I began my Easter sermon by saying, "Easter morning may not be the best time to bring this up, but I'm not real big on miracles."
I then spent the next five minutes explaining why I'm not big on miracles.
The message eventually wound back into more comfortable Christian turf, with what I hoped was a ringing proclamation of the Christian message:
If you do not believe that God could raise Jesus from the dead, then you don't believe God could do it for you. If the story of Easter is not true, then, logically, you can only conclude that when that last shovelful of dirt covers your casket, you're done. You're gone forever. Your life is without hope.
If you believe that God broke the rules on death once, for all time, for everyone, including you, then your life is changed, you have so much to look forward to.
At the breakfast following the service, one member of the congregation said to me, with just a touch of indignation in her voice, "You really had me worried there for awhile in your sermon."
I answered, "And you listened to every word I said, didn't you?"
She stared at me for a moment, then smiled and nodded.
That was the point: to get a congregation of people, many of whom have the same affinity for listening to a sermon as they do for surgery without anesthesia, to listen to the sermon, in spite of themselves.
There's nothing innovative about what I did; it's a basic technique of story-telling. Creative Writing 101 tells you that tension is the most effective means of driving a story.
What do you do when you hear something that appears to be out of whack, something that's not right, something that causes anxiety or outrage or indignation?
There are not many people who can just yawn and walk away from those things. Our instinct is to want to set right what is wrong, to put things back in order. It's why most people prefer happy endings to stories. The happy ending takes a dysfunctional or unjust or distressing situation and puts it back in order so we can sleep well at night.
We expect tension and conflict in a book or in a movie. But I think we under-use it in our preaching. One of the reasons we under-use it is because so many people have this idea that following Jesus is a trip down the straight and narrow. There isn't any real tension in Christian teachings because it's all black and white. All the pastor has to do is pluck the truth from the Bible readings, like berries on the vine, and feed them to the congregation. A sermon isn't dramatic because there's nothing dramatic about feeding someone.
I have no problem bringing tension into my sermons simply because it's a part of who I am. I don't have the skill or the wisdom to just pluck the truth from Bible readings, like berries on the vine. I have to struggle to find it, corner it, or sometimes just get a glimpse of it as it runs by. For me, Bible study is full of tension and conflict. My sermons usually reflect that.
My congregation is often on edge during my sermon because I'm telling them the story of my struggle with Scripture. I don't have to make up the tension and conflict; it was there all week, and much of it is still there. Instead of filtering that out and presenting a purified, distilled version of "the truth," I let the tension stand. It's a better story that way, and we are called to tell the story the best we can.