Wednesday, October 6, 2010
The Wrong Story...
I recently did some sermon writing for another publication. I was asked to provide sermon illustrations along with a complete manuscript for the assigned dates. Since I have been a Lutheran Pastor for more than 30 years, I thought this might be an easier task than it ended up being. Preaching is the universal task of the Church and of her preachers but it is also a personal task. The Gospel does not change. The Scripture does not change. The Cross does not change. We preach a changeless Christ to a changing world -- yet the preacher does so through the perspective of his own experience. The story is Christ's and Christ is the story but in telling His story, in speaking Christ, I do so through the lens of my personality and experience.
I found it very difficult to write illustrations that were not borne of my own personal experience. Such an illustration would not have been helpful to those who wanted to use "my" sermon. These illustrations were my experience and for them to claim these stories as their own would be to lie and deceive -- even for the noblest purpose. It was not so difficult to write the sermons since the story is Christ's own story and Christ is the story but the telling of it is a distinctly personal perspective and experience.
Truth be told, I steal stories from others. It is not that I make these stories my own -- I do not claim that they are about me or include me or that I witnessed them. But a good story belongs not just to those who experienced it. Once, I told one of these stories to someone who "owned" the story. He did not reveal this fact to me until I finished. At the end, he asked me where I had heard it. I relayed the background and connection. He then informed me that the story was about him. I began to sweat. Had I betrayed the truthfulness of this story. I honestly did not know since it was "oral" tradition and there was no textbook to check it out. He laughed and told me that I had, in fact, told the story well, just as it happened, and, he suggested, better than he told it... Of course, I told the story as Larry Peters and not as this person (about whom the story was told) but the story was genuine and its facts were kept straight (no doubt due to the person from whom I heard it who was also a part of this story).
The Gospel is a good story. It does not simply belong to those who experienced it. It belongs to the whole world. It is a story begging to be told. But its good effect depends upon telling the story well, just as it happened, without distorting it, changing the facts, or inserting yourself into it (so as to make it about you).
The sermon is one arena in which we walk the fine line of telling Christ's story, telling through our own words, personality, and experiences -- yet faithfully -- without inserting ourselves into the story, detracting from Christ or uprooting the story from its historical event and factual character. At the same, we are not drones who mouth the same words in such way that they are foreign to us, as if we presume to speak an alien tongue by memorizing a set of sounds. The same it true of each individual Christian's witness to the world -- it walks the line between spouting a set hermetically sealed propositions or facts on one hand and the other failing of making the story ours so that we are its center and it is really about us.
There are sermons that are disappointingly predictable. Week after week we hear them. You were bad. God is good. God forgave your sin in Christ so that you could go to heaven. Amen. No matter how interesting you might make it, this is not what preaching is about -- telling the same story every week by rehearsing a set of facts or truth propositions. There are sermons that are truly exciting and surprising. Week after week we hear them. But the cross and Christ play such a small part in these compelling stories that they are no longer the Gospel -- these are stories about us in which we are have the major parts and we direct what it says and how it ends. Both the decision orienting preaching of some and the fix up your life to make you happier preaching of others falls into this same trap of displacing Christ from His own story. In the end both are the wrong stories.
I speak not as an expert in this but as a student who every week must face 300 folks and ask myself if I told Christ's story so that the story is Christ -- yes through the person of Larry Peters but not in such a way that I have hijacked the story to make it about me or told it in such a sanitary way that its facts and truth have not touched me first.
Both in the formal proclamation of the pulpit and in the informal witness of the Christian, God has given us a marvelous opportunity to tell the story of Christ where Christ is the story and yet to do it within the framework of our own personalities, experiences, vocabularies, and illustrations... just like He did when He gave us His Word -- not as a mechanical conveyor of a sterile truth but the story told by a real life person, with all the weaknesses and strengths of that individual. For this opportunity, we need be thankful, need work to be faithful, and need to make sure that we are not telling the wrong story or telling it so that the teller is the star and not the Christ whose story it is and who is the story.