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.

To Preach a Book: Sermon 7 – God is Not Silent

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.

The seventh sermon covers the short, transitional scene in Ruth 2:18-23. This scene is like a bridge to move from the important events earlier in chapter 2 to those in chapter 3.

Sermon Introduction

I gave a brief review of the climactic resolution of the previous scene. Ruth went out empty, but came back full after a day of gleaning in the field. As important as that was, it was more important that she met Boaz.

I also introduced the third scene and highlighted its importance. The third scene resolves the dramatic tension built up in the previous scene. Providence had turned for Naomi and Ruth, but neither of them knew it. So this third scene turns on revelation, where both Naomi and Ruth learn what they didn’t know.

Verses 18-20 Naomi is Surprised by Grace

Ruth returned home to report to Naomi what happened. Naomi is surprised by the food she brings and inquires where she gleaned that day. When Naomi learns that it was Boaz’ field and what transpired between Boaz and Ruth, she is beyond elated. She prays a blessing on Boaz and recognizes God’s hand of providence at work. She reveals the family connection to Ruth.

Verses 21-23 Ruth Remains Faithful

Ruth gives further revelation to Naomi that Boaz not only blessed her for a day, but invited to glean in his field for the entire harvest season. Of course, Naomi advises Ruth to accept his invitation.

The scene ends with summary exposition. Ruth spent the next two months gleaning in the fields of Boaz. She stayed with his maid servants following the reapers. She was given safety and provision, which they both lacked when arriving in Bethlehem. Apparently, nothing further happened between Ruth and Boaz.

Sermon Conclusion

Ruth’s identity and character is further established by this scene. It is apparent that God was working for the good of Ruth and Naomi, while he was accomplishing his redemptive purpose in bringing forth David and the Messiah. We are furnished with a good picture of what daily faithfulness looks like. It means trusting God to accomplish his redemptive purpose and daily walking by faith according to his word.

Links

You can listen to the seventh sermon here.

Up Next

Next we will look at the eighth sermon in the series.

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

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.

To Preach a Book: Sermon 6 – Satisfied

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.

The sixth sermon covered the ending resolution of Scene 2, from 2:8-17. The scene turned when Boaz arrived. A day that hadn’t gone especially well for Ruth suddenly became much better. Ruth returns home full.

Sermon Introduction

I reviewed the turning point of Scene 2 covered in the previous sermon. That part of the scene introduced us to Boaz and established him as a possible source of help for Ruth and Naomi. Ruth’s character as a wise/virtuous woman is further illustrated. The turning point marks a true turn in providence for Naomi, but she doesn’t know it yet, so dramatic tension is introduced.

The end of Scene 2 gives us the crucial moment where Ruth and Boaz meet. Each one has the character more filled out as they respond and make choices. Consistent with her character as a wise/virtuous woman, Ruth literally receives the fruits of her work as she goes home full to Naomi.

Verses 8-13 Ruth and Boaz Meet

The arrival of Boaz leads to an exchange with his field supervisor and ultimately with Ruth. It seems Ruth has had some trouble in fields as is leaving, as Boaz asks her not to leave his fields. This certainly increases the tension and further highlights the providential timing of Boaz’ arrival.

The exchange between Boaz and Ruth put them both in the best light. Their character is being shown through their actions. Boaz shows unexpected generosity in instructing Ruth to stay with his maidens, ensuring her a more fruitful gleaning. Ruth is astonished at the grace shown to her.

Verses 14-17 Ruth is Filled

The scene resolves with Boaz multiplying his kindness to Ruth. He invites her to eat at his table. What was likely an ordinary workday meal for his servants became a lavish and filling feast for Ruth. He further extended his kindness with instructions to his reapers giving Ruth an even greater yield for the day’s work.

The opening image of the scene had Naomi saying she went away from Bethlehem full and came back empty. The image is reversed in the scene resolution where Ruth had left home that morning empty and was coming back full.

Sermon Conclusion

I noticed how this part of the scene had many unknowns. Boaz didn’t know who Ruth was. Ruth didn’t know who Boaz was. Naomi didn’t know how Ruth was doing. So the passage applies to us by giving an example of what living by faith looks like. What do we do when we don’t have all the answers and we don’t know what one choice or action will lead to?

Links

You can listen to the fifth sermon here.

Up Next

Next will be the seventh sermon in the series.

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

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 5 – Chance of a Lifetime

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.

The fifth sermon covered Ruth 2:1-7, which is the middle portion of Scene 2. The scene progresses from the opening at the end of Chapter 1 to the turning point of the scene in this passage. This scene turns on the actions of Boaz who happens to arrive in the field at the right time to see and inquire after Ruth. Scene 2 begins with emptiness and ends with fullness and this turning point is crucial to reach that resolution.

Sermon Introduction

I reviewed the opening image of Scene 2 covered in the previous sermon. Naomi was established as an archetypal sufferer, which gives a certain perspective to providence. The archetypal sufferer is literarily an innocent sufferer, though not innocent in absolute terms. The sufferer is in a place of frowning providence where events beyond her control have affected her negatively. The sufferer views providence in terms of unexpected negative events.

This part of Scene 2 shows a turn in providence to the unexpected blessings side, which is the dominant view of providence through the rest of the book. Boaz, the third main character in the story, is introduced in this part of the scene. The providential subtext in this passage is thick as coincidences pile up and bring Ruth and Boaz to the point of meeting.

Verses 1-3 Ruth’s Chance

Boaz is introduced in the first verse and his introduction is given in such a way as to highlight his qualifications as a potential redeemer. He is introduced in connection to Naomi, his standing as a wealthy man, and his connection to the family of Elimelech. He is introduced as a wisdom character and acts honorably with covenant faithfulness throughout the story.

The focus shifts back to Naomi and Ruth, highlighting the reality of their still difficult situation. They are poor widows and Ruth is a foreigner. Naomi’s presence in this part of the scene continues to show her as hopeless. They must rely on the covenant law allowing for gleaning in the fields. This is no guarantee as this is the time of the judges, a time when Israel was not known for covenant faithfulness.

Ruth’s chance comes when she goes out to glean in a field. The author goes to great lengths to show that Ruth came to the field of Boaz purely by God’s providence. There was no human intent or contrivance to get her there. To Ruth, one field must have seemed very much like the next. She was likely more determined to glean wherever she gained permission rather than trying to pick the perfect spot.

Verses 4-7 Boaz’ Chance

The author continues the providential theme as Boaz comes to the field at just the right time. Note the aspects of Boaz’ character revealed in these verses. He is presented as good man and a faithful man. He noticed Ruth and inquired after. The field supervisor answers Boaz and praises Ruth’s character. Both Ruth and Boaz are shown as wisdom characters, so besides the qualifications of Boaz as a redeemer, we are shown compatibility between the two. We have strong foreshadowing here of the redemption to come.

Sermon Conclusion

This passage heavily emphasizes providence. The choices and actions of the characters are shown as being faithful in response to providential events, even though they didn’t yet recognize the significance of those events. Obviously, we learn God’s sovereign control of all things. He is always at work and events happen that may seem good or bad to us. His purposes in events are hidden from us, but our responsibility lies in what he has made known in his word.

Links

You can listen to the fifth sermon here.

Up Next

Next will be the sixth sermon in the series.

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

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