Saint Paul and King Lear :: (Finally) a Sermon to Celebrate

In general, and despite the many pastors in my life for whom I have enduring respect, my expectations for any given Sunday’s sermon are low. Ok, very low. My approach is to set the bar so far down that I’m never disappointed. So long as the sermon doesn’t consist entirely of anecdotes from golf, the congregation is not exhorted to recognize the many virtues of our political-economic order, and the scripture readings are not totally negated by explanation, I usually come to the sermon’s end in a placid spirit. I can’t say that I recommend this approach, nor is it very Lutheran of me (the Word, after all, is present in faithful preaching faithfully received), but my Sunday morning realism keeps in check both my ecclesial idealism and the cynicism that is its shadow.

But, to my great surprise and delight, I heard this morning a sermon which brought together the lives of Saint Paul and King Lear in an intelligent and provocative way that also communicated some of the challenges of the Christian gospel. Both Lear and Paul are brought to recognize the meaning in their lives in and through the very transformation in which their lives are dismantled. For Lear, it is Cordelia’s hospitality in the face of his broken destitution that finally exposes the madness of his former pomp and pretense. Likewise, Paul is so stricken on the road to Damascus that he begins preaching in the name of the man whose followers he’d just been persecuting. He finds his identity, by grace, in the midst of the community gathered by God, a community that Paul’s own tireless travels will spread. Life doesn’t end in a tidy manner for either Lear or Paul, but even in their respectively tragic ends, their lives have been redeemed through a transformation that cost them both dearly.

I was left, not only challenged by the message, but grateful for a carefully crafted sermon that rose above the standard fare (without being ostentatiously sophisticated) by encouraging us to read widely and think deeply—precisely as Christians. That happens so seldom in Church that, unfortunately, it catches me by surprise.

6 Replies to “Saint Paul and King Lear :: (Finally) a Sermon to Celebrate”

  1. I’m glad you found yourself challenged by this recent sermon, but I must ask you – as an aspiring theologian, how can you exercise your vocation in such a way as to help pastors preach more faithfully? I don’t mean that in a nasty way, I am just curious because I have heard this same sort of thing from Adam.

    I’m somewhat with you on this one, but having been through the rut of preaching week after week myself, I can’t say I’m entirely sympathetic with your post.

    Not being Lutheran, I don’t know the length of the typical Lutheran sermon, nor am I aware of its place within the overall service. From my experience in more blatant Evangelical settings, I gradually found the institution of the sermon to have many problematic elements. I much prefer the ten to fifteen minute homily, especially within the context of the Divine Liturgy. Of course, a shorter time slot is no guarantee of quality, but it is helpful!

  2. I’ll mitigate that last comment a bit. I often hear theologians talk about “placing themselves at the service of the Church”, a noble aspiration indeed. However, I’m sure it is just as hard not to get caught up in the academic game so as to be of service to pastors as it is for a pastor to get out of the grind of congregational care and administrative duties in order to come up with thought provoking sermons.

    One of my favorite things at Scum was our weekly preaching team. Four or five of us staff members would meet for breakfast, discuss the sermon of whoever had just preached, and then help the person who was two weeks out from preaching shape and craft their message. It was almost always challenging and constructive. What would it look like for a theologian to offer some sort similar service to a pastor? The dynamics might be strange for a while, but if it is done in the context of friendship and support, it might be a cool idea.

    1. Tim,

      No, I don’t think that you’re too far off base.

      I suppose, though, that I am not entirely clear about the precise point at which your sympathy with my post falls off. Do you think that I am (unfairly) expecting that pastors should craft a literary achievement from week to week that challenges the congregation in mind and soul? Do you think that I am acting as a “back pew driver,” grumbling without being willing to do much to help?

      I tried to refrain from being too critical in the post because I know that the range and sheer number of pastoral responsibilities faced in most congregations are indeed overwhelming. And I know that preaching is not every pastor’s main strength—nor should it be!

      As far as my practices go, I make a point of saying something when I hear a genuinely excellent sermon, and every so often (but rarely) I’ll ask a question after a sermon that carries a critical edge (always in private). But for the most part, I try to be helpful in other ways, figuring that if a pastor would like input from me, she can always ask. I don’t want my theological training to be perceived as a threat, like criticism is always lurking on the tip of my tongue. So, honestly, I’ve mostly waited for that context of friendship and support to be initiated from the other side before making my opinions known.

      Btw, the Lutheran sermon tends to be more like a homily, 15 minutes or so, even though Luther has a very high view of preaching. I’ve also grown (as you might guess from the post) to appreciate the shorter sermon.

      Don’t know if that clarifies any thing…

  3. Eric,
    you are one of the most intelligent and thoughtful people I know. You have achieved a level of theological education that surpasses that of 90% of the people in the pews on any given Sunday and are on your way to achieving a level of education that surpasses the requirements for most pastoral positions. I am sympathetic to you in this regard. I am sure that the problem you describe is very real and I don’t want to minimize that. Furthermore, I’m not trying to get on your case for hearing a sermon that you thoroughly enjoyed. I’m glad that you were challenged in a new way! I’ve sat through (and delivered) many sermons that bordered on banality or were overstuffed with sentimental personal anecdotes. Blech! Send that guy (me!) to a homiletics class soon! I too love hearing a great sermon in which the Word is well preached!

    One of the things I most admire about you is that I have never known the above qualities to override your humble and gentle spirit. My sympathy was broken not by the problem you describe, but by your solution. It sounds uncharacteristically condescending. Imagine this scenario: You go to church next Sunday. As you enter the door, you shake hands with the pastor and….

    “Good to see you Pastor. Despite my deep respect for you, I must inform you that in order to maintain a placid spirit and keep my ecclesial idealism in check I’ll be keeping the bar for your sermon low.”

    “Low?”

    “Ok, very low.”

    “Uh, thanks for the confidence boost.”

    I am in agreement that preaching is not nor should be every pastor’s main strength. I somewhat admire churches who have ordained a teaching pastor.

    Anyway, perhaps I am nitpicking what was merely a passing remark meant to give context to the larger post. I just dislike envisioning you sitting through the next 60 years of church with this mindset.

    1. Ok, now it’s quite a bit clearer. Thanks for taking the time to explain. Your scenario makes it evident just where I’m being an ass! And while my remark was meant to give context to the post as an introduction, I said it “publicly” and should be held to account for my words. Hope that I didn’t sound defensive in asking for clarification, it was just that I wrote half a reply and then realized that I didn’t quite understand what I was actually responding to.

      Substantively, the only thing that I would say is that I don’t think of this as some kind of “solution” at all, it’s just the attitude I’ve found myself carrying. Rather than a solution, I’d place it more on the level of a “coping mechanism”—some neurotic habit that enables a social system to function relatively smoothly around its own dysfunctions, but probably isn’t healthy for anyone involved. That my attitude sounds condescending when I bring it to light only demonstrates that outside of the social system where it basically “works” it is, in fact, neurotic.

      At the end of the day, I don’t think my low expectations are all that different from the way in which most people seem to tune the sermon out entirely, or listen at such a superficial level that they won’t remember anything more than the basic theme an hour or two later. Again, not healthy, not good, but seems to be the week-to-week reality for most folks.

      Which is why, no matter how important a sermon may be in the life of a congregation, there are far more important things—like building up the concrete expressions of love within the church and its loving witness to the wider world.

      P.s. thanks for saying all those nice things, as well.

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