Monday, October 14, 2013

Itching Ears Make for Lousy Preaching

A word to preachers this week: start with the reading from 2 Timothy.

On Mondays, I read the lessons for the upcoming Sunday. I start with the collect, which usually sets the mood for the rest of the readings. Next I read the Gospel lesson. That’s most likely where a sermon will come from, so I read it and allow it to shape how I read the other texts. Then I move to the Old Testament reading. I usually skim through the psalm (though this week’s caught my eye for a closer reading). And finally I get to the Epistle lesson. By then, I’m usually pretty well read-out. Of all the lessons, the one most likely to catch me by surprise on Sunday morning (which means I didn’t read it carefully enough during the week) is the Epistle lesson.

Don’t make that mistake this week. Start with 2 Timothy. Let it shape how you read everything else.

It’s a short but powerful reading. Paul is encouraging his friend and colleague Timothy, who is trying to shepherd the saints in Ephesus. Being the Christian leader in a huge Roman city        on the coast with its wild and eclectic residents and visitors was a tremendous challenge, and Paul wanted Timothy to remain steadfast and hopeful. His instructions seem particularly appropriate for a twenty-first century preacher.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

“I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (2 Timothy 3:2-4)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a few conversations with colleagues and parishioners about the nature of the preacher as prophet. On the golf course with some other clergymen, one of them remarked, “When you’re called to a church, remain faithful and, in time, God will make it grow.” The emphasis in his comment was on faithfulness—the minister’s responsibility to keep the faith. A few days later, someone asked about clergy getting fired. I remarked that in the Episcopal Church it takes both the bishop and the vestry to forcibly remove a rector but also that once either one is ready to get rid of you you’re in trouble. I suppose historically that has been so that preachers can proclaim God’s word in all its sharpness without fear of being fired, but nowadays it seems to have more to do with preventing rapid turnover than preserving the preacher’s purview.

That line about “itching ears” really gets me. Indeed, the time is coming (and has come) when people choose teachers that suit their own desires. (Have you watched any of the cable news channels lately?) That happens in secular and religious circles. Churches call clergy who will preach the gospel they are familiar with. Sure, we all want to be stretched a little bit, but search committees usually pick people who teach and preach with words that soothe their ears rather than shock them. How many of us are serving in churches that called us because they like what we teach or preach? How many of us preach or teach what people want to hear? That’s dangerous.

My encouragement to myself and to my other colleagues preaching this week is to read the lesson from 2 Timothy often and let it sink in deeply. Only when we feel encouraged to preach the gospel in all its power should we look at the rest. How might that change the way we read (and preach) the parable in the reading from Luke? How might that change how we understand Jacob’s struggle with God, angel, and humanity in the reading from Genesis?

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