Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How To Listen To A Sermon

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 13:1-9:

In 1940, the philosopher and educator Mortimer J. Adler published a book entitled How to Read a Book. Now we might think reading a book is sort of self-explanatory, after all if we needed to know how to read it wouldn’t we have been taught. And yet, if you have read Adler’s book you come to realize we come to realize that we actually didn’t know how to read a book. So today we are going to try and tackle something more important to us, and that is how to listen to a sermon. Perhaps this too should be self-explanatory, after all we have been doing it for a long time, but I’m guessing that we were never taught how to listen to a sermon, or what we might do to get the most out of a sermon. I was certainly never taught that, nor have I ever taught it. I was taught how to preach, or at least the basics of doing it, but never how to receive the words of scripture. This was not always the case. It used to be that people would be taught how to listen to sermons, but according to Christopher Ash, who published a pamphlet on this very issue in 2009, he could not find any writings on this subject over the past 200 years. But, I think knowing how to be active listeners is even more important since TV has turned us into passive recipients of information.  But the truth is this emphasis on how to hear God’s word goes all the way back to Jesus, as we heard in the passage from Matthew.

Jesus tells us that a sower goes out to sow seeds, and some seeds fell on the path, and some seeds fell on rocky ground, and some seed fell among the thorns; all of those seeds did not take root because the soil was not ready or able to receive them.  But, some seed fell on good soil and they produced a plentiful harvest. And then Jesus says, “let anyone with ears listen.” While this is called the Parable of the Sower, it might just as well be called the parable of the soil, because is there anything wrong with the sower? No, the sower is doing his work just fine and scattering the seeds everywhere. Is there anything wrong with the seeds? No. The seed is absolutely fine, and the same seed is scattered everywhere. The sower is not using different seeds for different soil, it’s the same seed. Now Jesus will go on to explain that the sower is God (or Jesus himself) and the seed is the word of God, the message of the kingdom, so if the sower is fine and the seed is fine, what is the different reactions to the seeds? It’s in the soil, it’s in the people who hear the word, some people Jesus says, are hearing but not listening. The sower can be the best sower ever, and the seed can be the best seed every, but if the soil is not ready, if we are hearing but not listening, then nothing will take root. Let anyone with ears listen.

That means that what I am up here doing nearly every week is not entirely up to me; you play a crucial role in this process as well.  The effectiveness of preaching is not simply up to the preacher. It takes all of us to be involved. So, here is how I believe we prepare the soil of our lives in order to be able to hear and listen to a sermon.

The first steps to hearing a sermon begins well before we have ever shown up on Sunday morning. If you are waiting until I step forward on Sunday and have done nothing to be ready, you’re already behind, and the first step to hearing a sermon is prayer. As they say, you get what you pray for.  First you should pray for me, or the preacher, that God will give me the guidance and understanding that I need for the passage, and that I will listen to the Spirit in writing the message, and second you should pray that you will be open to hearing and listening to God’s voice about the passage as well, and you should pray for the other people who will be in attendance at worship, and for those who need the gently nudge of the Holy Spirit to be present.

The second step to prepare is to read the scripture passage that will be used. Every week in the bulletin, in the newsletter and on our website we list the scripture readings for the coming week as well as a series of questions about the preaching text for you to consider. When reading the passage, look for the main theme of the passage and then focus on the other details like who the passage was originally being addressed to and what was the original context? What do you find surprising about the passage? What do you find comforting about the passage? What do you find challenging about the passage? If it’s a passage with which you are familiar, did you see anything new or different from your memory of the passage?  If you are really ambitious, look at the passage in different translations, or look at Biblical commentaries to see what they say. We own a copy of the New Interpreters Bible commentaries, which is a 12 volume set, and one of the first things I normally consult, available in the administration building.

Praying and looking at the passage carefully will hopefully build up a sense of expectation for what is coming on Sunday. The final step is to be well rested in order to be prepared to hear God’s word. That starts first and obviously with getting a good night’s sleep, It’s also to try and be rested spiritually. If there is some burden, something that is weighing you down begin working on turning that over to God before you come to worship on Sunday. That work is also done during worship, but if you only start there, you are not likely to get your entire manure pile turned over to God during that time. But regardless of what’s going on, even if you are exhausted physically or spiritually, you need to come to worship, because while we make the sermons available after Sunday to be watched, a lot of what happens during a sermon is done in and with the body of Christ and surrounding ourselves with follow believers.  So before we even show up on Sunday morning there is work to be done.

On Sunday morning, it all begins with prayer again. Begin the day in pray and when you come into the worship center continue in prayer. Pray for God to open your heart and mind to the worship experience and pray that you will experience and feel God’s presence during the worship service. While it’s great to get caught up with each other before worship, this is a time of preparation for us.  As someone said, “we come to worship on the lookout for God and we leave worship on the lookout for people.”

Second thing is to put yourself in the best place to be prepared to listen, so sit where you know there will be less distractions for you. I know it’s harder in a small space, but pay attention to what’s going on, you might even try different areas of the sanctuary to sit in to see if you find a difference in different area. This change has the added benefit of keeping your brain on higher alert because things are different, than your brain relaxing because it basically says “oh we do this all the time, I don’t have to pay attention anymore” and turning off.

The third step is to pay attention to the rest of worship, what does the opening prayer say, what about the songs, how are they guiding us and leading us to the theme of the message. Hopefully they provide a common theme or understanding of God presence and works, it doesn’t always happen, but all the elements should work together to help is focus on the same theme and to reinforce what is being said in the sermon. That should also help us to remember that the sermon is a part of worship, it should be a worshipful experience. In the Protestant tradition everything in worship builds up to the reading and then exposition on God’s word. This is designed to be the most important part of the service.

The fourth step is to be in a posture to hear and receive. This starts with your physical posture, to be in a position to be present and focused. More than likely that involves sitting upright, perhaps with both feet on the floor, or maybe even leaning forward, setting yourself up again to be expectant for the message, but find a place where you are calm, settled and focused. But it’s more than just physical posture, it’s your mental and spiritual posture as well. Hopefully you have already been doing this work through your preparation, but you can say another prayer again asking God to help you be present and to be open to the message, so that you are in a position that not only opens your minds but also opens your hearts.

Once the sermon has begun, I recommend keeping notes; there is a place on the back of the bulletin specifically for that. I know that doesn’t work for everyone, but I encourage it for two reasons. The first is that it helps keep you focused on what is being said. If you have to take notes on it, then you’re more likely to pay attention. The second reason is that it gives you something to refer back to during the week. But regardless of whether you are taking notes or not, pay attention to what the preacher is emphasizing as the main point. If you did you pre-work did that match your idea? Is there something that the preacher saw in the text that you didn’t see, or is there something you saw that was not touched on? Make note of those things. Focus on picking up the one or two points that you can take away from the message, and write those down.  Normally even the worst sermons are going to give you at least one thing to remember.

Write down questions you had, or areas where you might have been confused, or were you potentially disagreed.  You can be critical without criticizing, so rather than critiquing and saying “I disagree with you on this,” instead ask “why did you say this?” or “did you consider this?” Give the preacher the benefit of the doubt that they have done lots and lots of work in preparing for the message. Indeed, there are usually lots of things that could be said, but preachers will choose to focus on a specific idea rather than presenting every idea. Also keep in mind that sometimes the words of the gospel and of the preacher hurt.  We want to be told that what we think and do is okay, that we’re okay, but that’s not always the case – we must also be expected to be called to repentance.  So, if you are upset with the message, try and figure out why. Is it because the words touched us in an area where we are sensitive or truly need to be pushed in our faith lives?  If that is the case then its not about the preacher, but instead about our soil.  And the truth is, if you are routinely hearing from the same preacher and they are not occasionally making you upset with something they have said, then they are not doing their job.

The last steps then come after worship is over, and that is to consider what was said and talk about it with someone else. This could be a great thing to do at coffee hour, or on the drive home, or at lunch or dinner. See if others got the same thing out of the message, or if they heard or got something else. Ask yourself, how does this apply to my life, my family, my children, my friends, my job, my community, my walk with Christ, etc? Then after you’ve contemplated it and talked about, make a plan for what you are going to do. Is there some change you need to make, something else you need to do, something you need to stop doing, someone you need to talk to about this issue? How is this impacting your faith life or the life of the church, and what are you going to do about it?

My final piece of advice is twofold. The fist is to assume that the message is directed at you. That this is not about your neighbor, it’s not saying “oh I wish so and so were here because they should really hear this.” While that might be true, figure out what you are getting out of it, or can use and take from it, and it might be to give you the skills, words or courage to talk with someone else about it. And the second is that sometimes the sermon might not work for you, but don’t assume it doesn’t work for others. Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers, was also a Presbyterian minister and recounted a sermon he heard that he thought was the worst sermon he had ever heard in his life, but at the end of it the person next to him was crying, and not because it was so bad, but because something the preacher had said, through the power of the Holy Spirit, had touched this person and so while it wasn’t right for him, it was right for them.  So be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in others and more importantly in yourself.

This is an act of worship, it is a time in which we are hearing the word of God, and so we should approach it with the utmost seriousness. It’s not just something else that happens, or a lecture we hear every week, this is a way we come to encounter God’s word and what God is saying to us as individuals and as a community, where God is calling us and pushing us and leading us, and when we are not prepared or when we are only hearing but not truly listening, then we are not opening ourselves up to God’s presence or God’s amazing grace. We need to prepare our hearts to be the soil that receives the seed of the sower so that it can produce the fruits of righteousness. Let anyone with ears listen. Amen.

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