Years ago, I subscribed to “Preaching Today.” They would mail out a monthly tape cassette with two sermons. Between them were workshops and interviews that were quite helpful. There I found two great preachers and teachers who influenced me both as a preacher and a leader. One was Fred Craddock. I used his book “Preaching” in workshops and when I taught preaching at the Stanton Center in Dallas. My favorite, however, remains Bruce Thielemann. If you have never heard one of his sermons, do a web search and listen. You will be richly rewarded. He not only preached well, he also helped many of us learn the power of the pulpit in the arsenal of the clergy leader.
Here are some important things that I learned from Thielemann.
Christianity is about BIG and IMPORTANT things. Do not waste your time explaining minor points from this Sunday’s lectionary. Preaching allows us to set the main agenda and what is demanded from us as Christians and as the Church.
I add a subset to this by always reminding Episcopal Clergy that if we don’t preach on the mission of THE church and our mission as a congregation, no one else will. And guess what, once a year is not enough to communicate its importance.
Thielemann taught that our 15 to 20 minutes in the pulpit is an incredible opportunity for the preacher to be both a pastor and spiritual director to our people. What did he mean?
Thielemann pointed out that folks in our congregations suffer from a relatively common list of problems and affections. For examples:
Relationship issues; love, betrayal, forgiveness, dysfunctional behavior, revenge, resentment
Addiction, either in ourselves or in those we love
Depression and its opposite, anxiety
Grief and loss
You get the idea. Then he would point out that the Scriptures are ripe with examples and stories that touch on these topics. He suggested that the wise pastor should make a list of these maladies and periodically ask if our preaching helps those afflicted with these issues. Sure, there are great saints who have wrestled with “the dark night of the soul,” but congregationally speaking, not so much. However, depression? You can count on it!
He added to this what we Episcopalians would call “Spiritual Direction.” If we conceptualize any way of understanding spiritual growth, we realize that we have many parishioners moving along this path. We need to ask if we are helping them take that next step or even know there is a next step. C.S. Lewis pointed out that Jesus offered unconditional forgiveness to the woman taken in adultery, but he demanded something of the rich young ruler. Jesus understood that people need different directions based on where they were at that moment in their relationship to Christ.
I hear a great deal of preaching in TEC about inclusiveness, grace, and unconditional love. But Jesus didn’t say to James and John, “You fisherman understand that God loves you just the way you are? Have a nice day fishing.” He called them to intentional and sacrificial discipleship. Many in our churches need to hear that call.
This is how I ended my sermon on the 1st Sunday of Lent in my home congregation this year.
“We Episcopal Clergy often suggest that our people give up and/or take on something for Lent. Most of these things, if we think about it, generally benefit us. Wouldn’t all of us be better off having a little bit more of quiet time? The problem is that this makes Christianity about what we do, not who we are. If we really want to revolutionize our spiritual life this Lent, why not ask ourselves a much more penetrating question? How am I not yet the person that God has called me to be in Christ? Of course, this will require repentance and amendment of life, but you see Christianity is not about doing something, it is about being someone!
What does all this have to do with our leadership? I can tell you. The Priest who keeps the big issues before our people, demonstrates our compassion and love by addressing their wounds and hurts, and who applies the appropriate spiritual direction to the souls committed to our care, gain a place of influence in their hearts. John Maxwell said it often and best, “They don’t care what you know till they know that you care.”
Bruce Thielemann understood this and we should too.