Friday, October 5, 2012

The Sermon Hermeneutic

In my life I have listened to thousands of sermons, and not just on Sunday mornings. I've been to evening services, Tuesday night college groups, summer camps and retreats. I hate sermons. I think I've hated them my whole life. Perhaps I expect too much out of a sermon, but sermons almost never fail to emphasize one point or another without reference to all the other priorities that people living in the real world have to consider. I can probably blame my excellent memory, but it really galls me when a preacher preaches on one thing one week and another the next without realizing that he almost sounds like he's contradicting himself and hasn't figured out any way to put the two together in a way that would help anyone.

As I've grown older, I've learned to understand sermons for what they are, but now I've begun to hate them for a different reason. I've been a youth pastor, and I completely understand what goes through the mind of a preacher. What am I going to talk about this week? What will I tell these people? How can I apply what's in this book to their lives? Then you open the Bible and start reading, looking for something in every last verse, every last passage of the Bible that means something to us living today, something that will tell us how to live our lives. There's only one problem. The Bible is not a sermon.

I've caught myself doing it, reading every last passage as if there's something in it that applies to everything I do, my whole life, the way I live. But in addition to having an excellent memory I am also an excellent reader, and I simply cannot explain the way Christians today interpret the Bible without believing we are as a group sorely lacking in reading comprehension skills. No other book has inspired the kind of wringing that a person dying of thirst does to a water-soaked towel. I suppose that's good, but it's only good if you go the whole way. The Bible is the most important book in the history of mankind, and we do it no service when we read it as if every passage, every verse, is nothing more than a sermon illustration on how we, here and now, should then live. We love the Sermon on the Mount, but in fact most parts of the Bible are no such thing, including favorite preacher passages in the gospels. It's why preachers love to preach on Romans 8 but not Romans 7, or 1 Corinthians 13 but not 1 Corinthians 7 and avoid the book of Hebrews altogether excepting of course chapter 11. "Faith, faith and more faith" makes a good sermon. It's why our favorite verse from Jeremiah is 29:11, as if the only thing we want to hear from that tragic and terrible prophecy is that "God has our future planned out exactly and it's a good one." Or there's the parable about the king who sees an army twice the size of his own, pisses himself and sues for peace. Peace as a virtue? Not here. Peace as a strategy to keep from getting your ass kicked. The avoided chapters are too complicated and don't contain an easy "Do this full stop" message. The sermon hermeneutic is why many Christians today have developed wild and crazy interpretations of Daniel and Revelation. It's why so many young Christians grow up and begin to face the hard questions of life for the very first time outside the confines of the sermon saturated church. We don't know how to read the Bible except to wring out a life application lesson from each clue, each tidbit, like treasure hunters desperately searching for that last clue. I still have my very popular copy of the Life Application Bible, where every footnote is a life application lesson. The footnotes are half the volume of the book. As far as I can tell, it almost never occurs to Christians that God has left some things, in fact many things, up to us. We approach the Bible as if it was a puzzle with all the pieces of life in it, and if we could just put them all together we'd have a complete guide to living, to all the things we should believe and be.

In fact, the Bible itself lays out pretty clearly that there are all sorts of things God leaves to us. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." How am I to interpret that? I could say that Jesus is teaching the separation of church and state. I could say that Jesus is teaching that all things are God's and therefore we should give nothing to Caesar. I could say that Jesus is teaching us that riches don't matter. I could say all of these things, but none of them are from the passage. All of them would be reading something into the words of my Savior something that isn't there. Yet these are the types of things I hear preached from the pulpit every Sunday morning. I'm sure I've heard sermons that didn't engage in this type of interpretation, but they seem few and far between. But what makes us so uncomfortable with the idea that there are certain topics which we consider to be so important which the Bible purposely avoids and expresses no opinion? If it's important, it must be in the Bible, so we believe. And then we proceed to seek and find exactly what we are looking for.

There is no greater example of this than sermons about Jesus' parables. Preachers love those parables, and so do heretics, because they are so easy to twist. But there are some parables I don't hear a whole lot of sermons on, like the one in Luke 16 usually called the parable of the shrewd manager:

"There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’ Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings."

Now I have an inkling why preachers almost never use this parable. The parable glorifies a dishonest man. Was Jesus really teaching here that we should cheat our employers? Preachers are uncomfortable with that implication, so this one gets skipped a lot. Of course in the next three verses Jesus makes it clear he is not advocating dishonesty. Jesus told this parable to teach that we should treat our worldly wealth as temporary and use it to gain something which is eternal. In other words, this parable is among many that Jesus tells which appears to appeal to outright selfishness, telling us that we should do good things here on earth in order to gain treasure for ourselves in heaven (not, tellingly, to do good just because it's good) and preachers don't like that. Should I tell my congregation they ought to be selfish? No, they don't like that, not one bit. But they absolutely love the supposedly warm and fuzzy Prodigal Son that comes just before this one, so I know they didn't just skip over this chapter in their Bible reading.

 Come to think of it, the next parable in Luke 16 is not very compatible with sermonology either. It shows Jesus basically flipping humanity the bird, telling them, "I don't have to prove anything to you," not to mention a rather callous treatment of a man in hell. Or there's those parables in Matthew 25 that nobody likes. Hey I was out buying groceries give me a break! Nope, sucks for you. Or the guy who was given money and buried it in the ground instead of investing it and gaining interest. Sucks for you too you wicked, lazy person. Why didn't you do something with your life? But of course they love the third parable in that chapter because it's great for making people feel guilty.

And I love how preachers treat the book of Job. The message of that book doesn't fit our teddy bear image of God either, but they do preach on it rarely. When they do, the story is almost always presented as a story of bearing up under suffering and eventual redemption. The only verse that matters to a sermonologist is Job 2:9-10:

"His wife said to him, 'Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!' He replied, 'You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?' In all this, Job did not sin in what he said."

According to the sermonologist, the entire point of Job is to teach us that we should bravely face up to suffering in our lives and not hold God responsible so that God can brag to Satan about you. The next forty chapters are I suppose something we should read on our own time. Of course, they always tell us the happy ending. It's a good thing preachers skip the middle part. We wouldn't want our parishioners to realize that God is not a teddy bear and doesn't exactly take kindly to anyone questioning Him. God doesn't even give Job a hug. He doesn't just not answer Job's complaint either. He berates Job and humiliates him. Apparently, God does not consider it important to empathize with a man who just lost his entire family, all his worldly possessions and has a painful disease, and I guess that just doesn't sit well with the picture preachers are trying to paint of God for their congregations. Job goes to God with his complaint, and God throws it right back in his face. Not very humanitarian. It also tends not to be in the preacher's frame of reference that a man like Job, who has met with such misfortune, stubbornly proclaims his innocence of any wrongdoing when accused by three of his "friends." This of course undermines a preacher's ability to put his congregation on mass guilt trips by encouraging them to wonder if they are really guilty of any wrongdoing when accused of something. A preacher much prefers that his parishioners never question his wide net of general accusations of wrongdoing he throws out nearly every week. This is particular jarring to me, because I'm a particular sensitive person. I know I'm being asked to examine myself for this wrongdoing, and so I do. Way too much. Am I really doing this? Am I really that bad of a person? Preachers make these accusations as vague and general as possible, because they are hoping to catch as many people as they can in the net. But they don't know you or your situation. They don't have any frame of reference for accusing you. But I sit there every time and fall for it, because I'm trying to be a good Christian. It's for this reason that I sympathize with smart Christians who grow up and can't stand the Christianity they learn in church, that everything in the Bible and in your life is a morality play. There's always a lesson, a sermon illustration, in everything we do. It's infuriating to intelligent people. Life isn't like that, and neither is the Bible. Sometimes like in Job things happen, and God doesn't give us a reason. Maybe because there isn't one, other than this world isn't the next one. That tower that collapsed and killed all those people? God must have been pissed at them right? No, dumbass. Shit happens bro. Get over it. Build a better tower next time.

Now that's whack.