Famished for God’s word

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land — not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. (Amos 8:11)

I spoke at my parents’ church in Peterborough this weekend. They are members of the United Church of Canada, a “liberal” denomination.

Generally speaking, preaching sermons doesn’t make you popular. But I love to preach in my parents’ church because the congregation responds to clear biblical teaching with extraordinary enthusiasm.

It’s sad to think that people who faithfully attend church could be famished for God’s word. But that has consistently been my experience in this church, and I’ve been speaking there once a year for ten years or so.

Is it because the denomination is liberal? I’m sure it’s a factor. The last couple of ministers at this church have been good at pastoral care, but my Dad admits they don’t provide much of a sermon.

I think many “conservative” churches are also famished for God’s word, more than they realize. The word has been domesticated:  they are exposed to it all the time, but in a form that induces apathy. That’s just my opinion, of course, although it does remind me of a Keith Green song, Asleep In the Light.

I’m an unlikely candidate to fix what ails the Church. To be corrected by me is akin to a rebuke from Balaam’s ass. But I think Amos’s prophecy is applicable in our generation:  in an era when Bibles are mass produced, there is a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.

Rembrandt, Balaam's Ass


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jamie
    Jul 09, 2007 @ 08:25:38

    Out of curiosity, what did you preach about?


  2. Stephen
    Jul 09, 2007 @ 19:33:20

    I’ve reformatted the sermon in essay form and posted it here.


  3. aaron
    Jul 10, 2007 @ 22:30:53

    That’s a very well constructed sermon. Not that I’m surprised, given your well constructed blog posts. FWIW, I disagree with your assertion that Bush embraces democracy in Iraq. He extols democracy as a means to an end — he wanted to depose Saddam, damn the consequences, and offered up the idea of democracy to gain support for his actions. Truthfully, I’m still not sure what Bush believes in, though I do think there are grounds to support the idea that he believes that he’s acting out God’s will.

    Highly tangentially, your reference to Balaam’s ass is timely, given that that portion was just read in synogogues on June 30. I was at one for a Bar Mitzvah, and was quite entertained by the rabbi acting out the parts when he read the Torah — the Hebrew speaking/braying was a riot.


  4. Stephen
    Jul 10, 2007 @ 22:59:41

    Thanks, Aaron. I’m flattered that you took the time to read the sermon.

    I admit that I also find Bush to be something of a mystery. He speaks in such cliches that it’s hard to know what lies beneath the constant diet of spin and manipulation. However, I do think he sincerely, and naively, expected the Iraqi people to embrace democracy enthusiastically.

    I didn’t want to dwell on the President’s motivations at length on Sunday morning. A more accurate analysis would perhaps concede that Dubya believes in both constructs: Christian faith and the western institutions I identified in my sermon. In fact, Christianity is probably just another western institution in the President’s mind, of a piece with democracy, capitalism, science & technology, etc.

    But, in my view, that still puts the President in the company of Hitchens and Dawkins, more than they would care to concede.


  5. Stephen
    Jul 10, 2007 @ 23:03:15

    p.s. I had no idea that the story of Balaam’s ass was a timely reference point. And that’s hilarious, that the Rabbi was braying in his presentation of the text. He sounds like a capable preacher: he at least knows how to engage people’s attention!


  6. Jamie
    Jul 11, 2007 @ 20:13:38

    I like the sermon as well. I’m personally not so wild about politicizing in sermons, especially because I’m not sure I agree with your analysis of Bush, but hey. I thought the rest of the sermon was quite excellent–even if not what I was expecting!


  7. Stephen
    Jul 12, 2007 @ 07:30:29

    Thanks, Jamie. It certainly went over very well with the congregation, so I’m pleased.

    I hesitated before including the remarks about the Bush Administration. But, first, the text is inherently political. It is about a prophet opposing a king. Jeremiah’s message is, “Turn!” (Hebrew shub). The word certainly means repent, as in “stop mixing Baal worship with Yahweh worship”. But it also means chang your political direction, as in “stop trusting in a political alliance with Egypt to protect Israel from Babylon”.

    Indeed, the prophets were always holding Israel’s kings to account. I believe that sets a precedent that the church must be prepared to follow (e.g. in Nazi Germany). The current geopolitical crisis is not morally neutral, and the Church surely has a truth to speak to power: e.g. with respect to torture. If the Church fails in that responsibility, God will not be pleased.

    The specific issue I touched on is less clear-cut, however, as I admitted to Aaron. The second consideration, then, is that Christians can and do disagree with their preachers! I have never feared that I wielded too much power over what people think! So there is no harm in throwing out a personal opinion for people to accept or reject as they see fit, with no pretense that I speak for God on the topic.

    Third, I felt I had to address this issue. Dawkins and Hitchens would indeed tell me that the Bush Administration is already too cozy with conservative Christians. What’s the right response to that criticism? I didn’t feel I could skirt the issue with intellectual integrity.

    If I could have, I would have. In terms of the structure of the sermon, I don’t think that bit fits. If you remove it, the sermon flows better. But I felt the unspoken objection was hanging there and needed to be addressed.


  8. Stephen
    Jul 12, 2007 @ 08:43:18

    On your other comment, … even if not what I was expecting!

    Meaning, of course, that I have a “low” view of scripture but the sermon sounds like I have a “high” view of scripture. These things are relative, of course: perhaps my view of scripture is not as “low” as a prima facie impression suggests.

    We seem to be off and running on the topic, “philosophy of preaching”, so let me continue with that.

    The preacher’s responsibility is to tell the congregation something that they need to hear on that occasion. (There may not be any one thing; the preacher may have lots of potential messages to choose from that would be equally timely.)

    The United Church of Canada doesn’t know quite what to do with the Bible in the modern context. The result is a great deal of tentativeness from the pulpit.

    I can identify with that struggle! But ultimately, one must elbow one’s way through the sundry problems and take a stand for the Bible as, in some sense, God’s word; and, in some sense, authoritative in the life of the Church.

    One way to do that is simply to recognize the relevance of the Bible as a critique of a secular, materialistic society. Whether biblical history is accurate or largely a literary construct doesn’t ultimately matter from that perspective. The critique is still powerful and people would still do well to attend to it.

    That’s a big part of where I’m headed with the new blog, Emerging From Babel.

    So many historical and metaphysical questions are ultimately unanswerable. Should we then yield to scepticism? Should we harden our convictions into dogmas? I say No to both of those options.

    The third option is to bracket the historical questions by conceding, “We don’t know; we don’t have enough data”. But then we press on to assert, “The critique is nonetheless relevant and extremely valuable” — and we follow the text where it leads.

    That was the objective of my sermon. Explicitly, I told the congregation that the Bible offers a valuable critique of modern, western society. Implicitly, I modelled the above approach to scripture: I set the historical questions aside and I followed the text where it leads.


  9. jamiekiley
    Jul 14, 2007 @ 09:43:48

    The current geopolitical crisis is not morally neutral, and the Church surely has a truth to speak to power: e.g. with respect to torture. If the Church fails in that responsibility, God will not be pleased.

    This is interesting. I actually wouldn’t mind if there were more discussion of politics from the pulpit; my concern about it (surprising as this might sound from a conservative American Christian) is that it reduces in some way the separation of church and state. I don’t think church leaders should be indoctrinating their members on how to vote or what political positions they should take, because it leads (apparently) to the sort of situation we have in the U.S., with a very conservative religio-political wing of voters who like religion and politics closely tied together–in the government as well as their personal lives. That kind of movement scares me!

    I like your philosophy of preaching. As I said, I expected you to take a completely different approach, but I can’t disagree with what you said. In the future I suppose I should refrain from jumping to conclusions!


  10. Stephen
    Jul 15, 2007 @ 10:46:59

    I think the key is, preachers and other Christians should not be siding with one political party over another. On the contrary, we should maintain a clear separation from all political parties. A pox on both their houses!

    The Church needs to understand, “the world” thinks within one paradigm and Christians are supposed to think within another. The result is, Christians must maintain a critical distance from all secular institutions (e.g. democracy, capitalism) and political parties (Republican, Democrat, or independent).

    The failure of Christians both on the left and on the right to maintain that critical distance shows how impoverished our understanding of biblical faith really is — the deplorable extent to which our minds have been conformed to the pattern of this world.


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