Sunday, June 5, 2016

Stirring up the gift of preaching

From "The WORD," St. Timothy's, Herndon, June, 2016.

“Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching.”  II Tim 4:2

I have been reading through Saint Paul’s Epistles to Timothy over the last week at Morning Prayer, and I’ve been struck by how often they discuss preaching.  Together with the Epistle to Titus, scholars call them the “Pastoral Epistles.”  They are essentially letters of advice from a senior church leader, St. Paul, to his beloved junior colleague.  

Paul had prepared Timothy, over many years, for his ministry as a bishop.  He had shared the good news about Jesus with him, and showed him how to teach and encourage different kinds of people.  He had watched Paul deal with controversies and broker agreements.  Paul had watched over Timothy, tested him to know his suitability, and he had sent him off with prayer, trusting steadfastly in the Holy Spirit. 

But now that Timothy had been engaged in his ministry for a few years, some further instruction was necessary.  And a great deal of that instruction focused on preaching.  Some of Paul’s advice is about the content of the Christian message and how it relates to other dangerous ideas.  Some of the advice is about adapting the message to different kinds of audiences, who bring different spiritual needs to the weekly gathering for worship.  A fair amount of it is simply encouragement and exhortation, as Paul urges Timothy to remember just how important preaching really is, and to always be earnest in presenting his case, “in season and out of season.”

There’s no sign in the Epistle that Timothy was a particularly bad preacher, or that his message was deficient.  Saint Paul was just convinced that preaching was vitally important to making new Christians and building up growing ones.  He believed that “faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17),” and like the other apostles, believed himself to be called first as a preacher, to bear witness to the world that Jesus was truly risen from the dead. 

Saint Timothy knew all this, but perhaps after a few years of preaching every week, he was growing a little stale, losing some of the fire he had carried to his work in the days after his ordination.  “Stir up the gift of God that is in you,” Paul would urge him elsewhere (II Tim 1:16).  Turn to God for the help you need to do this important thing afresh.

Because, sometimes preachers can get stale.  We fall into habits in the way we interpret texts, use the same rhetorical structures, turn to the same places when searching for the right story or quote.  Some preachers just use whole sermons over and over again. 

In the last parish where I was rector, I stumbled on a sermon written by one of my legendary predecessors, a priest who had served, with great distinction, for over thirty years.  It was typed on yellowed paper, and in the margin, the priest had jotted down the Sundays he had used it—three or four of them, over a span of 15 or 20 years.  It was a good sermon, and on a general topic, and I expect it worked just fine.  Decades later, people still remembered this priest as a thoughtful and commanding preacher.

It was a bit less so with Mr. Tendril, the vicar of Hetton, a character in “A Handful of Dust,” one of my favorite Evelyn Waugh novels.  Mr. Tendril had served most of his ministry as a chaplain in India, before going to Hetton in semi-retirement.  He recycled his old Indian sermons, which didn’t always fit the new context. One snowy Christmas, he announced to his English parishioners, “Instead of the placid ox and ass of Bethlehem, we have for companions the ravening lion and the exotic camel, the furtive jackal and the ponderous elephant.”

Sometimes, preachers need a bit of refreshment and encouragement, some careful instruction like the kind Paul provided for Timothy.  Especially a few years into their work, it can be helpful for preachers to stop and ask God to “stir up the gift” anew.

Over the next year, I will have the chance to do just this.  I have been admitted to a program called “Deep Calls to Deep,” which many of you will know about, because Rev. Leslie Chadwick left Saint Timothy’s to coordinate it.  It’s part of an initiative funded by the Lily Foundation to improve preaching in several mainline Protestant denominations. 

 I will join a few dozen other local Episcopal priests for a week of study about preaching this month at Virginia Seminary, and then I will meet each month for a year with a group of peers for further instruction and guidance in preaching.  I learned recently that my personal preaching coach will be Rev. David Schlafer, a gifted preacher many of you also know from his times supplying at St. Tim’s.

The program is designed for priests like me, several years into ordained ministry.  I’ve preached most every Sunday since 2007, when I first became a rector, and at least once a month for a few years before that.  I’ve found my familiar voice in the pulpit, and though I think it works pretty well, I am anxious to learn more and to try some new things.  My own seminary training didn’t include much direct instruction about preaching, and I want to learn more about how the experts say it can be done best. 

I hope you will pray that this time of study helps me to grow in my love of preaching as well as my skills in preparation and delivery.  I’m hoping for an even deeper trust in God’s work through the spoken word, and for fresh insights from God that will be a blessing to all of you.  

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