The One Thing I Know About Preaching


A sermon preached on June 7, 2009 based upon Luke 5:1-11, entitled “The One Thing I Know About Preaching.”

This morning’s Gospel story touches on the theme of vocations, in this case, specifically fishermen. I am a preacher. It’s pretty much all I’ve ever done. Sometimes I look at people I know who are plumbers, electricians, or, for that matter, fishermen, and I feel some envy. The things they know how to do are so practical, so useful. Sometimes I feel a bit of inadequacy in comparison to them, which is probably not a bad thing, since prideful preachers are trouble.

For nearly thirty years I’ve been writing a sermon pretty much every week, and then delivering it on Sunday. I suppose over the years I’ve come to know a few things about preaching. But when I think about it, I realize there is really just one thing I know about preaching.

It involves the observation that there are basically two states of consciousness in which we spend our days in this world. The most common form of consciousness, the one the world encourages us to live in because it tends generate a certain productivity is what I call “the chicken little consciousness.” (“The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”) It’s that state of mind we’re in when to greater or less extent anxiety is the thing that is motivating us. There is this list of things that need to get done, and I manage to keep the hungry lions of my anxiety that every thing will come unhinged by managing to make progress on my “to do” list. This mindset necessarily leads to tunnel vision; I am not really in the moment so much as I am focusing on the place I’m trying to get to. I feel essentially that I am alone, that the only person I can depend on in getting stuff done is myself. In this state of mind I assume that I know what’s going — what needs to be done, which isn’t necessarily so. Being basically ego-centered, I easily become defensive. Spend a few hours in this state of mind and I become exhausted.

The alternative state of mind in which unfortunately I find myself less often is one in which I feel relaxed, but focused. I am in the present moment. There is this basic trust that there are all kinds of help out there, though I bear responsibility for reaching out for that help.

Perhaps you recognize these two types of consciousness as corresponding to what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of living out of doubt vs. living out of faith. It’s important to note that this state of faith isn’t characterized by either a) a certainty regarding some kind of doctrinal truth or even b) a knowledge of how to proceed or what exactly needs to happen. Rather, it is a trust that, in time, I will get to where I need to be, so go ahead and be in the moment. The state of faith in facts involves a willingness to not knowing so that you can be open to being illuminated.

I’ve learned about these two basic forms of consciousness because in the process of getting ready to preach it makes all the difference in the world which one I’m in. Each week I begin the process by reading over the scripture passage that I will preach on. Inevitably, when I first read the passage, it does absolutely nothing for me. This has in part to do with the fact that generally speaking, I’ve preached on the passage before, and when I first read it over, all I hear are clichés, and in my understanding of preaching, clichés and preaching just don’t go together.

Now, having read the passage through once and found absolutely no inspiration, the temptation can be strong to give myself over to the Chicken Little consciousness. “Oh no, I’ve got to come up with a sermon by Sunday!” I would succumb to this temptation a lot more when I had less experience in the process. I would run about to all the obvious sources of help: Bible commentaries and books with sermons with what other people have preached on this passage, even, God forbid, book full of “sermon illustrations.” All of this frantic searching for inspiration can take on the quality of a trip to the dentist to get my teeth drilled.

If, however, I can enter into the trusting consciousness, and simply sit with the passage, I find that gradually inspirations emerge, and they come from unexpected places: conversations I have with people in the course of the week, memories, peculiar coincidences, books I’m reading that on the surface don’t seem to have anything to do with the passage. The possible sources for inspiration are endless, and the key is to stay present and open and ready to be surprised. As such, this state of mind resembles what a child calls “play.” It is delightful.

It is easier said than done forgoing the Chicken Little consciousness for the trusting one, but the wise thing I’ve learned is to recognize when I’m in the former and not to waste my time there. It is better to go and find some way to clear my mind.

So the Gospel story this week led me to think about these things. One of the fascinating things about the process is that if I can enter into the trusting consciousness with the passage, even if I’ve preached on it a dozen times before, I will hear something new.

This was the case this week, but by way of talking about the new detail of the story that caught my attention, I need to tell you a story of the one and only time I went to watch the New York Giants — the football team — at their preseason practice. Andrew, my oldest child, was only six at the time, and the Giants were practicing at a nearby college campus. As the players came off the practice field, the fans would crowd around the stars hoping to get an autograph. The Giants had just won the super bowl the season before, and OJ Anderson had come away with the MVP, and so one of the biggest crowds was forming around OJ, which we joined. My son quickly caught on to the idea of the autograph game, and suddenly Andrew I couldn‘t see Andrew — he‘s disappeared in the crowd. Then I hear OJ Anderson say angrily, “Stop hitting my leg!!!” at which point I realize that Andrew, being little, has manage to slip through the crowd to stand right next to OJ, where he proceeded to tap repeatedly on his leg in hope of getting his attention for an autograph.

What, you may ask does this have to do with the story? Well we hear that Jesus appears beside a lake, and his charisma and growing notoriety as a healer and preacher draws a big crowd to him. As with OJ, they are pressing in on him, creating a situation that, if it continues, will end up quite frustrating — just ask OJ and my son.

Jesus, however is in this other trusting state of mind — in the moment — out of which he demonstrates a remarkable ingenuity. He recognizes that if he gets into the fishing boat of one of the fishermen, he can get a bit of distance from the crowd and then calmly address them all. The solution involves him getting help from Simon the fisherman, which he trusts Simon will freely give.

He proceeds to preach to the crowd. Luke doesn’t tell us what the sermon was about, which makes sense to me. I heard somebody compare sermons to jokes. We’ve all heard hundreds of them, maybe thousands, but who can remember even one? What we remember with the joke is the belly laugh. What we remember from a good sermon is that it led us into that faith consciousness. The particular content is secondary, and forgettable.

So now the story begins to focus on Simon the fisherman who has provided the boat for Jesus to preach from. Simon is the classic example of the first form of consciousness. He has worked through the night letting down his net, and he has caught nothing. Over and over he has tried the same thing, with no luck. His anxiety and frustration has grown with each failure to catch the fish he needs to feed his family. He’s tired and irritable.

Now this little interlude in which Simon had nothing to do for a time but sit there quietly listening while this guy Jesus preaches, using his boat for a pulpit gives Simon an opportunity to get free from the worst of Chicken Little death grip.  He’s not altogether out of it, but at least when the stranger preacher tells him that he should lower his nets once more, but this time into the “deep water,” he doesn’t bite the stranger’s head off as I suspect he might have done an hour earlier. He’s still doubtful it will do any good, but at least he’s willing to give it a try, and then, to his great surprise, his net gets filled so full of fish that he has to call the other fishermen to come and lend a hand in pulling the net back into the boat.

How did Jesus know that this would happen? Who knows? Maybe because he was so in the moment, he simply observed what others were missing. Maybe in this state of faith — this state of grace — he’s tuned into intuitions and possibilities of cooperation with unseen forces that are available to all of us if we, too, could just dwell deeply in that place.

As I thought about this, I remembered a quote I’ve kept from a great missionary named E. Stanley Jones who spent his life in India. Writing about the mystery of conversion, which involves shifting from dwelling primarily in that first consciousness to that second state of trust, Jones declared that

“Conversion introduces you to power not your own. As one man put it: I used to do things, now we do things,” and that change is a change of worlds–a change from the world of self to the world of a self co- operating with God. Another in one of our Ashrams put it: “I have been living with an undertow, now I’m going to live on the overflow.” He was living with an overflow pulling him forward. He had been living against the grain of the universe, now he was living with it.”

Simon’s reaction to the surprising catch of fish might seem odd: He falls down at Jesus feet and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

A clue to what is going on came to me in a quote I came across from Nelson Mandella, who spent over twenty years as a political prisoner in South Africa. He emerged from this imprisonment a powerful agent of reconciliation, having used that time of in prison to go into the deep waters of his soul. Mandella wrote these surprising words:

“Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us… You are a child of God; your playing small doesn’t serve the world… We are born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just some of us, it is everyone and as we let our own slight shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do so.”

Wow. Perhaps deep inside each of us we sense the possibilities of the light we could bear in this world if we were willing to really walk in simple trust with God.  A moment like the one that Simon experienced reveals the truth of these possibilities, and, in its own way terrifies us. We’re comfortable with the Chicken Little anxieties of “playing small”. It is scary to consider how we’ve been sabotaging both God and ourselves.

The finale of the story is interesting. One reaction that somebody in Simon’s position might have is, “Great, now I know how to fish really effectively!” But having shown to him the power of trust and cooperating with God’s spirit in the concrete practice of fishing, Jesus immediately calls Simon to go of his fishing nets. “For now on, you’re going to be going after people!” Take what you’ve just learned, and help lead others into this wisdom.

What I learned about the preaching process I am sure could also be learned by paying attention in the process of being an electrician or a plumber. It doesn’t much matter. Preaching is what I know, so you just heard about how I learned the lesson. The lesson is larger than the vocation. For me the challenge to take the lesson I learned as I went about the preaching vocation and apply it to every other area of my life. Whenever I can shift out of the compulsive “Chicken Little” consciousness into the state of trust that is like unto play — whenever I can become like a little child and trust that there is more help out there in more forms that I can begin to imagine (if only I am willing to be open and reach out for that help) then all kinds of surprising good things happen.




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