in ways that compel interest. Our Minister of Music, a man who knows what it means to plan and prepare, once heard a man preach for a couple of years who told his audience that he did not bother to work on his sermons in advance — that he simply wait for the Holy Spirit to arrive with a message. Mr. Scott will tell you that more often than not, the Spirit lost his address. The truth about preaching is like the truth about most other endeavors: inspiration is more likely to come in the midst of hard work than in place of it. Seminary students are told that one hour of work should undergird each minute of a sermon: 20 hours if you speak 20 minutes. This is not an exaggeration, and we are fortunate to have in someone like Gary a preacher who takes that seminary advice seriously.
It took longer for me to learn this because I began preaching so young I should almost certainly have been restrained. The message I had to deliver had been handed to me pre-packaged by my church, which of course made me sound much too positive about far too many things. I had our church’s often narrow theology down pat, but I had not known enough failure or enough suffering to understand the hearts in front of me. Slowly, I began to discover some things. One was that it’s better in the pulpit to use a rifle than a shotgun — to target a single issue instead of spraying little verbal pellets at a dozen of them. Not only is the impact greater, but the sermon is likely to be shorter — a blessing impressed on me when after one of my early efforts I overheard a man ask his six-year-old daughter how she liked the church service. She said, “I liked the music, but the commercial was too long.” I have been convinced ever since that less is more, that words ae like sunbeams: the more they’re condensed, the deeper they burn.
The metaphor changes but there is wisdom in what an old Oklahoma farmer told me once, long ago, when I had tried to crowd too much into a single sermon. He said, “Son, a real heavy rain runs off instead of soaking into the soil. You’ll probably do better if your sermon is a drizzle instead of a downpour.” It’s not very soothing to the ego to think of your sermon as a drizzle, but I finally matured enough to understand what he meant. And not long after his help, there was another lesson in how silly it can be to try to impress people with high-sounding phrases instead of making a sermon sound as conversational as possible.
Like my Anglo-Saxon ancestors, I enjoy the verbal device called alliteration, but I found out the hard way that one needs to be careful — that the tongue may slip, disastrously. I’ve always been glad I was in a small country church the day I mentioned that beautiful line in Isaiah which describes how certain morally strong people may shelter others, like the shadow of a mighty rock. Then in a soaring swoop of ill-advised alliteration, I tried to make the words personal. “Would anyone ever wish to sit in the shelter of your shadow?” At least that’s what I meant to say. Unfortunately, with my mind already on those 3 words with their alliterative “sh” sounds, when I got to the word “sit” I mispronounced it. You can’t imagine how happy I was to be speaking somewhere else the following Sunday.
It’s a little embarrassing, looking back, to realize how often I had to learn the hard way. Growing up in a church that thought the more Scriptures quoted, the better the sermon, I sort of peaked in that nonsense one day before a large audience in Jackson, Tennessee, and started the sermon by quoting from memory two very long chapters from First Corinthians. There is almost always somebody who will confirm you in such ostentatious nonsense, but that day, thankfully, there was a wise elderly woman who said with a straight face and a meaningful pause: “I’m sure you impressed everyone with your……memory.” Impressed? Driving back to my dorm room that Sunday, I had just sense enough to do what she hoped I would do — roll that word around in my mouth until it turned sour with the realization that trying to impress people is not the business of a sermon.
And then, as immature preachers in their 20’s and just out of seminary often discover, there is the matter of finding one’s own voice and one’s own manner in the pulpit. For a while during seminary days I made the mistake of trying to imitate a professor of mine who was one of the great pulpit orators of the day. I’m glad none of those sermons were taped before I caught on that I was somebody else. My minister son in Oklahoma City was so profoundly influenced by one of his seminary professors, a superb preacher named Fred Craddock, that for the first three years he was Fred Craddock more than he was Robin Meyers, so much so that when his mother and I listened to his tapes we could easily identify exactly which personality was speaking. “There’s Craddock….now it’s Robin….oops, he’s back to Craddock.” I like to think it was good for him to have a father who had been foolish before he was, and loved him enough to say, “Fred Craddock is a short, folksy Scotchman. You are none of those things, and imitating him is not going to work.” Like most people who are given advice, he resisted until one day it seemed to him that he had thought of it all by himself, and at that moment he decided to stop trying to be someone else.
Two things were missing in my early preaching which I now think are absolutely essential. The first is something I learned a few years later during a graduate seminar in the essays of the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. People talk about “defining moments.” I can tell you that when I came to a certain paragraph one drowsy summer day in class it was a defining moment in my notion of ministry. The words I read had been delivered by Emerson to a group of young preachers graduating from Divinity School at Harvard.
He told them he once heard a preacher who tempted him to give up on church, a man so unreal he thought people must often attend sermons out of pure habit or no one would have been there that day. A New England snow was falling outside — something so much more real than the preacher that, in Emerson’s words, “the eye felt the sad contrast in looking [first] at him, and then out of the window behind him into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession — (listen to this!) — the capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned.
“Not one fact in all his experience had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed and planted and talked and bought and sold; he had read books, he had eaten and drunken; his head aches, his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a…….hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history.” And then Emerson finishes with a comment so radical you may need to think about it: “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought.”
If that is as true as I think it is, then each preacher becomes unique, putting his own experiences over against the touchstone of great Christian ideas, to show how they work in the world he knows better than any other — confessing the moments of failure, fear and doubt that make him kin to the rest of us, but sharing also the moments of hope and discovery that restore his faith……and ours.
The other thing missing in my early years of preaching was what has to follow the taking of Emerson’s advice: the telling of stories through which truth takes on the reality of life. You’d think I would have known that, since it’s the very thing Jesus did all the time. Matthew (13:34) and Mark (4:34) both tell us that in all his teaching to crowds Jesus told stories, that in fact he never spoke to them without a story. When Gary was still in Oklahoma, wondering what trial sermon to preach in Wichita, I urged him to tell you a moving personal story he had told me. I sensed his conflict about something very important: Should the first sermon give an indication of his passion for theological studies, or might you respond better to the intimate personal story?
He chose the story…..and won your hearts on that very first day. We love stories, and we will listen to almost any advice that comes hand in hand with a story from life. I was thinking about this three Sundays ago when he was discussing some ideas he had found exciting in a recent book. Most of his sermon was necessarily analytical and informative, but he knows the heart has to be touched as well as the mind, so he shared a poignant story from the book — and his always attentive audience became even more engaged. It was the story of that mother who came so exhausted from work that the sound of her daughter’s singing was more than she could bear at the moment and she shouted, “Stop that singing. You have an ugly voice. Just stop singing.” And every one of us, in that story moment, got the point of the sermon perfectly: that insensitive words can be unbelievably destructive, can actually change a life forever.
I have mentioned one of America’s most effective preachers, Fred Craddock, who never fails to mix theology with narrative, preaching with storytelling — so much so, and so memorably, that two of his admirers have collected the stories and published them in a recent book. I’d like to with one that illustrates the power of story.
Suppose a preacher wants to discuss the Biblical theme of repentance. He can easily dig up a dozen uses of that word from a concordance, he can read the verse about John’s preaching the baptism of repentance out in the desert, he can pull up the Greek word metanoia and translate it’s meaning as “a change of mind — all of that useful — some of it perhaps even memorable. But if he wants the kind of emotional response that may cause someone to leave that day determined to change his or her mind, then he’s wise to tell how it worked once in somebody’s real life — which is what Fred Craddock chose to do. I want you to hear it now, in his own style, and when it ends, and there is quiet for a moment in this room, I want you to ask yourself which of those different ways of defining what it means to “change your mind” would most likely lodge longest in your heart.
“My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home. Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, ‘I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge, another name, another pledge. Right? Isn’t that the name of it? another name, another pledge.’ That’s what he always said.
“Sometimes we’d have a revival. Pastor would bring the evangelist and say to the evangelist, ‘There’s one now, sic him, get him,’ and my father would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt. And always my father said, ‘The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge.’ I guess I heard it a thousand times.
“One time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital, and he was down to 73 pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and said, ‘It’s too late.’ They put in a metal tube, and X-rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room. Potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards 20 inches deep beside his bed. And even that tray where they put food — if you can eat — on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church.
“He saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote: ‘I was wrong.’
Want an unforgettable definition of repentance? Want to tell a church how powerful its love can be? In the power of story, you just heard both.