Beyond self-help chatter
David Neff describes what happens when preachers forget to connect a text to the bigger story and instead trivialize the text, as he discovered while visiting a church on vacation:
The Old Testament reading from Exodus 3 told the story of Moses at the burning bush. There God reveals to Moses how he plans to fulfill the pledge he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by using Moses to liberate their descendants from slavery. God not only renews his pledge in this story, he reveals his ineffable name. This is a pivot point in the Bible, a hinge on which the door of sacred history swings.But the preacher existentialized and trivialized it. He talked not about the doors of history but of life's stages. Moses was afraid to walk through the door set before him, the preacher said, but he walked through it anyway. We too face doors that we must walk through. End of message. No God. No divine plan revealed. No theophany. Just stages in the life cycle.The bulletin promised a different preacher for the next Sunday, so I came back.The next Sunday's Old Testament lesson recounted the voice of God speaking out of the whirlwind to Job. In Job 38, God asks Job if he knows who "shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb" and where he was when God "prescribed bounds for" the sea "and said, 'Thus far shall you come – and here shall your proud waves be stayed'?" The Gospel lesson was from Mark 4, in which Jesus stills a storm on the lake and the awe-struck disciples wonder aloud, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?"The Scripture leaflet in the church bulletin placed this title over the Gospel story: "Jesus stills the storm and shows that he is Lord of all creation." Mark took this event as a theophany. But the preacher took it as a story about our anxieties when we travel, and offered us a lame joke about a woman who was not comforted by knowing that three bishops were flying on her airplane. The sermon may have soothed some fears, but theologically it crashed and burned. I didn't come back the third Sunday.
There's a better way. "Not every sermon needs to rehearse this history," Neff writes, "but every preacher should keep in mind that each scriptural passage is a part of the whole, a whole that has a narrative shape and that moves toward the End."