I've been teaching homiletics at Fuller for a couple years now, and it's one of the most enjoyable things I do here. I was reminded of this again last night as I heard students in my Wednesday night class preach two outstanding sermons - one written under some personal duress. Both sermons were thoughtful, practical, honest; they stayed close to the text, and were filled with carefully considered, imagination-shaping language. And then the students had some insightful things to say in critique of their own (and each others') work as we discussed the sermons in the second part of class. More often than not, this is my experience here, and it gives me hope for the church.
Hope which is not always confirmed in my Sunday sojourns to various SoCal churches. Not so many weeks ago our family went to a culturally significant megachurch. Much of the service was quite good (and as a bonus, we heard one of my favorite gospel singing groups, Take Six). While the sermon itself (the primary pastor was not preaching) was well-delivered, I was troubled by the persistent transactional language used to describe our relationship with God. We give our lives to God (by saying the Jesus prayer), and God gives us eternal life. The pastor very much wanted, at the close of his message, to seal the deal. It's salvation as understood by a community shaped by consumerist values.
Troubling as that was, it was nothing compared to what we experienced a few weeks ago at a prominent Pasadena church, where I endured 30 minutes of a talk (I can't even call it a sermon) before I did something I've never done before: I walked out right in the middle. It was apparant from the outset that the preacher was going to avoid actually preaching -- he telegraphed his homiletical theology in his preparatory prayer by asking that God bless "this little bit of information to help us live better lives this week." That's what a sermon is? Not the living Word of God? Not the presence of Jesus Christ? Just "a little bit of information?" Anyway, I decided to listen hard for what God wanted to say to me just the same. After a half-hour of scripture-neglecting, simplistic self-help slop, targeted to a very small demographic sliver of those assembled, what God said to me was "you should be pretty angry that my hungry people, who come here to be fed, get this instead." I sat there getting more and more steamed as the preacher kept jabbering on, until I finally realized that sitting there was doing me more spiritual harm than good. So I gathered up the kids (who had completely zoned out), and went to the car. We listened to Prairie Home Companion on the way home. It wasn't church, but it was better for our souls.
(The picture, by the way, is entitled "St. Peter Preaching." Note the two snoozers in the first row, and the fellow in the back whose eyes are lifted to heaven as if to say "Help him, Jesus." Hmmm. Maybe sub-standard preachers (and preachees) are not an altogether new thing.)