July 13th, 2014
The Rev. Rob Fisher
Pentecost 5, Proper 10 of Year A: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
There was a professor that we all loved in seminary named David Bartlett. We all just called him Bartlett. No first name needed. You’d hear people say around campus, “Bartlett is preaching in chapel today.” And on such days, the chapel attendance was always noticeably larger.
Bartlett was an American Baptist minister, a New Testament scholar, the academic dean of Yale Divinity School, and most importantly to us the preaching professor that we all looked up to.
He is a tall, skinny man with not much hair on the top but with a wispy, prophetic white beard. And when he speaks, he has a booming, bear-like voice, which conveys wisdom and great warmth—a natural born preacher.
Obviously, no one can preach like anyone else. Rather, any preacher has to find his or her own voice. But what Bartlett did in his classes was open our eyes to concepts behind preaching. He offered guidelines that help make sermons just work better. We called them Bartlett’s rules for preaching.
Today, probably against my better judgment, I am going to share some of these principles with you. Unfortunately, now you’ll know when I am breaking them! Believe me when I say that I think about these rules nearly every week.
First of all, Bartlett used to remind us that to preach is to share the good news. There is nothing more important. You as the preacher might have a lot of interesting things to say, but the point of a sermon is to offer uplift based upon the Gospel. He used to ask, especially after some erudite student sermon, but what’s good about that news? These people who have come to church got dressed; they got themselves here; they got their children here. You owe them some good news in every sermon!
Likewise, to preach is to open up scripture. By definition, a sermon is based on a scripture reading. A preacher is to shed light on the text. If you are not preaching on the text, it’s not a sermon. It’s just a spiritual talk.
Speaking of preaching on the text, Bartlett used to say, “Please don’t try to preach on all the texts in the same sermon!” Because it very rarely works. Just choose one, and do it well. Perhaps two. To try and preach on all three texts plus the psalm is to set yourself up for a forced sermon. He said he only heard such preaching succeed twice in a lifetime of listening to sermons, and one of those two sermons was his own.
Another rule was for the preacher to avoid counting in sermons. This one was, I think, aimed especially at the Presbyterians in the room. What he meant was that, unless it is going to really make a difference, you don’t need to tell people that the word camel occurs 23 times in the book of Jeremiah! (It actually appears three times. I looked it up, and I just now broke that rule.)
To us Episcopalians, he once reminded us to beware of saying such things as: “I know everybody is wondering why I am wearing green vestments today!” He said it is likely that nobody cares as much about the color of your vestments as you do. Don’t assume that people already care about such things. Instead, show them why they should care if it is something you feel is important.
In other words: show, don’t tell.
I heard James Forbes give a talk on preaching. He was the renowned preacher at Riverside Church in New York, and he said “I hate salad sermons. You know what I mean, when the preacher says ‘lettuce do this, and lettuce do that!’”
Show, don’t tell.
Or, put another way: Don’t be preachy.
Jesus’ preaching went even beyond show-don’t-tell. Jesus spoke mysteries. He was provocative. He said things that were impossible to ignore. You have to struggle with these teachings, which is a way of taken them to heart, and only after engagement do you unlock the deeper meaning of his words.
And he often taught in parables.
Speaking of his use of parables to challenge his listeners, William Sloane Coffin once said: “If you win an argument you may lose a follower. Who wants to be worsted in an argument? But where arguments alienate, parables disarm.”
Jesus speaks of a sower who scatters seed. Some falls on the path, and the birds eat it up. Other seed falls on rocky ground, but there isn’t much soil there, so the seed springs up quickly but soon dies in the sun because it has so little root. Other seed falls among thorns, and the thorns grow up and choke it. Finally, some of the seed falls on good soil, bringing forth grain up to a hundredfold.
There is an interpretation of this parable, which we just heard, explaining various conditions of persons. Some are not in a good position to receive the word of God, which is the seed, but a very few are able to hear and understand, and their lives bear fruit abundantly.
If we have no depth, no root system, no endurance against the cares of the world, we are going to have a really hard time taking the word of God to heart and living lives inspired by it.
And yet I have recently discovered that some scholars believe that this specific interpretation was added later and was not part of what Jesus actually spoke.
This view is still valid, of course. But if we can open it up a little?
Imagine instead of being the soil being the sower.
We are to spread these seeds that we have been given. We have been entrusted with love, and we are to give our love away.
And if we behave like the sower in the parable, we scatter the seed everywhere.
Think about it. An actual farmer would not cast seeds on the path at all, nor on rocky ground or among thorns. But this sower does. He casts seeds everywhere.
To a worldly perspective, it seems inefficient. But this is how we are to share the love of God. Cast it everywhere. Do not worry about efficiency—because efficiency will take are of itself.
You really don’t have to worry about yourself, because the truth is that when you spread your love out to the world, it will come back to you. When love takes hold it multiplies.
Love generates love, and it is a miracle just like watching a seed turn into a stalk of grain.
Only God can give such growth.
The Word of God is like seed that carries the power to build the kingdom of heaven on earth. These seeds bring the good news of light overcoming darkness, forgiveness healing guilt, life conquering death.
We are all called to scatter these seeds. We all are called to preach the good news.
As one of the all-time great preachers, whose name was Francis, allegedly said, “Preach the good news at all times. When necessary, use words.”