Way back in the 1990s I was taught sermon writing 101. It included translating the passage from the original languages; examining the textual criticisms of the text; reviewing the passage in the context of its times (both the time period portrayed and when the text was actually written), reviewing where it is in the book, in the Bible, and the book’s origin; reflecting on it in light of other passages on similar topics in the Bible; reviewing it in light of the other readings for the day; reviewing how the text has been received historically in the church; reviewing what the Reformers had to say about the passage; reviewing how it has been received by current preachers and theologians; and reviewing it in light of the cultural context of the day. It was the perfect prescription of taking sixteen to thirty six hours of sermon preparation – something no church ever affords a minister (or really expects). Nevertheless, I was grateful, I learned much going through all those steps more than a few times.
While I could write about all of the above steps to some degree going into Palm Sunday as I have now been through eighteen Palm Sundays since ordination ~ I find the last step to be one that is most difficult to hone in on. Currently:
~ My denomination (the Presbyterian Church (USA)) has voted to allow congregations that exist in states where same sex marriage is legal, where a gay couple would like to get married, where the church session (church board) is in favor, and the minister is in favor to allow them to do so. The number of congregations that would meet all those criteria is remarkably limited. Nevertheless, this has led to widespread lauding by the largely secular community and younger adults (most of whom do not attend church) and widespread derision by the larger church (most of whom never go to the Presbyterian Church either). We are in the spotlight nevertheless.
~ We are at a point of greater ecological change on this planet than at anytime in my lifetime. This is quantifiable by some of the best minds in the world. Nevertheless, there seems to be no significant plan to address the issue or even passion to do so among many.
~ Our nation is gearing up for another major political campaign already (the 2016 elections) which is likely to increase divisiveness, not unity. This is at a time when I feel our nation is more divided than ever before.
~ The Iraq War, no matter the original intent, seems to have been a domino that began a series of events that is causing significant change throughout the Near East, the Middle East, and Africa. The change probably would have occurred without it but there is no question that our invasion and toppling of Sadaam Hussein began a series of events that is still ongoing. Whatever the long-term outcome, the world we knew is shifting significantly. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel are all major regional players and what we can or even should do now is not clear.
~ The religious sensibilities of Americans seems to be very much in flux. Commitments are not what they were in days gone by. Financial giving to religious institutions and religious causes is not what it was. Churches do not want budgets to define their missions. Nevertheless, bills have to get paid. Convincing people that giving to the local church is important has never been easy but it is growing even more challenging. Also, young people who go to church today twice a month are considered to be very active church people. This is a big contrast with the previous generations, who even up to today, will go to church multiple times in a week (and still give significantly to the church).
~ The Church universal is under mortal threat in many parts of the world today. Yet this gets little coverage or seems to generate much passion in the larger Church (but our denomination’s votes on what stock our pension program holds and who can get married does).
~ Many church members face significant financial or health care or family care issues. They are simply trying to find their own way. They are not looking to go out and convert anyone or try to make the world more Christlike. They are looking on what they need to do to make tomorrow work at home or work or school for them or their loved ones. Many church leaders are worried how to make their local congregations viable. Issues of the larger world are hard to focus on when more immediate issues close to home seem to be pressing. Reassurance of God’s love and active presence are needed now as much as in any time.
I therefore am finding the cultural context to be challenging as I sit down to write Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter sermons and homilies and consider what God’s Word says in our context. Yet, I know this is true for each and every pastor that is out there this week. I also know God’s Holy Spirit surrounds us and Christ himself is with us in the midst of it all.
Pray for Christ’s Church this coming Holy Week and Easter. It is an important time for all of us.
Until next time,