Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Sit-Com and the Sermon

I enjoy a good sit-com. Thirty minutes of laughing at people that are even less competent than me does my self-esteem a lot of good. Almost all comedy is rooted in creating the feeling that we are superior to someone else. (pay attention to what makes you laugh over time, you’ll see there’s a lot of truth in that last statement.) The key ingredients to a really good sit-com are these:

1) the stars are in a problem situation that they really had to be less competent than me to get into
2) they make even more stupid errors and comments as they try to resolve the problem
3) they do manage to get out of the problem just before the 30 minute show is over

It actually reminds me of most sermons. Generally, in order to make a worthwhile point, the problem has to be caricatured. “Abortion is killing a baby. Only God should have that right” is a caricature of the problem. It doesn’t recognize that a 14 year old girl was raped by her uncle. It doesn’t recognize that the amniocentesis shows that the child cannot possibly live outside the womb. But it makes a much better sound bite, and in the 30 – 45 minutes the sermonizer is allotted, he cannot realistically consider all the points. He is forced to caricature the arguments in order to reach the third goal of a good show. He cannot address the fact that “the pill” is little more than an abortion of an already fertilized egg. The problem must be resolved.

The sermonizer will say, “John the Baptist leapt in the womb when
Elizabeth met the pregnant Mary, so we KNOW that he was a person.” But Jesus said the rocks would cry out in praise to him, would that mean the rocks were human? Whether it’s a valid argument or not isn’t debated or discussed, it’s made and accepted because it gives the 30 minute conclusion we all crave.

The sermonizer will say that God formed all people in the womb, and knew them before they were born. I agree, but I think God also formed and “knew” the chicken I ate for supper last night (and the broccoli if you are a vegetarian). I don’t think that makes either of them human life.

Because the community gatherings of Christians have fallen into the pattern of a sermonizer condensing all pertinent truth on a topic to 30 - 60 minutes of powerful problem solving and entertainment, most sermons can only be contrived caricatures and partial truths. I think we like them because of that. When a difficult situation is simplified to a caricature we can see what the awful people do, and we can see what the good people do. Armed with that information we can align ourselves with the good people, feel appropriately superior to the awful people and resolve the whole problem in one simple sit-com, er, I mean church service.

When was the last time you heard a sermonizer raise a major question or problem and then say, “I don’t really have any good, clear, consistent answer to this. I sure hope you can help me figure it out. Let’s close in prayer.” If you’ve ever heard it, I think you would agree you have rarely heard it. Why? If a sermonizer didn’t give an answer or at least a tentative, suggested answer, the people would be hugely disappointed, and the sermonizer would feel inadequate. We must not permit either of those feelings to exist in a “happy place” like church.

What about these answers? “I have been able to see both bad outcomes in a good light, but I can’t decide which one I want” (Paul in Philippians 1). It would make for a very unsatisfying sermon. Or, “having problems is really good for us, so let’s just relax and learn to live comfortably in the middle of helplessness and pain” (James 1). Not a popular conclusion.

This week I talked with a friend because he and his wife were in a major conflict. They heard a powerful sermon about living beneath your means so that you can be more generous with others in need (clearly a Biblical concept). But she wanted to reduce their expenses, while he wanted to slash their expenses and sell everything. He was feeling like he had heard from God and had figured out the right path for the family while she was opposing him. (Please note that this subtly implied that she was aligned against God, and therefore alligned with Satan. My friend was too wise and kind to ever think that, but he didn't realize that his viewpoint inherently implied it.)
The sermonizer could not possibly have foreseen that he would have been wise to temper his sermon with a caveat that you must love and sacrifice to give to your spouse and family first (Is. 58:3-7, I Tim. 5:8, not to mention I Peter 3:7).

I don’t think this is the sermonizers fault. It is impossible to adequately address all aspects of truth in a 30-45 minute sermon. (At Pentecost Peter may have gotten close, but his only real point was, Jesus is God. It’s a great point, but it left a lot of questions unanswered.) I think it is the fault of the church in general. The church has come to see the sermon as an authoritative source of information for all of life. It is not. It cannot be. It was never intended to be. We ask too much of what is little more than a sound bite.

Now, I would appreciate it if no-one would accuse me of tackling an important topic such as the sociological failure of the role of sermons in the modern church in much less than 30 minutes. I make no pretense that this should be authoritative for anybody. I also make no claim that it is thorough.

I suggest you do a small bit of research. Ask 100 Christians if the most profound moment of spiritual realization in their life came while listening to a sermon. You will find that it’s not the norm. My most profound moments have been in private prayer, during worship choruses, and in one-on-one or small group dialogue.

My church doesn’t have sermons any more (makes you wonder what they pay me for, doesn’t it?). We have discussions. Sometimes it’s more funny than a sit-com. Sometimes we end up with no resolution to the problem (we got lot’s of ideas and thoughts about the matter, but no solid conclusions). I hope we NEVER put the presumption of authority on what we discover in our discussions and I hope we remember that the relationships we are shaping in our discussions are more central to our walk with Christ than any “truth” we may discern.

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