Useless preaching (A note for Easter, and for every sermon)

I have a few standard questions I ask of each sermon before I preach. I have a few others I ask when I listen to a sermon—not for the sake of evaluating, but for the sake of recognizing what I need to take away.

My most important question on both lists: In this sermon, why does it matter that Christ has been raised? That is, what would be bad news, impossible advice or nonsense in this message if Christ hasn’t been raised?

The apostle Paul points me in this direction. “If Christ has not been raised,” he writes, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

If I can preach a sermon that could be left fully intact even if Christ wasn’t raised, it’s no sermon. It may be a nice philosophical treatise, a “teaching” on some piece of Christian doctrine, an important social justice stance, or some good self-help, but it’s not a sermon.1 A sermon proclaims the gospel, the good news that has as its foundation our great mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.


I don’t have comments here any more. If you’d like to discuss it with friends, share it with them and discuss. If you’d like to discuss it with me, send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

  1. And to be clear, a sermon may do all of those things. They’re not excluded. But these alone don’t make it a sermon.

In the Name of God, or Worship as Primary Theology

the LORDYou may notice that the Old Testament spells out “Lord” in all caps in several places. Other times, it uses “Lord” without the capitals. Why the difference? This is to represent a special word, the personal name of God: “jhwh.” The people of Israel considered this name so holy that they neither spoke it nor spelled it in full[1]—a sort of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” but this out of reverence not dread.

This name has such significance throughout the Old Testament that when people do or say something important, they do it “in the name of the Lord.” The priests minister and pronounce blessings “in the name of the Lord.[2] The prophets prophecy and even call down curses “in the name of the Lord.”[3] David goes to battle against Goliath “in the name of the Lord.[4] And David, though he is king of a great and powerful military, writes songs about trusting in this name, not his military: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”[5]

Before we move further, let’s reconsider this word, Lord. When our Bible translations turn “jhwh” into “Lord,” it creates a different meaning for us. Most people who hear or read “the Lord your God” take it as two roles—Lord and God. This suggests something quite different than hearing it for what it is: God referring to himself by personal name. Because Jews refrain from speaking that name, they have used adonai as a popular substitution throughout history. Out of respect for that tradition and the Name of God, we’ll do the same here.

What’s in a name? Why does it matter that God should say, “I am adonai, your God,” and not simply, “I am your God”? God could even announce himself with more grand titles, “I am the Lord, the Creator, the King of all the Earth, your God!” Any of these titles command total devotion. So why “I am adonai”?

When we move from titles and roles to personal names, we change categories—from objects of devotion to subjects. A man named Martin Buber suggested that either we relate to others as subjects, as I and Thou, or we experience them as objects, I and It.[6] We speak about an object; we speak to another subject.

You’ve seen the ways that we treat objects and subjects differently. Doctors may speak about the diabetic patient being considered for surgery, an object of discussion. But when they speak to her as “Marjorie,” she becomes more. She becomes a real person, with a personal name. She becomes a Thou and not merely an It.[7]

And so God speaks to his people as adonai. A king is to be obeyed. A god to be worshiped. A deliverer to be praised. But someone with a personal name is to be known.

If we go only so far as to talk about God, to study God or think about what God must be like, we’ve done a small part of theology. If we go that far and stop, we may know about God as an object of study, even of devotion, but we will not know God, the Eternal Thou.[8]

Most “theological writing” can only do the objective work. It can serve only to point to God, to consider God in all his glory. It can help us to know more about God, a good and important pursuit, but a far lesser pursuit than real knowledge of God. For that greater task of theology, the church will help you more than any book.

In the church, we turn from speech about God and address the Eternal Thou in prayer and praise. In the church, we not only announce to each other God’s love, but we pray together, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” In the church, we not only proclaim God’s might, but we sing to God himself, “How great Thou art,” and “I’ll worship your holy name.”

When we worship and pray, we do primary theological work. All the rest––all the discussion about God––is secondary work. It can (and should!) enhance our primary work of worship and prayer. But it can never replace them.


Note: This is adapted from a larger piece I’m working on. It’s a portion I thought I could use your help with. I always enjoy hearing your feedback, but especially on this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


[1] Thus no vowels. This is still the case for many Jewish believers today.
[2] Deuteronomy 21:5
[3] Deuteronomy 18:22; 2 Kings 2:24
[4] 1 Samuel 17:45
[5] Psalm 20:7
[6] See his brilliant book, I and Thou.
[7] As seen in Patch Adams (1998)––see the scene here.
[8] As Buber refers to God in I and Thou.

Dori Hundley Deitrich — 1986–2014

This morning I had the honor and the dismay to preside over Dori Deitrich’s funeral. I met Dori when I became her youth minister at Trinity Hill UMC. Though they weren’t together yet, her husband, Matt, was also in that youth group. We’re not supposed to play favorites in ministry, but theirs were the two pictures that hung on our refrigerator for ten years. Over that time, they went from being special youth to dear friends.

I’m using this space to share my sermon from Dori’s funeral, especially as I know so many people wished they could make it and weren’t able. To Dori’s family and friends––may the God of peace comfort you, bless you, and keep you.

Matt and Dori celebrated their 5th wedding anniversary last Friday and re-watched their wedding video. Matt asked that we use the same passages in today’s ceremony that they used five years ago –– Philippians 2:1–5 and Colossians 3:12–17.

———

Five years ago, as we were preparing for a wedding, Matt and Dori sent me those passages you just heard from Philippians and Colossians. Listen to some of those words again: “As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience … Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts… Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts… Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit…” 

I sent a message back and said, “Well these are interesting. Not the typical wedding passages. It’s not, ‘Love is patient, love is kind.’ It’s not, ‘Husbands, love your wives; wives respect your husbands.’ Why’d you pick these?”

And their response was, “Yeah, we weren’t looking for something about marriage, specifically. We picked these because they’re how we want to live our lives. This is the beginning of doing that together.”

For us who knew Dori, I think we can celebrate just how much those passages fit—that they weren’t just nice things to have read at a wedding. They were a real description of the kind of person God gave us in Dori—clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

I want to share with you three specific memories I’ll always hold dear about Dori.

The first is just her smile…

Over these last few days, I’ve started to realize just how much there is in a smile. If you haven’t yet, you should scroll through Dori’s Facebook page to see all the pictures people have posted. And you’ll just keep noticing her smile. I think that constant smile represented so much about Dori. Can I show you my favorite of the pictures I’ve seen?

Photo courtesy of Nina & West photography: www.ninaandwes.com

Photo courtesy of Nina & Wes photography: www.ninaandwes.com

Somehow, that simple picture captures so much—so much about what I keep hearing about Dori from so many of you—about the way she just took in each moment, about how she always wanted to be sure everyone was happy and having a good time and getting along. About that magnetic, joyful personality. I’ve asked several of you already what you’ll remember, and I keep hearing you say you’ll remember her smile. I don’t think that’s just about the smile. I think you’ve said that because you saw a bit of her heart in it. You saw some of the character of God in it—a genuine compassion and joy.

Now, I’ve been told we’re not supposed to make instant saints out of people at their funerals. We don’t need to paint overly rosy pictures of people. And Claire, Dori’s mom, was reminding me yesterday that it took some time and growth. There was a time Dori was really questioning whether she was cut out to be a “pastor’s wife.” But then Claire talked about how Dori just flourished—how she kept growing into this wonderful woman of God. She attributed a lot of that to Matt. And she noted that a lot of it was by the grace of God––the way you could see that God’s grace transformed Dori over time.

The second memory I’ll always keep about Dori is about her with kids. Dori and Matt were our go-to babysitters for years. I still remember the first times they baby-sat when there were three, and then when there were four. Matt came in wide-eyed, and Dori would come in and say, “We can do this!” I’ll remember our words on our adoption recommendation for them: “There is no other couple we have wanted to see become parents as much as these two.” And I’ll remember the sudden, shocking messages Dori sent us: “We’re on our way to Alabama to get our new baby boy.” We couldn’t believe how quickly it all happened. Later, Dori would call it a miracle—an act of God to allow them to get Carter before her cancer was discovered.

And that’s the third memory I know I’ll keep—is about how Dori handled her sickness…

That passage about letting the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, and about having gratitude in your hearts, seems so fitting. Matt was remarking the other day about how her concern, even in sickness, was never about herself. There was plenty of opportunity for “why me, why now,” and it never came. Even when some of the rest of us weren’t ready to concede that we could lose her, she was saying, “Why are we so afraid of dying? Don’t we believe we’re with Jesus when we die?” Even when things were looking progressively worse, she was still posting Scriptures like, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” All the way to the end, the peace of Christ seemed to rule in her heart. Even as her body got weaker, it just seemed like her spirit got stronger.

As I’ve heard several of you talk about Dori for the last few days, I’ve realized that we all saw different sides, we all got different glimpses. But we all seemed to know the same Dori. I’m thankful for that.

And so we come here and we give thanks to God. We thank God that in each person we catch a glimpse of the image of God—and we’ve seen at least a glimpse of God’s joy and delight through Dori. We thank God that the gospel isn’t just about what happens after we die. It’s about what happens while we live, too. It’s about how, by the grace of God, he turns us into compassionate, humble, gentle people. People of peace. People who persevere in difficult times.

We thank God, too, that the gospel is about what happens after we die. For those who receive Christ, for those who believe in his name, he gives us the right to become children of God. We hate death, but it doesn’t have the final word. We thank God because Jesus says, “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me… Because I live, you will live too… Don’t be troubled or afraid.” Claire told me last night that Dori had said to her, “I’m not going to live afraid.” And she didn’t. She didn’t need to. We have a God who tells us not to be troubled or afraid, and she trusted him.

This is why, even though we come and mourn today, we can go from here in hope, too. Because we come knowing that we entrust Dori into the hands of God, who can be trusted.