Clower Power in the Pulpit

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.
~ Proverbs 15:17

Haaaaaw! is a word.

You may not know it to look at me, but I love humor, love to laugh. To this day, Jerry Clower is my favorite comedian. My Dad introduced me to Jerry Clower via cassette tape when I was pretty young. I immediately loved the southern humorist and listened to those tapes in such a manner that if he had managed to be paid per play, I would’ve been a top contributor to his estate. With that southern drawl and southwest Miss’ssippi brogue, you would think he could make the instruction manual for the cassette player I used to listen on sound interesting.

What was it that made him so successful? During different shows, he told about his breaking into show business. Any sort of success on that level requires some right-place-right-time breaks, but that is not the whole story. He still had to have something that enough people wanted they were willing to pay for it to succeed. Without that something, all the breaks in the world wouldn’t be enough. Just think about why we talk about one hit wonders.

Secret of Success

Some of his trademark charm was owing to being a somewhat stereotypical southern man. He was also a quintessential southern man of a bygone era. He was born in the rural Deep South almost half a century after Reconstruction. He was born before the stock market crash, lived through the Great Depression, and served in the Navy during World War II. By the time he began entertaining in live shows on stage in the early 70s, he was a bridge to a world that no longer existed. He delivered homespun humor and wit from a simpler time with authenticity.

But the greatest contributor to his success was that he was funny. If you had asked him if he was funny or if his stories were funny, he would’ve answered he was funny. I’ve read that he once said something like, he didn’t tell funny stories, but rather he told stories funny. While he certainly embellished his stories, he also said he thought the funniest things actually happened. The core of his humor was real life.

Jerry and the Pulpit

Several of his bits involved churches and preachers. I recall a short bit that told of a church that got a new pastor and all of his sermons for the first few months were on baptism. After a while, the deacons had a meeting with him about his preaching. The preacher suggested they select the next text he would preach. They settled on Matthew 3:10 and he agreed. Come Sunday morning, the preacher read the text and quickly got to his point. He said the only reason anyone would lay the ax to the root of the trees was to cut down the trees to dam up the creek to have a hole deep enough for baptizing. He proceeded to preach yet another message on baptism.

That story is funny because it is true to life. I don’t know if it really happened as told, mostly happened with added embellishment, or if that particular scenario never occurred. It was true to life because we have probably all known preachers who were about like that. They have their favorite subjects and can pivot from any verse in the Bible to talk about those subjects. I once heard a message that started from a text about the Ark of the Covenant, but became a message about the hellish public school system. So, it happens.

This old Jerry Clower bit gives us an opportunity to think about something else. Preachers who aren’t committed to the sequential exposition of the whole Bible tend to preach repeatedly on a handful of subjects. They use the same verses, same illustrations, and same jokes again and again. They can find their pet topics in Bible verses the Holy Spirit didn’t even know was there. Even long term pastors can become not much better than traveling evangelists who have five sermons and a thousand different titles.

Reconstruction of Another Kind

Let’s conduct a thought experiment for young preachers. Let’s think about reverse engineering the Bible. Let’s say there was a group of people who had no access to a Bible. All they had was a library archive of your preaching for twenty or thirty years. After listening to the whole archive of your sermons, what would they think the Bible was about? What would they think were the most important themes and messages of the Bible? What would they think was of first importance, like what Paul wrote about the gospel to the church at Corinth? What proportion of subject mentions would they deduce?

If they had an archive of Jerry Clower’s preacher, they would think baptism was the most important message of the Bible. If they listened to some preachers, they would think public schools, clothes, and the hellivision were written about on every page of the Bible. From some, they might not even suspect the Old Testament existed. From others, they would think the church was mentioned more often than the kingdom by far.

There is another way to think about this too. From listening to your sermon archive, how much of the Bible could they actually reconstruct? Some have said you could reconstruct nearly the whole Bible from the writings of the church fathers. That claim is a stretch, but they did reference much of the Bible. It is not a stretch, though, to say that of John Gill, who pastored the same church in London for over 50 years and preached verse-by-verse through the entire Bible. I don’t agree with all of Gill’s conclusions and views, but it’s hard to argue with the comprehensiveness of his ministry.

Perspective

I’m not suggesting that you have to preach every verse of the Bible or your ministry is a failure. Even Spurgeon did not do that. This thought experiment is an opportunity to think about ministry from a larger perspective. We sometimes think too much about the next sermon and not enough about the next five, ten, or twenty years of sermons. I’m also not suggesting that you plan out twenty years of sermons and stick doggedly to your schedule. If you commit to sequential exposition of the Bible and preach from the different genres of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments, you will preach the word, preach the whole counsel, and fulfill the ministry you have been given (2 Timothy 4:1; Acts 20:27; Colossians 4:17). You will preach the subjects the Bible actually addresses and in the balance the Bible presents them. You will probably still hear complaints about something though. Sorry, I don’t know what to do about that.

A Portrait of the Preacher as an Everyman

He is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass
~ James 1:23

Who are you?

Are you an artist? Pastors get asked all kinds of questions. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, you haven’t. I was actually asked once if I was an artist. This question was a corker with no sort of warm up. I was caught by surprise but I didn’t need long to think about it. I am in fact not an artist. I can’t conceive of any possible description of an artist that would fit me. I have never even owned nor worn a beret. I did the only thing an honest man could do and admitted I was not an artist. Then I was told how the former beloved pastor, to whom I would never measure up, had painted this beautiful mural that really ought to be on display somewhere with other comparable works of true art. That wasn’t maybe the exact words I heard, but surely I’ve captured the sense of them.

As a preacher, you will be compared to other preachers. People have some preacher or preachers in their minds who are the ideal preacher. Every preacher stands or falls to them in comparison to that ideal. Some men do have multiple talents and skills. They could build a house, paint a picture, sculpt like Michelangelo, pilot a Cessna, perform brain surgery, execute a deed of trust, and move an audience to tears while playing their own composition on the violin, all while preaching sermons like an angel come down from heaven. They seem to have won life’s lottery while you could wallpaper your whole house inside and out with your losing tickets. That is of course, if you could hang wallpaper, which you probably can’t.

As a young preacher, you feel a lot of pressure to measure up and to be like some such lofty ideal. Years into pastoring, you become depressed because you can’t see any great accomplishments stacking up. Any honest barber would tell you, “God makes the heads. I just cut the hair.” All any of us have to work with is what we have to work with. Honestly, most of us preachers are single talent preachers. We are not Charles Spurgeon, or anyone else other than ourselves. Remember the parable of the talents or minas. Each servant was judged by what they did with what they received and not by what someone else received.

If you work hard at the ministry, carefully handle the word of God so that you preach it accurately, and love your people, you have done your duty. So what that you’re not the most naturally talented guy in the ministry. I have heard some preachers who have loads of natural talent who don’t actually preach as well as some preachers without as much natural talent. That’s because they lean on that talent and don’t work as hard as they should at the study of scripture and the exposition of the text. They are regularly praised without doing all that work, but are they being truly faithful to their calling?

One day, we all will have to give an account of our ministry to Jesus Christ himself (1 Corinthians 3:5-15). On that day, you won’t be asked if you’re an artist like this other preacher was, or if you could tell jokes like old brother pastor did. You won’t be asked why you didn’t preach like this one or that one. You will be asked how you fed Christ’s sheep. That is our charge.

Saving Miss Piggy

As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman without discretion.
~ Proverbs 11:22

It ain’t easy being green

“I wear rubber boots when it rains.” The kid to my right whispered in my ear. What should I do with that? I turned to the kid to my left and whispered to him, “I like to play in the mud when it rains.” My part was done. That kid turned to the kid to his left and relayed the message, and it kept going like that until the last one whispered to the teacher stationed at 12 o’clock. It’s called the gossip game and it was supposed to teach us some kind of lesson, but I guess it was lost on us. I remember playing a lot of group participation games like that in school.

Around fourth grade, or maybe it was fifth grade, I had the opportunity of taking a creative writing class at a local college. The class was taught by one of the professors there. She went on to get elected to the state house of representatives, so I guess our class was a great success. One day she had us participate in a group brainstorming exercise. She started off with a word and then gave us prompts and we were supposed to respond with the first thing that came to mind.

She was teaching us about the need for conflict in stories and the goal of the exercise was to setup a problem and each of us would have to write a story to solve that problem. The memory tends to fuzz and fray after a few years, so I can’t recall all the details. We ended up with Miss Piggy as a character and she was in trouble. She might have been stuck up in a tree and we had to get her out of the tree in our compelling short stories.

Up a Tree

Our brainstorming session is also what is known as free association, which is a common technique used in improvisation workshops for the training of actors. It is also a psychology tool made famous by Freud. In free association you respond to a word or action with the first word or action that comes to mind. The goal is to get a free flow of ideas without any structure, logic, examination, or judgment of the value of the idea. At the beginning of class, we had no notion Miss Piggy would be stuck up in a tree, but free association put her there by the end.

Free association may have value, like the usefulness of hose clamp pliers for removing hose clamps, but is not equally applicable to all needs. I’m juberous of declaring value of free association for the pulpit and sermon making. Sometimes preachers are quite open about their free association process for developing a sermon. A preacher was driving and got stuck in a traffic jam and had an idea for a sermon on getting stuck in life. Maybe the traffic jam was due to a highway accident and he thought of a sermon on making a wreck of your life. A preacher was shopping and passing all these signs advertising the best sale of the year and he got the idea for a sermon about not selling out.

At other times, preachers don’t take us along the development journey. He reads Luke 15:8-10, talks for a few minutes about the parable, and then announces he is going to preach on the thought: Have you lost your coin? Another preacher reads Mark 5:21-43 and says he will preach for a few minutes on this thought: How to get Jesus to come to your house. A preachers decides he wants to preach on the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a big subject with a lot of biblical information to work with, but the preacher starts associating. He thinks about what a kingdom is and what a kingdom needs. A kingdom needs a king, so he looks up some verses on kings. A kingdom needs subjects, so he looks up some verses. A kingdom needs laws, so he looks up some verses. A kingdom needs a throne, so he looks up some verses. He putters on along this line until his 45 minute quota is filled.

The Problem

A lot of preachers use this sort of free association exercise to develop their sermons. They setup the problem their sermon is going to solve. Sunday after Sunday they’re always saving Miss Piggy from the pulpit.

So, what’s wrong with preaching this way? Does free association or similar brainstorming have no place at all in developing sermons? The biggest problem with this approach to preaching is that saving Miss Piggy sermons are not text-driven, they’re idea driven. Rather than starting with the text of Scripture and asking, What has God said?, such sermons start with the free ideas of the preacher to setup a problem to solve that will more or less use some Bible verses. That’s just not preaching in any biblical sense of that term.

Preachers are called by God to preach his word and to work hard in his word and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). The preacher’s primary job is not solving people’s problems, but preaching God’s book and giving them all his counsel (Acts 20:27; 2 Timothy 3:16-4:2). God’s word is inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and profitable. Your words are not. Your thoughts on how every Christian has an “Amen!” button are worthless in light of eternity. My thoughts on how to always have a smile will not save or sanctify anyone. Even sharing your personal journey is of limited value. Pastor Jason Shults wrote, “Your life story will only lead people to salvation to the extent that it points people to Jesus.”

Of course, preachers get ideas all the time from various circumstances, and I’m not saying there’s no value in them. However, if you have an idea for a sermon, there should be a biblical text that actually speaks to it without ripping it out of context and writing extra stuff in your Bible margins to make it fit. Otherwise, it’s not biblical preaching and you’re just saving Miss Piggy, and I guess that makes you Kermit. So the next time you’re up a tree trying to prepare a sermon, just look for Jesus to come by. It worked for Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).

To Preach a Book: Sermon 4 – Desperate Words of Wind

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

In the fourth sermon, I finished Chapter 1, which is the opening of Scene 2. Here is where I picked up all of verse 19 and covered through verse 22 of Chapter 1. Scene 2 begins the middle section of this story. The middle consists of Scenes 2-4 covering the barley and wheat harvest in Judah. The inciting incident for the scene and the middle section is Naomi’s returning to Bethlehem empty. Their emptiness is contrasted against the beginning of the harvest in Bethlehem, so there is food everywhere and Bethlehem is full but they are empty. The story progresses through the middle until Ruth goes to the threshing floor at night to request redemption from Boaz. The middle resolves with Boaz’ agreement and his going off to settle the matter.

Sermon Introduction

I wanted to review Scene 1 and point out some ways it sets up the whole story and introduces the controlling, unifying theme as well as key themes for the entire story. I tried to draw attention to how this was accomplished by pacing and the characters’ choices and responses to the events. I also wanted to introduce Scene 2 and the opening image of the scene we were looking at in this sermon. Naomi is presented as a wisdom character, an archetypal sufferer wrestling with her situation. Further, she is depicted as a suffering widow of Israel, hinting at the Messianic and eschatological overtones of the book.

Verses 19-22 Naomi’s Return to Bethlehem

The opening image of Scene 2 has Naomi returning to Bethlehem with Ruth. The author notes how her return created a stir among the townspeople. The whole city gathered around them, which is a bit of hyperbole since we know Boaz wasn’t there. When he comes into the story, his knowledge of Naomi and Ruth is only what he has heard. We would naturally expect Naomi to be peppered with questions in a situation like that. Her explanation of her situation takes up most of this section.

In verses 20-21 Naomi speaks of her experiences and attributes the events in her life to God’s providence. Here Naomi sounds most like Job in his complaints. We can certainly see similarity in their circumstances, but there is an important intertextual connection as Naomi uses the name Almighty, El Shaddai, for God. The book of Job uses this title more than any other book, and especially in a similar attribution to God’s providence (Job 27:2). Naomi speaks explicitly to the unifying theme as she declares her own emptiness. I took the title for the sermon, “Desperate Words of Wind,” from Job 6:26.

Verse 22 closes the chapter and the opening image of Scene 2. The reader is reminded that Naomi had Ruth, so her emptiness was not quite as complete as it might seem. This short verse contributes to the theme of Ruth as a stranger, or foreigner. Her status in some ways contrasts with the wise woman in Proverbs 31, but also contrasts with the adulterous woman in Proverbs. The last phrase mentions the providential timing of their return, which is so crucial for the events to unfold as they do throughout the book and bring Naomi and Ruth to rest.

Sermon Conclusion

We need to be careful of hasty conclusions concerning Naomi. It’s early in the story and her character arc is by no means complete. Reading Naomi as Job-like sufferer also gives us pause before engaging in hasty condemnations. The author does not give any judgments about Naomi’s words, but the obvious connections with Job are certainly key to how we should think about her. The characters are dealing with great hardships in life and the story gives us direction on responding to those who are suffering and thinking about our own sufferings.

Links

You can listen to the fourth sermon in the series here.

Up Next

Next, I will look at the fifth sermon in the series.

This post is part a of series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

To Preach a Book: Sermon 3 – A New Identity

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

For the third sermon, I chose to preach the rest of Scene 1, which is Ruth 1:6-18. You will notice on my scene sheets that I actually broke the scene in the middle of verse 19. I ended up putting verse 19 with Scene 2. It’s not a big issue, but the rest of verse 19 is part of the inciting incident for Scene 2. Verses 6-18 give us the turning point, crisis choice, climax decision, and resolution for the scene and moves the story into the middle. We learn more about Naomi and Ruth as characters in this story. I entitled the sermon, “A New Identity,” because the conversion of Ruth and Ruth’s identity which is a recurring motif throughout the story.

Verses 6-13 Naomi’s Choice

The opening of the story has left Naomi a childless widow in a foreign land. She lost rest, even the hope of rest, and she had to make a choice. She chose to return to Israel after she had learned the famine was ended and Judah had food. We are not told how she received this story revelation, but it creates the turning point in the scene.

She began the journey back and Ruth and Orpah accompanied her. Verses 8-9 give Naomi’s words to her daughters-in-law, which sets up their choice in the scene. She bids them to return to their homes and family. Naomi blesses and prays for them to experience Yahweh’s kindness. This is the first mention of hesed, which refers to covenant kindness or faithfulness, introducing an important theme.

This is also the first of four instances where Ruth is praised for virtuous acts, introducing her as a wisdom character. The book of Ruth obviously parallels Ruth with the virtuous/wise woman of Proverbs 31. The word for virtuous that describes the wise woman, used in Proverbs 30:10, and 29, is also used to describe Ruth in Ruth 2:1; 3:11; and 4:11. I needed to explore this, so I printed out the text of Proverbs 31:10-31 and read through it several times. I wanted to identify characteristics of the wise woman and noted those down the left hand margin. I identified ten different characteristics that were praised in that passage. I also wanted to note where Ruth was either praised for, or displayed those characteristics in the book of Ruth. I put this information on a spreadsheet and included there a contrast with the strange, or foreign, woman in Proverbs. The same word is used of Ruth to describe her as a foreigner, but she is obviously the antithesis of the Proverbs strange woman. You will find links for these sheets at the bottom of the post.

Verse 9 states the controlling theme for the story of finding rest. Finding rest is symbolized by family, the house of a husband. Ruth and Orpah both initially respond with their intentions to stay with her. In verses 11-13, Naomi responds to them in terms of finding rest and that she cannot provide it for them. Naomi is hopeless and is introduced here as a wisdom character, a Job-like suffering figure. She had endured extreme hardship. She acknowledged God’s hand of providence in her life and made a statement similar to Job’s statements about his sufferings in Job 6:4 and 19:21. She will have further statements establishing her as an archetypal sufferer.

Verses 14-18 Ruth’s Choice

The scene moves toward resolution as Ruth and Orpah must make a choice. Orpah returns to her people and provides a foil for illustrating Ruth’s conversion and character as she assumes a new identity. Ruth had already been praised for showing covenant kindness and the narrator describes that she clave to Naomi. Some translations have clung. The word for clave/clung is associated in the Old Testament with covenant faithfulness and describes what Israel was supposed to do (Deuteronomy 10:20; 13:4; Joshua 23:8). It sets up Ruth’s confession in verses 16-17 and her unwavering loyalty throughout the book.

Verses 16-17 are the familiar confession of Ruth, and are some of the most beautiful words in the Bible. The words demonstrate the conversion of Ruth and declare her loyalty to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Her loyalty, love, and faithfulness to Naomi are clearly seen as the fruit of her loyalty, love, and faithfulness to Yahweh. Ruth has a new identity, though her ethnic identity doesn’t change. Ruth’s identity is a recurring motif. The scene resolves with Naomi and Ruth returning to Bethlehem.

Sermon Conclusion

The conclusion needed to point out realities about faith. The book presents the characters, especially Naomi and Ruth, in such a way that their choices and actions are seen as actions of faith. Both Naomi and Ruth are in hard circumstances, with limited options. Ruth’s choice is enhanced by Orpah’s choice to return. For the two young widows, returning to their family homes seem the most promising. That is not what Ruth did.

We learn a certain lesson about faith, which is that faith is not merely knowledge or ideas. The Christian faith is not theoretical, abstract ideas we merely entertain, discuss, and play with. Faith in forms how we make decisions and how we live in this world.

Sermon Introduction

To introduce this sermon, I wanted to give a brief summary of the previous sermon. We covered the opening part of the scene. I wanted to point out important lessons there and connect it to the rest of the scene before us.

I wanted to introduce the last part of Scene 1 in terms of the important themes introduced at this point of the story. The controlling/unifying theme of the whole story is introduced here. The themes of wisdom and covenant faithfulness are also introduced. These themes are important for the shape of the story and informing how we read it.

Links

You can listen to the third sermon of the series here. You can download the markup sheet of Proverbs 31:10-31 here. You can download the spreadsheet of the parallels and contrasts of Ruth and Proverbs here.

Up Next

In the next post, I will look at the fourth sermon in the series.

This post is part a of series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

To Preach a Book: Sermon 2 – From Life to Death

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

Now I am ready to begin preaching the text of Ruth. I have the major divisions of the book in the form of six scenes to work with. I need to decide how to divide the actual preaching units. I suppose I could have preached one sermon for each scene. That’s a good way to preach the book, and especially when dealing with historical narrative books. I didn’t go that route, mainly because it’s not the detailed exposition I want to do when going verse by verse through a book.

Detailed, verse by verse exposition does present a problem in a narrative book. Preachers are generally more comfortable in prose portions of Scripture, like New Testament epistles. In the epistles, we are looking for thought units and think about essay paragraphs to divide the text for preaching. That doesn’t work with narrative because it is a different content genre. It doesn’t work with poetry either.

Narratives are stories and stories are about change. Change is what drives stories. Stories are made up of characters experiencing change, reacting, and either succeeding or failing. I’m generalizing, but change is what we are looking for in narratives, and as we classify those changes, we identify scenes. Scenes are made up of changes in the form of inciting events, progressive complications, turning points, crisis questions, climax choices, and resolutions.

You can see this break down in my scene sheets for Ruth. I use these sheets to help me to determine the preaching units. In each sermon, I want to capture significant change in the narrative, but I also need to know what form the change is in and how it contributes to the immediate scene and overall story.

I chose Ruth 1:1-5 as my first passage to preach. These verses form the opening image of Scene 1, but also the opening image for the whole book. These first five verses give all the necessary information and the changes that set this story in motion. The story unfolds with a chain of related events leading to the final image, which is a reversal of the opening image. The opening image shows how Naomi and Ruth end up as childless widows in Moab. The final image shows Naomi and Ruth in Bethlehem with Ruth married and having a son who legally stands as Naomi’s son and heir to her dead husband and son. The opening image contributes the setting, two of the main characters, important plot points, and the book’s message, or unifying theme.

Verses 1-2 Famine in Israel

The first words we are given in the book tell us the events happened during the time of the judges. This gives us the time period for the story, but also the cultural and environmental setting. I need to do some work in Judges to find and present relevant information for the book of Ruth. Obviously, Ruth is a stark contrast with Judges since Judges emphasizes covenant unfaithfulness and Ruth emphasizes covenant faithfulness.

Next, we learn a famine came to the land of Judah and a family left Bethlehem to live in Moab temporarily. This is the inciting event for the whole story. Everything that happens, all the way to the end of the book, is connected with this family leaving Judah during a famine. The famine, Bethlehem of Judah, and the country of Moab are all significant.

Verses 3-5 Emptied in Moab

The second part of the opening image shows how Naomi’s situation progressed downward. Her husband died. Her sons married Moabite women and then both her sons died. Though her sons had been married for ten years, they were childless.

The narratorial perspective has emerged by the end of this opening image in verse 5, as the events are told in relation to their effect on Naomi. “And the woman was left of her two sons and her husband.”

Sermon Conclusion

In the conclusion, I want to draw out what lessons are learned in this passage. I want to do that both, in relation to the immediate context and the greater context. I want to end with practical applications for the people who will be in front of me when I preach it.

Sermon Introduction

To introduce the sermon, I want to tell about the passage and what part it plays in the scene and the story. I want to give people an idea of where we’re going and what we’re looking for. The aim is to give enough information to interest them in the sermon and to know where we are in the sermon as it progresses. As much as possible, I want to help them hear it.

Links

You can listen to the second sermon here. You can download the marked up journal I used throughout the entire study here.

Up Next

In the next post, I will look at the third sermon.

This post is part a of series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

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