Craft of Preaching

Columnist

Field notes from preachers you trust -- Nathan Aaseng, Patricia Tull and others.

Don’t Try This at Home

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Fine print tends to spoil things.

It lists side effects, caveats, and warnings which if printed in bold print would dissuade you from using the product. Fine print is a way advertisers can peel back the proverbial curtain, a way for the viewer to see the secret behind the magic trick. The secret being of course that there is no magic.

Commercials seemingly would not exist without fine print. A series of recent car commercials have portrayed trucks enduring incredible challenges. The trucks scale a narrow incline engulfed in flames. They brake at the edge of a precipice, leaving little room for error. They barely avoid being crushed by steel beams. The commercials are literally incredible; the fine print confirms that these are unbelievable stunts.

Ads for pharmaceuticals promise to heal us of all our ills, even ills we didn't know afflicted us.  The same voice that promises healing also lists a number of less than desirable side effects.  Healing and more illness go hand in hand; the "fine print" in this case is a warning that one's results may vary, that the cure may afflict us as much as the sickness.

In these commercials, the tiny print warns, "Don't try this at home," "Performed on a closed course," or "Side effects include..."  These commercials purport to show what their products are capable of doing but at the same time warn you not to test these upper limits.

Might our preaching subtly rely on such fine print as well? Are we illustrating the great miracles Jesus performed, the great tasks to which God has called us, and the great risks our ancestors in the faith embraced willingly but then warning our listeners, whether implicitly or explicitly, "Don't try this at home?" Are we diagnosing the spiritual ills of our community but weighing down the healing Jesus promises with a list of debilitating side effects?

The gospel makes radical claims upon us. Sell all your possessions. Blessed are the poor. Love your enemies. Scripture makes these claims with no caveats though we so often add them in our interpretation of these radical teachings. Our discomfort with these extraordinary demands emerges in the ways we domesticate, soften, and relativize them. 

What would it look like to proclaim such texts without explaining them away or finding some way to escape our discomfort? How would our hearers react?

Conditioned to hear such teachings as unattainable, inapplicable, or merely inconvenient, we may be tempted to dwell in the unavailing trap of guilt. We may tell ourselves that we cannot possibly live up to these impossible standards. We may continue to read the Bible in piece-meal fashion preferring that which affirms us but neglecting that which makes us squirm.

But there may be an additional alternative. What if we allow Jesus' most difficult sayings to confront us with their full radical force? What if we invite our hearers to dwell in their discomfort? What if we invite them to wonder why these texts sound so very radical to our ears? What is it about our possessions, the poor, and our enemies that keep us from selling, blessing, and loving them?

I am concerned that we too quickly advise our people not to try this at home, that we too quickly suggest that Christianity's most radical demands should only be performed in the "closed courses" of our churches. Are our sermons commercials for the radical Christian life that warn in the fine print, "Don't try this at home?" Are we more concerned with the side effects than the healing Jesus promises?

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