Thursday, September 3, 2015

Preaching Advice


On Sunday we have a problem. Our epistle lesson will include the most famous line from the Book of James--"Faith without works is dead"--which begs for an explanation, but, as I've written all week, the gospel lesson--"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs"--demands the attention of most preachers. It is a mistake to let James' confounding statement on faith and works go by without comment, but, if I were preaching (and I'm not), I'd still tackle the gospel lesson. Today, therefore, I want to say a word about James. But first, a story...

The evening before I was due to report to VTS for my final year of seminary, I preached a sermon at my sending parish in Birmingham, Alabama. I had been invited to preach at the Sunday night service, but, given that I was due in Alexandria, Virginia, at noon the next day, it was highly inconvenient. Still, it was the only such invitation I had ever received, and I wasn't about to miss it.

The 5pm service is a casual Eucharist with a band that leads the congregation in music that in our diocese is primarily associated with the Cursillo movement. It's upbeat and folksy--not exactly what I'd call "contemporary Christian," but certainly not 17th-century German hymns. I don't recall wearing vestments (i.e. cassock and surplice). I knew my presentation needed to be "accessible," so I didn't write out my text--only used notes. I thought it went well, but, then again, I was a third-year seminarian who thought all my sermons went well (though I would probably cringe if I heard them again). As the service ended, I more or less bolted for the door since a 12-hour drive still waited.

Before I left, though, the Dean asked to speak with me for a moment--he had something important to tell me. My heart raced. My diocese had made it clear to me that I probably wouldn't have a job there when I finished. The Dean was my only real hope in finding a job, and I expected that he might have a lead for me. When he began to speak, though, my dreams were crushed. "Let me give you a little preaching advice," he said. "Don't try to preach more than one sermon at a time. Just say one thing. Your sermon had two or three main points, and it left the congregation a little confused." I was heartbroken. Not only was it not the vocational assistance I had hoped for, but ten minutes after a preacher delivers a sermon is not the right time to offer a critique in any circumstance--especially when that preacher is a third-year seminarian. Yes, it was good advice, but I was so angry at the Dean that it took me a year or so to accept his advice.

Fast-forward seven or eight years. Our diocese (yes, same one) hosted Tom Long as the speaker at one of our quarterly clergy gatherings. He came and gave a presentation on preaching, which I found fascinating, enlivening, and helpful. Among the many things I took away from his teaching was an invitation to do the exact opposite of what the Dean had told me. He said, "Augustine used to preach several sermons all at the same time, directing each part to the appropriate audience--some non-believers, some proselytes, some mature Christians, others falling away from the faith. Don't be afraid to address different parts of your congregation in the same sermon."

It was revelatory. "You mean to tell me that the Dean was wrong, and I've been preaching up the wrong tree ever since?" Well, not really. Most of the time--given the audience in our congregation--it's right to preach one sermon with one message. But occasionally the congregation is more diverse than that. And, more importantly, sometimes the same passage says different things to different people. And this Sunday is one of those Sundays, and I think the best way to tackle James 2 is with a multi-pronged approach.

I'll skip all the Lutheran "epistle of straw" rhetoric and jump straight to the application. James is a beautiful, wonderful, powerful text aimed directly at a particular group of people. If you read the whole book in one sitting--I highly recommend it--I believe this becomes clear. These Christians were clear in their minds that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the central moment in salvation history. As the author expresses in 1:2-4, this was, for them, a given: "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." Those words are not for people who have no clear direction in their troubles. This is not a letter written to a community that needs a message of hope. They already had that message of hope. They needed help with the application.

The community to which James wrote needed help remembering that the good news of Jesus Christ is a life-changing testimony. They were a social mess. They reserved places of honor for the rich while excluding the poor, forcing them to sit on the floor or stand up in the back of church. He wrote, "Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?...If you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors." Favoritism, discrimination, and exclusion are incompatible with the gospel. That seems clear enough. Those of us who follow Christ are called to a specific lifestyle. The call to holiness is nearly universal in the books of the New Testament. James' words should not surprise us. But, as in all things, when his message is distilled to its absolute purist form, it can easily be mistaken for something else: "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."

James is not offering a reprioritization of faith beneath works. He does not suggest that works are necessary for salvation. He is making a descriptive statement--not a prescriptive one. And that's where the preacher needs to be clear. That's the opportunity for multiple sermons at the same time. Here's what that might look like.
  • Faith without works is dead. If you're confident in your faith, if the gospel of Jesus Christ is the focus of your life, if you know what it means to be forgiven and transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, let James' words sink in. Ask yourself what difference the gospel makes in your daily life. If you aren't being drawn deeper and deeper into the self-sacrificing love of Jesus, recommit yourself to the gospel and let its seeds bear fruit in your life. Commit to a life of discipleship.
  • Faith without works is dead. But if you don't know the life-giving, life-freeing, life-redeeming love of God in Jesus Christ, put James' words on a shelf and come back to them later. Although you're welcome to read and study and ponder his words, keep in mind that he wasn't writing to you or to people like you. Consider, instead, an axiom he very well might have used: works without faith are dead. Start with the basics. Remember that God loves you no matter what you do, no matter where you are, no matter what you believe. But anticipate that God's love won't leave you there. It will take you and transform you.
  • Faith without works is dead. If you're somewhere in the middle--you consider yourself a Christian but aren't really sure what difference that makes in your life--think about James' words as a sign on a ski slope. You get to choose which slope you ski down. If you're an intermediate skier like me, you might enjoy the black diamond as a way of stretching you and making you a better skier, or you might want to head down the blue slope, where you can enjoy the speed and confidence of being within your depth. Ask yourself how James' words sound. Are they an invitation to deepen the faith you already have? If so, take them on. See how they might draw you closer to God. Or do they seem to be leading you toward greater frustration--an endless cycle of trying harder but not getting closer. If so, leave them be. You need to remind yourself that your works don't matter to God--only to you. God loves you regardless of your works--regardless of the discipleship you practice.
I suspect that most people in our congregation are in that third category. We know who Jesus is. We know that God loves us no matter what. But whether we hear James' instruction as a Spirit-inspired invitation to gospel-centered, grace-filled discipleship or a frustrating call to try harder to make God love us more isn't clear. It's both things at the same time. Why would the preacher pretend that James' words aren't doing both things to our congregation simultaneously?

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