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You ARE His Witnesses

I had a chance to sit down with a preacher after I listened to his sermon. I find the conversation about preaching can be fascinating, and really helpful for those who face the art, craft, and challenge of preaching on a regular basis.

The text for the sermon came from the assigned readings for Ascension, which we celebrated on a Sunday. With all of the stuff going on in those texts, you have to narrow the scope from what you could say, to what you are going to say. Hearing the thinking behind this sermon preparation process helps preachers refine their own process; and it helps hearers better understand what goes into what they hear on Sunday morning.

In the following interview, Pastor Matt Hein and I talk about how he chose the text to preach on and how he decided to shape the sermon the way he did. You will hear us talk about the structure of the sermon (the way the sermon experience is shaped over time) as well as different moments of reflection within the sermon.

The structure for this particular sermon is called Frame and Refrain, which you can read more about here. This kind of sermon begins with a story or image that helps shape a central thought for the hearers and leads to a clear expression of the theme. That theme is repeated as a refrain several times during the sermon, and the original story or image is repeated at the end of the sermon, and therefore frames the entire presentation.

Although the interview talks a lot about the structure of the sermon and how it worked, you will also hear other important preaching themes: how do you use a personal story from another person’s experience? How do you preach sanctification? How do you approach the text as a hearer first, and secondly as a preacher? These conversations flow naturally from the discussion of the preacher’s experience of the preaching event.

Check out the video and then watch the sermon, below.

 

 

Now that you have heard what the preacher had in mind during the preparation of the sermon, listen for those dynamics in the sermon below. As you listen, also pay attention the the way metaphor gets used not to structure the progression of the sermon but as part of the development. You can hear the basic metaphor moves of Evoking the Source, Mapping to the Target, Testing the Limits, and Seeing with a New Lens, especially in the discussion of witnesses and what makes them credible.

Every sermon brings a wide range of dynamics to bear on the preacher, the hearer, and the community. How do you experience sermons on a regular basis? How does learning more about the sermon writing process help you be a better hearer? I find the more I process a sermon with a few other people, either as a preacher or as a hearer, the better I am able to identify what Jesus is speaking into my life and what kind of response He is shaping in me.

 

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The Dead Sea and the River of Life

by Justin Rossow

The following sermon is based on the vision recorded in Ezekiel 47:1-12. Revelation 22:1-7a and John 4 were also used in worship that day.

We often think of metaphor as using something we know to help us understand something we don’t know. While that may often be the case, it’s hardly a fast rule and has very little to do with identifying what a metaphor is or how it works.

Metaphor is talking about, experiencing, or reasoning through one thing in terms of something else. As far as metaphor is concerned, we can borrow inferences and logic from an unknown and apply it to a known just as easily as the other way around.

In the case of this sermon, I am using something my hearers don’t know a lot about—a vision from Ezekiel and geographic data about the Dead Sea—and using it to shape how they experience something they know well—their own sin and the forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ.

The sermon itself is structured as a Four Page sermon, moving from (1) the Trouble in the Text to (2) the Trouble in the World, followed by (3) Grace in the Text and (4) Grace in the World. In this kind of sermon structure, the experience of Law and Gospel are divided fairly equally in the major sections of the sermon (unlike other structures, where Law and Gospel may be experienced from within each of the moves of the sermon).

In this case, Ezekiel’s vision of the river of life flowing from the Temple of God and transforming the Dead Sea is used as the central image of the text. And, even though the sermon progresses in the Four Pages structure, you can still identify the metaphor dynamics of Evoking the Source, Mapping to the Target, and Seeing through a New Lens.

Here, then, is the sermon.

Sermon Introduction: Evoke the Source

2,600 feet above sea level: that’s how high you would be if, at the time of Ezekiel, you were standing at the top of the broad staircase that led up to the Temple of God in Jerusalem.

From this height, you can go down, down the steps of the Temple, down Temple Mount, down through the city of Jerusalem, down the Kidron Valley, down through the hill Country of Judea, down through the desert region of the Arabah, down into the Jordan River Valley, down, down, down, down, down …

From 2,600 feet above the Mediterranean Sea at the Temple, to 1400 feet below sea level, you have gone down 4,000 feet. You have traveled about twenty miles East and South and three quarters of a mile straight down, to the lowest land elevation on the planet.

And there in the depths, at the lowest point on earth, you find a lake of salt we know as the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is over eight times saltier than the ocean, so full of salt that there are no fish. There are no frogs. There are no snakes. So full of salt, that there is no grass. There is no seaweed. There is no life.

The Dead Sea lives up to its name.

If you or anyone you know has ever been, you probably know it’s easy to float in the Dead Sea. The water is almost 1/3 salt, so even a bowling ball will float! (And by that I don’t mean a person shaped like a bowling ball; I man an actual bowling ball!)

It sounds fun, but if you go, keep your head above water. They say the salt fiercely burns your eyes, and the taste is not just salty, it’s terribly bitter!

The thing I find most startling about the Dead Sea is this: no matter how much fresh water flows into it from the Jordan River or one of its tributaries—no matter how much fresh water pours in, the Dead Sea remains DEAD.

Trouble in the Text: Map to the Target (1)

In our text for today, Ezekiel sees a vision of the Dead Sea. Ezekiel and his people knew about the Dead Sea. They had experience with the Dead Sea. Maybe they even floated in the Dead Sea! And they knew first hand how dead their own spiritual lives could be.

You see, Ezekiel is a priest who should have ministered in the Temple of God in Jerusalem, except that he was with the first wave of Israelites taken into exile in Babylon. Because these people had persistently and relentlessly turned away from the loving embrace of their God, finally, finally, finally, God’s judgment spilled over and washed them away.

Destruction. Captivity. Death. Ezekiel speaks God’s Word to God’s people stuck in the lowest point of their history as a nation. And his word of judgment on the people and their trust in external religiosity is harsh indeed.

According to God’s Word spoken through the prophet Ezekiel, this first wave of exile would not be the last. The city of Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed. And the Temple of God, the sign of the presence of the Living One in the midst of His people, even the Temple itself would be toppled to the ground.

Like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley filled with dry bones, like the view standing on the shore of a sea of salt brimming with poison, there is nothing on the horizon but death.

The righteous judgment of the Almighty burns their eyes and is bitter to the tongue. And nothing they do, no matter how hard they work or how many vows they take, no matter how much they try to change themselves, the Dead Sea remains dead.

Trouble in the World: See Through a New Lens (1)

Maybe you know something of what that feels like. Maybe you have experienced the bitter taste of a failed relationship, a relationship you swore would be different this time! And you worked so hard to be better and kinder and more loving. And you thought you did everything right. Yet the same old patterns of distrust and anger and lies cannot be so easily washed away.

And it’s bitter, O so bitter, when you pour yourself into a relationship and it’s not enough. No matter how much you try to change, you can feel the relationship beginning to wither, and even die.

Or maybe you know what it’s like when the salt of your own tears fiercely burns your eyes. When the diagnosis that seemed so promising has turned grey and hopeless. And after you have tried every medical solution, and explored homeopathic remedies, and prayed and prayed and prayed, and your church prayed, and all your Facebook friends prayed, but nothing you do can change the harsh reality of a terminal diagnosis. You once had hope, but now all you can see is destruction, captivity, death.

Or maybe you know what it’s like to turn your back on God. To make vow after vow to change your attitude or behavior only to break every one. Maybe you’ve gotten caught up in a religion of externals that trusts more in the worship service you perform than the God who wants to meet you there. Perhaps faith has again become stale and salty–turgid, brackish–and your faith feels like it’s about to die.

And no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want to feel refreshed and renewed, no matter how many Bible study helps you use or spirituality books you buy, you just can’t escape the reality of your own sin. You used to think sin was just your bad habits, and now you suspect it’s your way of life.

And when you reach that low point, when you have gone down, down, down, away from God’s Temple, away from God’s presence, away from God’s promise, you find yourself looking at a horizon of hopelessness, a sea of death.

Grace in the Text: Map to the Target (2)

Ezekiel preached to a people who knew the burn of tears in their eyes and the bitter taste of judgment on their lips. Ezekiel’s vision was expressly given to people who were experiencing death—spiritual, physical, relational death—in their lives and in their bodies.

For the sake of these people who were experiencing death, God takes Ezekiel in the Spirit back home from exile, into a future where the Temple has already been restored, where judgment has already been reversed.

There, Ezekiel himself sees a vision of pure, fresh water, at first just a trickle, coming out from under the threshold of the Temple, from the very dwelling place of the LORD Most High.

As that trickle works it’s way down the Temple steps and through the streets of Jerusalem, the trickle begins to deepen. By the time Ezekiel leaves the city, it swirls around his ankles. By the time he crosses the Kidron Valley, it’s around his knees. As he walks through the Hill Country of Judea, it’s up to his waist.

Down, down, down, the grace of God flows, until by the time it reaches the banks of the Dead Sea, the water from the throne of God is a rushing torrent, a powerful flood that Ezekiel cannot hope to cross.

And unlike anything else in the history of the Dead Sea, this time, this time the fresh water wins! This time the flood of grace makes the change no human effort could effect! This time the living water from the presence of God transforms the lowest place on earth.

Where there was only salt, the fishermen now cast their nets; where there was only death, now trees on both sides of the river bear fruit for life and leaves for healing. Where there was only a valley of dry, dead bones, where poison and barren emptiness had dominated the landscape, now God Himself brings forth renewal, refreshment, life!

Grace in the World: See Through a New Lens (2)

Do you see? Do you understand? That’s not just a vision for ancient Israel. That’s you! That’s your story! That’s the depth of your sin and the barren landscape of your life! And no matter how hard you try, you can’t make yourself better, you can’t dilute the poison, you can’t bring life from the waters of death.

But Ezekiel has a vision to share with you today, even as your eyes burn from the salt of your tears, even with the bitter taste of judgment still on your lips.

Ezekiel looks up and sees water, life-giving water, trickling down from the very presence of the Almighty God.  Down it flows from the steps of the Temple, into the Temple court where Jesus is teaching: “The water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Down the water runs, down to the edge of the Kidron Valley, around the base of Skull Hill, where Jesus is raised by a cross in death. As the Savior is lanced with a Roman spear, blood and life-giving water flows.

Down, down, it courses,
through the Hill Country of Judea, where Jesus was born in a Bethlehem stall,
down through the desert region of the Arabah, where Jesus went toe to toe with the Tempter for you and won,
down into the Jordan River Valley, where Jesus joins the waters of your baptism to His own saving mission,
down, down, down the grace of God flows until it is a relentless river, an overwhelming current, a powerful flood.

And when the water of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ gushes into the lowest part of your life and the deadest corner of your soul, an amazing thing happens: life.

Life! Full and abundant and teaming and free. What you could not by your own effort effect for yourself, the grace of God washes over you in a torrent of tender love.

Gone the judgment. Gone the pain. Gone the separation. Gone the death. A vision of a promise so powerful, that even though it will not bet finally and completely fulfilled until death is washed away forever, already now we experience the shock wave of this eternal transformation.

Already now, relationships begin to heal. Already now, tears are wiped from faces. Already now, sins are fully and freely washed away.

Conclusion:

By the waters of your baptism, the eternal river of life determines your reality already now far more than any sea of death ever could.

Already now, you have been buried with Christ by baptism into death and raised with Him to newness of life. Already now, you have received the sign of the cross on your forehead and on your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ, the crucified. Already now, you have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

So that just as much as the vision of the prophet Ezekiel is meant for your present, so also the vision of the apostle John defines YOUR future:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”

“Look, I am coming soon!”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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Heading in the Right Direction

Metaphors shape the way we think. Metaphors shape how we make decisions. Metaphors allow us to experience one thing in terms of something else.

The following is a sermon produced by a student in a course I teach on metaphor theory. The assignment was to put the basic elements of metaphor theory to use in a sermon.

In this case, the fairly broad conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY is used to think through a text from Galatians 5:1, 13-25. The preacher spends almost half of the sermon developing the logic and inference structures in the source domain of Road Trip (a kind of JOURNEY) so that the logic of driving, distractions, and mile markers can be applied via Galatians 5 to the lives of the hearers.

I like what he did here.

He starts with Evoking the Source in a couple of different storied settings with a particular emphasis on the conclusions he is able to draw from his experience of journey. Then he combines Mapping to the Target and Seeing with a New Lens: he identifies connection points and develops the reasoning from the source in the realm of the target.

That mapping of reasoning and inference is one of the strengths of preaching metaphor: what seems natural and obvious in the Source will seem natural and obvious in the Target. This sermon puts that dynamic of metaphor to good use.

The only metaphor move the student left out of this sermon is Testing the Limits. And that move is not always necessary. For more on preaching metaphor, go here.

Below is the student sermon. I bolded important phrases and added brief section headers. Try applying this technique either to a whole sermon or to one section within a different sermon structure. And if you do, focus on what makes the logic of the source available for reasoning in the target.

Evoke the Source (Part 1)

Describe the Source (in this case, JOURNEY) in such a way that the hearers not only identify a specific domain of knowledge and experience, but can begin to reason in terms of the dynamics of this domain.

It should be impossible to ever get lost in today’s world. Technology makes available to us information that would have taken a map, a compass, a calculator and a pen and paper to figure out. Now instead I simply have to punch in my destination and listen to a polite voice direct me straight to my destination.

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 4.08.55 PMIf you are like me you like to see where you are going. I always find it easier to get back to a place once I’ve been there at least once. Just look it up on google and not only can you see it on a map, but you can see a satellite image of the area. Even more than that, for many locations you can zoom all the way in and get a street view of the location. You can even look around, rotate the camera, and figure out where you want to park, all from the comfort of your own desk chair.   So how is it that somehow I still manage to lose my way sometimes?

With this much technology at our disposal to help us reach our destination, there seems to be even more trying to direct us elsewhere. Driving from my vicarage in Des Moines to visit my, then fiancé now wife, in Chicago I would be on 80 and 88 for most of the trip. So I’m in my car for about five hours traveling through western Iowa and eastern Illinois.

These are not typically considered hot spots for excitement or entertainment. There were in fact some cases where it would just be myself, a semi, and a farmhouse, that and a whole lot of corn. But then an exit would come up, and the signs would start. Some were helpful, mile markers, the exit number, but most, most were trying to tell me about the world’s largest thimble, or the world’s largest truck stop.

Some signs were full of color, some used clever phrases, others were videos playing short, silent commercials on massive screens. All were designed with one thing in mind, to get me to pull off the road. (The world’s largest truck stop did manage to pull me away a couple times, their sign said they had a Wendy’s and I just couldn’t say no to spicy chicken nuggets.)

Distractions abound and before we know it we have taken one turn too many looking for the world’s greatest doughnuts, and now we’re trying to figure out if we took one left and a right or two lefts. But that’s alright, because we have our GPS, and it will never fail us.

Evoke the Source (Part 2)

At least that was my confidence when a group of friends and I were driving across Germany. We knew the number of the highway, we knew the name of the town where we were heading and the signs were fairly intuitive but like any car trip we needed to eventually stop to get gas. It was getting late and was already dark outside, but the gas station itself was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was so bright though it was difficult to see anything other than what was lit up.

This stop off was huge, too; it had two levels, a hotel, and so getting back in our car we took a look at the GPS to see how much farther we had to go. Just a couple more hours, but in order to get back on the road it said we had to wind down to the other level and that from there we could get back on the highway.

So I listened. I wound the car around and found myself on an onramp, saw the headlights of the cars on the autobahn in front of me a hundred yards away, and started speeding up. As I slowly curved along the onramp a guardrail suddenly appeared directly across the ramp in front of me.

Some burned rubber, a couple words that aren’t in the bible, and our little Ford Fiesta came to stop just feet from the rail. In the moment of silence that followed, our GPS in a very polite British accent informed us to go straight, merge onto highway. Sometimes sources that appear to be well informed can still lead us astray even in moments where we think we know exactly where we are.

So how do we find out whether or not we are going the right way? Those mile markers and exit signs I mentioned briefly, those signs we usually just ignore because they are so plain and boring, those are the same signs that let us know where we are and whether or not we are heading in the right direction. Chicago, 100 miles. Berlin, 250 km.

These signs aren’t flashy, they aren’t usually all that colorful, they are plain and simple. They are, however, clearly understood and clearly visible. Turn right, I 80 east, and I know where to go. And in the worst case scenario, I ask for directions. And let’s admit some of us might struggle with this more than others, but when it comes down to it, hearing directions can be the quickest way to get us back on track.

Map to the Target and See with a New Lens

Help the hearers see how the narrative relationships and inferences available in the Source Domain not only correspond to aspects of the Target Domain, but show how they help us think about, make decisions about, and experience the Target Domain differently.

A. Distractions

In our text, we find Paul encouraging and warning the Galatians. His warnings are directed against the desires of the flesh, because they seek to guide them away from the Spirit. How often is this the case with us?

Just turn on a television and in just a few minutes you will witness advertisements for some things harmless and even helpful, but many that try to stir up desires that walk a different path than that of the Spirit. Gratuitous sex, violence, and the like are not only packaged in shows and movies but even in the very advertisements in between. Suddenly sex outside of marriage isn’t wrong or just something that is ok, it is commonplace, even expected. One wrong turn, and then another, and then another, and suddenly we are struggling to find our way back.

B. Unreliable Directions

So where do we turn from there? There are many people who claim to know the truth; many of them sound quiet impressive. There are countless religions, rational empiricists, many people who know a great deal more than we do about the world and many of them claim to have the truth.

And when we turn to them we hear a small voice say “recalculating” and then they turn us in a direction that may seem trustworthy. God could not have created the world in 6 days, science has proven this can’t possibly be the case. Or that humans just aren’t biologically inclined to be monogamist creatures. Truth is what you make of it, just do whatever makes you happy. God only lets good people into heaven so if you want in you had better make sure you do enough. The list goes on and next thing we know we’re staring a guardrail down.

So with all these competing distractions all threatening to lead us astray, how do we know where to go? How do we know how to live? The obvious answer is by the Spirit, that’s what Paul says, but how do we know what that is?

mile markerC. Reliable (but Ordinary) Directions

The answer is in the writing of the epistle to the Galatians itself. How did the Galatians know? Paul told them; a guy gave them directions. A guy inspired by the Holy Spirit that then passed the Spirit onto them by the Word in Baptism. A Spirit that is constantly at work against all the distractions we face daily on our journey. The Spirit who never tires of turning our eyes away from constant distractions and empty promises and instead keeps our hearts and minds fixed on our destination. We know our beginning and our end. Baptized into Christ we await His return. But in the meantime we are not left to wander alone.

Week after week the Word keeps us on the path directing us towards Christ. Jesus, that way. We are given directions in preaching, the sacraments, the big signs, but also in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. These are all gifts that we often overlook, mile markers that let us know we are walking in the way of the Spirit. And we know these are true signs we can follow, we can know that this guy Paul is giving good directions, we know we are going the right way when they align with the scriptures, when they point us back to Christ.

The Spirit works in many and various ways to fight off and drag us back from the many distractions and competing messages of this world. He brings the Word to us in the scriptures, through inspiring and guiding writers including Paul. He brings the Word in sermons where the Word is preached faithfully. He works through the sacraments bringing the gifts of God to His people. He works through our prayers and in ways I can only guess.

Every temptation we face, He is there guiding us along His path. Every false voice, He is there nudging the wheel back along the right road. And those times we find ourselves lost, He is there to guide us back to Christ and the promise of life in Him. Amen.

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Mark Sermon Structures

By Justin Rossow

In 2015 we preached through the Gospel of Mark between January and Easter. And it was *awesome.*

Looking back over so many weeks in the same book of the Bible, following the same story line, preaching on the Gospel Lesson week after week after week, I am deeply grateful for the training I received in sermon structures, their variety and their purpose.

Though the development of a specific sermon structure is part of my own contribution to the field of homiletics–a structure labeled Metaphorical Movement by the sermon structure guru, David Schmitt–I found I didn’t resort to my favorite structure even once over the course of those months.

Instead, the dynamics of the text and of the message for the day shaped the form the sermon would take.

This variety in ways of proclaiming God’s work for us in Christ brought energy and vitality to my own experience of preaching. I didn’t get tired of saying the same thing over and over again. I looked forward to preaching week after week.

I didn’t get tired of saying the same thing over and over again.

And I got so much more out of Mark personally by highlighting recurring themes through the different methods available to me because of how I have been taught to approach the preaching task.

Preach itSo if you helped shaped me as a preacher, thank you!

And if you have been one of my hearers and encouraged me with your listening and support, thank you!

And if you are one of my staff partners who have prayed and processed and discussed and imagined and followed Jesus with me, thank you!

I truly love preaching, and you all are part of what I love about it!

And if you are a preacher wondering how to recapture a love for your own preaching ministry, consider how different sermon structures help bring out different aspects of any text or sermon experience. Challenge yourself to try something new at least once next month …

For the record, the sermons I preached between January and Easter had the following structures:

  • Jan 4, Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:1-13), Dynamic, Four Pages
  • Jan 11, Calling of the Disciples (Mark 1:14-28), Dynamic, Dialogical
  • Jan 25, Jesus Calms the Storm (Mark 4:35-41), Dynamic, Narrative, Lowry Loop
  • Feb 1, Raising Jairus’ Daughter (Mark 5:21-43), Thematic, Comparison/Contrast
  • Feb 8, Feeding of the 4,000/ Healing in 2 stages (Mark 8:1-26), Dynamic, Narrative, Epic Form
  • Feb 15, Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13), Dynamic, Four Pages

You can check out any of these sermons in the Prezi below. If you listen to several, you may notice that the dynamics of metaphor theory for preaching–Evoke the Source, Map to the Target, Test the Limits, and See Through a New Lens–are present within many of the sermons as I develop a moment of meditation.

But the STRUCTURE of these sermons order these moments of meditation, giving shape and direction to the progression of the sermon as a whole.

Instead of trying to do the same thing every week, these sermon structures allow me to preach both Law and Gospel in unique ways which flow from the unique texts I am preaching on–even when all of those texts are from the same Gospel!

If your preaching feels a little stale, check out different ways to Structure and Develop your sermons. It works for me!!

Mark Overview

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Fostering Hearing God’s Word Together, Online

By Justin Rossow

Part of any preaching ministry is fostering hearing ears and receptive lives. Scripture invites us to ruminate on God’s Word, to steep our hearts, minds, and daily lives in His promises.

In today’s Social Media culture, preachers have unprecedented tools for supporting the mutual conversation of the saints in the weekly lives of their hearers. Faithful reception and processing of weekly proclamation can take place communally, online.

Take this blog for instance:

All for the Price of a Coffee

Rearview MirrorRick, one of our members and a truck driver by trade, was excited to share with me how the last week’s sermon had affected his real life experience. He told me the story in great detail; I immediately walked into my office, typed it up as word for word as I could remember, and then emailed it to him, asking if I could use it on our blog. He was pleased to say yes.

Capture stories people share about God’s work in their life through the Word; it encourages others to listen with attention and intention, as if God wanted to be part of their daily lives.

Here’s another:

On Being Dull

1 Gallon of Milk in a milk carton on a shiny table with white background.We have a team of writers at our congregation who have agreed to show up on Sunday morning and pay attention as if God actually had something to say to them this week. They are looking to take something from God’s Word and let it affect their faith and their life. And then they share what that looks like for them.

This blog is a response not only to a single sermon, but to one of the themes that came out of an Epiphany to Lent sermon series on the Gospel of Mark. The way Krissa shares how the Word is at work in her life invites us to imagine the Word at work in ours.

OK, one more, just so you get the idea I’m talking about:

The Ordinary

laundryOn this particular week we had a guest preacher from Lutheran Bible Translators. While the preacher covered quite a bit of ground in his sermon, Miriam picks up on one point–perhaps not even the most central point of the sermon–and hears comfort for her hectic daily life.

The point of inviting lay response to sermons is not to get the hearers to regurgitate your sermon, but to take something (anything!) with them from God’s Word in worship out into their week. In this way, the holy and the ordinary intersect and inform one another.

Worship in My Week

What We Do

At St. Luke Lutheran Church, we set out to make our online presence a content-driven, discipleship-focused experience. The central terminal of our online activity is our web page, www.stlukeaa.org.

And one of the first things we did when we transition to a content-driven, discipleship-focused model was to enlist lay writers to respond to worship in ways that modeled applying God’s Word in their week.

We schedule writers by Sunday of the month, with a couple of backups, just in case.

Their marching orders? Listen for what God has for you in worship this week and tell us how Jesus is using that in your daily walk. The result is a weekly response, most often to the sermon, which models a receptive hearing of God’s Word.

Why We Do It

Our writers regularly report that they experience worship differently when it’s their week to write. They make sure they attend worship with almost no exception. They listen carefully, not just to the sermon, but to the words read, sung, prayed, and confessed. They take notes, pray for open ears and hearts, ponder the Word, and keep their eyes open for how that Word might be trusted more fully, lived out more faithfully, or more regularly relied on for peace, comfort, or forgiveness.

In short, they worship like we are all supposed to, all the time.

But they also notice a change in their worship over time. Given enough once a month focused hearing, they can’t help but start paying attention other times, too. It’s as if once the connection between God’s Word in worship and God’s Word in my week is turned on, it’s hard to turn off.

But we don’t ask our lay writers to respond just so they can grow in faith and following; when other hearers of God’s Word see this kind of reception in the pew next to them, the attitude starts to rub off.

But more than a receptive attitude, the kinds of responses we get count as another way of bringing God’s Word of Law and Gospel to bear on the lives of real people in real need.

Theologically, these blogs end up under the category of the Mutual Consolation of the Saints: fellow believers in their everyday conversation are speaking Jesus into the real life situations of their family, friends, and acquaintances.

When the Word comes not only from the pulpit, but from the person down the street, you hear that Word differently.

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This kind of sermon response writing is only one of the flavors on our discipleship content blog. But the Worship in My Week series is foundational to what we do.

While we average around 750 in weekend attendance across five services and three geographical locations in our multisite, our daily average of page views on our website is 400-450. That means every two days we have more interaction with people online than we do in weekly worship.

Because of other social media like Facebook and Twitter, the Word preached and taught in our congregation gets shared, commented on, discussed–read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested, online. And because all of our content can easily be shared, our blog posts have a way of finding their way into the homes and lives of people who would never darken the door of a church.

So how might you experiment with developing this faith conversation in your setting? Here are some general guidance followed by some very doable action steps to get started.

General Guidelines for Fostering Hearing Ears, Online

1. START (but don’t stop) with SPECIAL INVITATION

Don’t put an ad in your church newsletter. (You still have a printed newsletter? Seriously? You know how many of those tree-killing, dead-end communication pieces end up in the landfill?! Seriously, dude, commit to a discipling, content-driven web page!)

Listen to the kinds of things people say to you after worship. If they comment on how much they liked your sermon, ask them what was meaningful for them. Look for thoughtful response. And keep your eyes open for stories of how God’s Word showed up in their week.

Your people want to listen. And they believe God is speaking life and forgiveness and faithfulness into their lives. Go out of your way to extend a special invitation to someone you think gets it. Ask them to listen intentionally and prayerfully. Invite them to put into words what Jesus is doing in their life this week. And see what happens next …

2. Foster an ACTIVE life of PASSIVE reception.

We know we can’t take any credit at all for salvation; at the same time, the means God promises to use can be disregarded, marginalized, and misused.

The tension inherent in an all-powerful Word that can be rejected or ignored is felt by the hearer who recognizes the work of the Spirit in, with, and under the Word, AND at the same time, eagerly pays attention to the means.

We want our hearers to work hard to receive from worship what Jesus wants to give, without their work sneaking back into the equation of salvation.

hand crafted riverSo we try to instill an attitude of active participation in a fundamentally passive activity. in our writers, but also in the congregation at large. In many ways, the writers are a microcosm of the hearing community. And their development spurs the development of the whole.

You can hear me preach about that active/passive dichotomy here: Paul and Lydia.

 

3. Allow them to be DIFFERENT from you.

When you recruit a writer, you aren’t looking for someone to regurgitate the sermon. The point of the exercise is not to see if they get all three of your main points or if they can guess your structure. You want people who will listen to the Word and relate it to their own lives.

So don’t grade their work; encourage them to look for where the Word for the day touches their lives in a meaningful way. And take the posture of a fellow hearer; perhaps they will preach something back to you from your sermon that you needed to hear this week.

 

4. Avoid HEROIC ACTION.

When working with your writers, make sure they understand you are not asking for miraculous stories of heroic faith or spectacular life change. I mean, those are good, too, but this is not a National Enquirer for church people.

Often times, the stories that resonate most with the community are the ones that show the presence of Jesus or the working of the Spirit in the midst of the most commonplace circumstances.

Allowing the sacred text to invade the space usually reserved for the unsacred helps hearers see ways in which the Word connects with even ordinary lives.

Never Alone

boots1In this blog, a mother of 6.5 writes in direct response to a sermon she heard. She never mentions the pastor, the worship service, or the sermon directly. Yet anyone who experienced the sermon would experience this blog as a real-life application of what was preached.

Notice that the end result of the blog is neither miraculous nor grandiose; just a mom, doing the best she can, overwhelmed with what’s in front of her, but catching a glimpse of God’s heart beyond the mundane.

 

5. Have a REVIEW PROCESS not a permission process.

Heresy has killed its thousands; bureaucracy its tens of thousands.

That is to say, you don’t want to publish anything damaging to the faith on your blog. (Duh.) But you also can’t be so afraid of making a mistake that no one except the pastor can ever write anything online.

In our context, we have a process for review. Blogs come in from any number of writers. Some already come formatted; others need a featured image or some kind of additional work. They all get read by a volunteer editor. And someone, usually a very part-time staff person, touches it at least once before it goes public.

Sometimes the editing happens the day after it posts. That’s not ideal, but neither is staring at a stack of blogs that can’t go to press until they get edited.

We always reserve the right to take a blog off of our page; and we reserve the right to make editorial changes as needed. If a blog needs serious work, we sit down with the author and talk about what changes have to be made and why.

But we publish far too many blogs for each of them to go through a permission-granting set of hoops. If one of our volunteers or part-time staff has a theological question about a blog, they ask. In general, however, we get good people going in the right direction and let them run.

6. Model HEARING and LIVING of the Word.

The life change you hope might eventually be evident in your people will first be evident in your life. The active engagement in passive reception is modeled not just in the pulpit, but in the life of the preacher.

If your preaching doesn’t change YOU, why would it change anyone else?

I recently spoke to a pastor who had just preached on never letting anyone in your circle of influence be abandoned or alone. “Dang,” he said, “My whole sermon was on not letting people be alone. Then my neighbor calls me up and is going into surgery. He doesn’t have any family in the area. Now I have to take this guy to the hospital…”

Take your sermon into elders meetings and hospital visits and staff devotions and passing prayers with strangers. If you read it in your Bible this morning, pray it with your counseling session this afternoon. The more the Word proclaimed on Sunday impacts the preacher’s own life, the more the hearers will begin to see the preached Word as a powerful force that changes their faith and life, too.

Those responding to the sermon on the blog are simply striving to live out what was preached in the context of their families, their struggles, their hopes and fears. The preacher is part of the community that hears the Word proclaimed and lives out that Word in concrete ways during the week.

 

7. There is no substitute for CONTENT.

In real estate, the adage is Location, Location, Location. For your online presence, the adage is Content, Content, Content.

With the sophistication of search engines perpetually on the rise, what shows up in your Google search or Facebook feed is increasingly tailored to you based on your history and the perceived quality of the content being shared.

If nobody reads or shares your stuff, no one will read or share your stuff. And if you don’t have stuff for people to read and share, no one will read or share your stuff.

Content, Content, Content. Both quality and quantity. Again and again and again.

Regular, quality content is one reason the Worship in My Week blogs are so good for our web page. Whatever else is going on that week, we’re pretty sure there’s going to be worship. And we will have probably spent a good amount of time producing that content.

Sermon response blogs are a great way to capture content you are spending energy producing already.

 

Get Started Today

  • Ask one person, one time.
    Don’t invite someone to write a sermon response every week until Jesus comes back; ask them to try it once. And see what happens.

  • Make the expectation clear.
    Their task is to find something from worship to take into their week. It’s OK if it isn’t the sermon. (!) But it should be an honest engagement with the Word. Check out this video as a paradigm: Dartboard Vs. Catcher’s Mitt

  • Grant access to offset challenge.
    High challenge needs high invitation to avoid discouragement. If you are asking someone to put their faith walk on display for the congregation, you will want to make yourself available to them. You can’t proofread every blog every time, but taking time to work through multiple drafts or talk through ideas those first couple of blogs will help a new writer feel confident and encouraged.

Shaped for a Purpose

Hands working on pottery wheel ,  retro style tonedRoxanne is one of our writers who is willing to go out on a limb, but would like to know you are there in the tree with her.

Especially at the beginning, investing personal time with Roxanne meant she felt encouraged and up to the challenge. And the honest and powerful things she writes enhances the hearing of the Word in the lives of our people on a regular basis.

 

Phase Two: Build a Team

  • Make a rotation
    First Sunday of the Month, Second Sunday, Fifth Sunday, Call Me If You Need Me, I’ll Let You Know If Something Hits Me–it takes all kinds…
  • Provide direction and support
    Most writers will have multiple questions over time. Ongoing development is a key component. We train our writers but then also keep in touch with them over time.
  • Be open to one shot wonders
    Keep your ears open for faith stories from people who aren’t on your regular team. You might have to write the story for them or send one of your staff to interview them, but capture their story of God’s Word at work in their lives.We had over 200 different people who contributed at least once last year on our blog,  from college professors to confirmation youth. The diversity helps the community experience a vibrant Word at work in their lives.
  • Allow for a two-way street
    Comments on the blog or on Facebook help the dialogue continue. Citing a blog in the sermon elevates the roll of your discipleship presence online.

 

Here are a few more tools for supporting a discipling presence online:

Discipleship Online

digital bible study

This blog talks about our online presence in terms of our congregational discipleship strategy.

It’s a great place to send new writers to catch a vision for what we are trying to do online.

 

 

Writers Page

pencilsThis static content lets our writers know what to expect from us, and what we expect from them. A couple of times a year we get together to talk about how the process is working, answer any questions, and talk about topics we will need content for in the future.

 

 

The tag we use for this kind of blog is Worship in My Week. Check out more here: http://stlukeaa.org/tag/worship-in-my-week/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hope for the Future and a Bright Red Nose

By Justin Rossow

Of course the hood on his sweatshirt is up: the young African American man in the Walgreens line in front of me looks like he is doing his best to fit a stereotype. Late teens, early twenties; jeans below the hip; six inches of stylish boxers showing above a wide, leather belt; gold-capped tooth; impatiently playing with a dollar bill and a handful of loose change; hood pulled up.

Everything about him makes my brain say, “Thug. Punk. Vandal. Thief. Danger.”

I hate that about my brain.

Maybe that’s why, when the white man in front of us finally gets his question answered and wanders back toward aisle three, I ask if I can add the thug’s only item, a 16 oz. Coke, to my bill.

Or maybe he seems like he’s in a hurry and I am, too, and checking out one customer is twice as fast as checking out two.

Or maybe it’s the Spirit of Jesus.

Or maybe all of the above.

“Can I buy your Coke?” I ask as he approaches the cashier.

“Sure!” He smiles from behind the hood, showing off the gold.

But he doesn’t take the large drink and go away, like I expect. He shuffles around a little bit and pulls something out of his pocket. I change my mind: he’s closer to 17 than 21.

The young man smiles almost timidly at the cashier and at me and shakes his head: “I just bought this,” he says. He shows us both a bright red clown nose; a charity fundraiser.

He’s amused at the thought: “It was the same price as the Coke. I just bought this for charity. And then you buy my Coke.” He smiles and shakes his head again. “Pay it forward.”

He takes the bright red Coke can and slips it into the front pocket of his sweatshirt along with the bright red clown nose.

But he doesn’t leave. He hovers at the head of the line as I produce my wallet and credit card, and the cashier rings me out, and I swipe and sign, and the receipt gets printed, torn, and stuffed into the nearest bag.

It’s almost awkward. What’s he waiting for?

Thug. Punk. Vandal. Thief. Danger.

With a bright red clown nose for charity?

He moves to walk out with me, but we stop just in front of the bright red automatic Walgreens doors. He steps in front of me and, turning, looks me in the eye for the first time.

He offers me his hand, which I shake. His palm is smooth and cool; his fingers are long and thin; his grip is firm, but almost tender.

I was wrong. He can’t be any older than 17. Maybe even 16. He’s probably in high school. My daughter starts high school in the fall.

“Thank you,” he says simply. We shake on a Coke and a promise of hope for the future and a world in which you give and receive generously and freely.

And then my friend turns and disappears out the automatic doors.

I’m standing in a Walgreens 7.7 miles from Ferguson, MO, holding a bag of decongestant. And the world is changed.

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My Prodigal Father: A Story to Upset the World

by Michael Zeigler, Pastor, Epiphany Lutheran Church, St. Louis, MO

In Luke 15 Jesus tells the story of a prodigious, extravagant, reckless, and—in the eyes of some—wasteful father. Of course, the story itself is fictitious; as Jesus was inclined to do, the Lord just made it up. Nevertheless, this story has the ring of truth. It possesses the power to upset our self-spun stories and draw us into the very heart of God, who is re-storying the world in Jesus.

God is re-storying the world in Jesus.

About four years ago, I wrote “My Prodigal Father,” a contemporary re-telling of the Jesus’ story in Luke 15. I had help from a couple of friends—Ryan Tinetti and Bill Northend. The storied approach we took to theology and preaching might invite other preachers of the Word to consider how they can creatively and contextually use story, parable, and performance to help listeners experience the heart of God in Jesus his Son.

Here is my re-telling of Jesus’ parable, called “My Prodigal Father.” Following the video you will find some of the ways of thinking that led to this kind of preaching in a local congregation’s Sunday morning worship.

Assumptions about Preaching

Preaching for a community of faith demands a variety of approaches, structures, and modes of delivery. One week, the preacher will aim at their heads and address them cognitively to clarify an important doctrinal point; the next week, at their heart, to compel them affectively.

Another week, the pastor will craft the sermon to provide a formative experience—one that addresses both head and heart. All this is done to persuade and form them to be Christians—cross-carrying, neighbor-serving disciples of Jesus, who depend on God with childlike faith.

Preaching for a community of faith demands a variety.

Therefore, I do not assume that a dramatic, first person narrative is the “best” kind of sermon. We need preaching that defines and elaborates the mysteries of God. We also need preaching that does not describe and distinguish divine mysteries, but suffers and celebrates them.

Different Kinds of Story

The notion of “narrative theology” has become somewhat faddish in the last few decades. However, the approach reaches at least as far back as Irenaeus of Lyons, whose critique of the Gnostics, written around 200 A. D., can be summarized as: “What’s wrong with the Gnostics? They’re telling a different story!”

Some basic conceptual categories benefit a storied approach to theology and preaching. Roman Catholic theologian Terrence Tilley suggests some in his book Story Theology. Tilley distinguished between three kinds of stories: (1) those that Set Up worlds; (2) those that Set In worlds; and (3) those that Upset worlds.

These categories help clarify what Jesus may have been doing with his parables. Is he telling an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, as it’s commonly said? Or, is he telling an imaginative story in order to subvert an established story of the world?

At the beginning of Luke chapter 15, we are told that “the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to hear Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus tells stories that subvert the world his hearers have established for themselves.

So, what does Jesus do? He tells 3 stories that subvert the world his hearers have established for themselves. In Tilley’s terms, Jesus intends these stories to Upset the world.

Stories that Set Up a World

Contemporary theory about story assumes—in a very postmodern way—that stories have the power to create, shape, and tear down worlds. At one end of the spectrum, Tilley puts stories that Set Up the world as we know it. For the participants of that world, this kind of story is unquestionably true.

Back to 200 A.D., the story that Set Up the Christian world was what Irenaeus called the regula fide, or rule of faith, the plotline of which is confessed in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Because the Gnostics had a different story to account for the world, they could not be telling the Christian Story.

So what kind of stories Set Up the world(s) of our contemporary culture? William Cavanaugh calls one such story the “Myth of Religious Violence.” As this story goes, “the modern, secularized State arose to keep peace among the warring religious factions.”

The regula fide and the “Myth of Religious Violence” Set Up rival worlds.

Having saved Europe from the Post-Reformation wars of religion, the nation-state created the possibility of a perpetual peace through religious tolerance, free markets, and strong national defense. Next, liberal democracies banded together in an international coalition to spread this hope of peace around the world, fighting wars as a means to this most noble end. In many ways, this is the story—the mythos—that has set up the modern, western world (William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Let’s quickly analyze this Set Up story. Note how the plot begins with conflict and moves toward resolution. The old world, marked by the wars of religion, was in a state of disarray and madness. But the new world promises perpetual peace.

The savior in this story is the secular nation-state. The state solves the problem by ensuring that religion remains a personal and private affair, which must be kept out of politics, thus saving the new world from warring religious factions. The story moves from contradiction to reconciliation; from instability to the creation of a stable world.

The regula fide and the “Myth of Religious Violence” Set Up and explain rival worlds. For those inside either worldview, these stories appear true in a self-apparent and unquestionable way.

Stories that Upset a World

On the opposite end of the story spectrum are stories that Upset an existing world. While the Set Up story begins with contradiction and moves to reconciliation, the Upset story begins with reconciliation and stability and moves toward contradiction and conflict. When a parable is told to subvert the existing equilibrium and clear the way for a new world, that parable is clearly an Upset story.

Many of the parable-stories of Jesus perform this world-subverting function. Take, for example, his story of the farmers in Mark 12:

“A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a vat and built a tower, and leased it to farmers and went away on a journey. At the opportune time he sent a servant to the farmers to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But taking him, they beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent another servant, and that one they struck on the heard and treated shamefully. And he sent another, and that one they killed.

And so with many others, some they beat and some they killed. He had one yet, a beloved son. Finally, he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.”

But those farmers said to one another, “This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those farmers and give the vineyard to others.”

Mark tells us that when the scribes and the elders heard this story, they began seeking to arrest Jesus, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them.

Jesus used this story to subvert the existing world—a world in which God’s faithful people faithfully pursued excellence by cherishing the things of God: the temple and the Torah. The religious leaders kept these things of God safe from external threats like Gentile pagans and from internal threats like Jewish sinners. The religious leaders were the heroes of this world.

But Jesus’ story subverted that world and made them the villains. So they killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. But, alas, the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Jesus models a way for us to confront and persuasively subvert the false stories that are told by our culture and work their way into our communities of faith.

Perhaps not all, but many of Jesus’ parables function as stories that subtly subvert established worlds. These reigning stories of the world must be overthrown to prepare the way for the rule and reign of God. In this way, Jesus models a way for us to confront and persuasively subvert the false stories that are told by our culture and work their way into our communities of faith.

Present-day disciples of Jesus, who stand on this Rock, continue his work of subverting false worlds to clear the way for the new creation in Christ. If preaching for a faith community requires variety in preaching, and Jesus himself told stories to Upset the world of his hearers, perhaps one form of faithful preaching would re-tell these parables for a similar purpose.

The goal of my made-up story, “My Prodigal Father,” above, is to approximate, in a derivative way, the impact of Jesus’ inspired story. This kind of preaching seeks to use story, parable, and performance creatively and contextually to help listeners experience the heart of God, who is re-storying the world in Jesus, his Son.

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