Shoulder Taps

A pastor got into the pulpit to preach his first sermon to his new congregation. He delivered a powerful, moving message, and the congregation appreciated it a great deal.

The next Sunday, he got up and the congregation leaned forward in anticipation of what he had to say this time. He preached the same sermon as the week before, almost word for word. The congregation thought this was odd, but said nothing.

The third Sunday, the pastor delivered the very same sermon. This time a group approached him after the service. “What do you think you’re doing, pastor? You’ve given the same sermon three weeks in a row.”

“Yes,” the pastor said, “and you’re going to keep hearing that sermon until you start listening and do what it says.”

When you get into the middle of Lent and are trying to write three sermons a week, there is something appealing about that pastor’s strategy.

There were professors at the seminary who basically advocated that approach. Just preach the gospel. The preacher’s job is simply to tell people that Jesus loves them. If they don’t listen? Tell them again.

Well, yeah, that solves my problem, I guess. But if that is the strategy, why not just put one sermon on a continuous loop and free up all that preparation time? I can’t imagine a congregation sitting still for that.

As I ponder the matter through Scripture, I find that there is a place for dogged repetition in the proclamation of the Word. But it is not by repetition alone that we proclaim. The Bible holds an equal place for discovery and for inspiration. The Bible contains shoulder taps, nuggets, and wings.

Repetition in a sermon functions as a shoulder tap. Take the parable of the Barren Fig Tree. It’s not rocket science. A man had a fig tree planted in his garden. He has been waiting for it to produce fruit; it has not. You can give a tree so much time, so much attention, but eventually it has to produce what it is supposed to produce, or you get rid of it.

The message is obvious. We are not here on this earth just to soak up nutrients, to take whatever we can get from the world and not give anything back. We are put here for a reason–to do something.

The story doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. There are many similar simple, straightforward concepts that the Bible teaches. Love God and your neighbor as yourself.
Repent when you do wrong and ask for forgiveness. Forgive others as you have been forgiven. Take care of each other, especially the sick and the suffering. Work for justice. Care for creation. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to die for us to show us what love is.

There is nothing new there for most of us. We have heard these things many times before. We believe them. So why bother telling them?

Because of human nature. For even though we know these things, heartily agree with them and will even declare them to be at the heart of what we believe, we lose sight of them in the heat of the moment, in the every day grind. These things are not hard-wired into the human brain. They are not the default settings that we’re issued at birth. We get distracted. We get caught up in ourselves, our wants, and our emotions.

Simple as they are, these concepts must be learned because anything that can be learned can be forgotten through neglect. Many people in this country grew up speaking a language other than English; it was a part of who they were. Now after decades of neglect, they can no longer speak a word of it. The ability that was once such an important part of who they were has disappeared. They have gone too long without being reminded of that which they knew.

Deep love between two people can fade if taken for granted. No matter how strong it has been, no matter how much a part of our being that love has been, it can be lost through neglect, because even the strongest love is not a default setting. If I never offer evidence that I love another person, eventually that person forgets I love him or her. It is not insight or some profound new level of love that needs to be demonstrated–just the reminder that what was is still there.

That’s what these Bible passages are about. It isn’t news that God loves me. It isn’t news that money isn’t everything. It isn’t news that I’m on this earth for a reason. It isn’t news that the key to peace and happiness is loving God and my neighbor as myself.

Yet I need to hear that from time to time, because it’s not a default setting, and I can slip out of it. Lent is a season of reminders. You are more likely to hear sermons in Lent that tell you what you already know very well. Although we try to make them as fresh and compelling as possible, they may not be all that enlightening or insightful. Their purpose is to remind us of what we already know, and that’s an important thing.

Sometimes the job of a sermon is nothing more than a tap on the shoulder.

Next month–the nuggets!