Fred Craddock was one of the most acclaimed preachers of the 20th century. In many respects he helped to redefine the traditional approach to the task of preaching. In a lecture he gave at Princeton I remember a story he shared from his earliest days in the pulpit. Called to a little white clapboard church in the rolling hills of west Tennessee, Craddock told of a life-long lesson picked up when he started in the 50’s.
As a newly minted, seminary trained pastor, Craddock set out to astound the congregation with his learning and erudition. His first set of sermons to these good folks was not the usual fare; not Jesus’ parables, or miracles, not the Psalms, nor the greatest hits of the Old Testament.
Craddock decided to preach on passages that no one had ever heard before, proving his intellectual heft and insight. He shared stories about Jephthah, the sons of Caleb, King Huran of Tyre, Jeroboam and Rehoboam, passages no one had ever heard before from I & II Chronicles, drawing meaty conclusions from the slimmest of evidence, proving God’s providence and God’s love in places never before explored.
He did this week after week, until one day, after worship, an elder approached: “Pastor,” he began, “we don’t know the Bible you’re preaching from. Is it the same as ours? Maybe you can dial down your book learnin’ for us so that we can hear the gospel.”
Fred Craddock got the message! He never forgot it.
As Craddock discovered, there is a world of difference between education and meaningful insight. Before we can learn anything new, we need to properly encounter, wrestle and deal with the baggage of what we’re already carrying. And oftentimes, as we explored last week, that can be a heavy load to bear.
Even as I proudly wore my Princeton sweatshirts around my first churches in rural Nelson County, I was much aware of Craddock’s lesson and determined not to repeat it. I even had my own corollary from my own first sermon. Preached in 1983 at a rural church in Three Rivers California. I thought I had done pretty well, touched all the bases, assumed I had made sense. But what stands out is as I stood at the door greeting parishioners, one fairly grumpy fellow pumped my hand and said, “Y’know young fellow, I didn’t come here to be lectured to…” Ouch!
There surely is something in a sermon which is to speak to more than just the mind, it also speaks to the heart. I get that. At the same time, as Christians, and especially as Presbyterians, we walk in a very long and proud tradition of being grounded in learning as the underpinning of insight and our faith. It is to be more than simply reading scripture with the lens of your life.
The New Testament lesson today is as clear an example of how this works as there is in the Bible. Luke, a gospel written by a scholarly type, a physician no less, had found Christ. He wanted to set the record straight about who the Savior was and what he meant for the world.
So he tells us a story of Jesus as a boy. This story of 12-year old Jesus in the Temple is remarkably disciplined, restrained and focused, considering what was being said about Jesus’ upbringing in other circles in Luke’s day. At every point in Jesus’ life, Luke shows how he stood stride for stride with Jewish tradition, in the home, in the Temple, in the synagogue. At every point in his life he remained in continuity with tradition; circumcised at eight days, presented to God in the Temple at six weeks, ‘bar mitzvahed’ at twelve, and public life at thirty. These are the moments that Luke marks in Jesus’ life. Through Luke’s eyes the events unfold matter-of-factly, free of miracles, absent any prophetic drama.
If you are at all familiar with some of the extra-biblical accounts of Jesus’ youth, Luke’s simple Temple tale is tame in comparison. Apocryphal accounts have young Jesus turning clay birds into live ones, striking dead a bully of a neighbor kid, stretching out a plank of wood for his father Joseph in his shop, and more eccentricities like that. Of course in our day and age, there is a cartoon floating the internet of a toddler Jesus refusing to take a bath by standing on water as mother Mary points to the bath with a scowl and proclaims, “IN!”
The Jesus we learn about in the gospel is amazingly bright, but even more so, according to Luke, he was obedient; faithful to the process set out for him, and grounded in God.
Today’s story is familiar to all of us. It’s about as Sunday-School friendly as they come. Which brings to mind our Sunday school, indeed Christian education for all of us. Let me say that again, Christian Education for all of us! It is, for us, here at CPC, at its best, grounded in God. And it is intended to set a sure foundation for life. As we prepare to kick off our VBS week, we must also note that all of our offerings, Sunday morning, occasional classes, special interest study, our weekday Bible study, reading it in 100 days and the Horizons work our Circles do, are solid, biblically based and not up in the clouds. The teachers, leaders and presenters of these gatherings bring special attention, study and love to what they teach in every lesson. They continue the tradition that Jesus embodied.
What we learn here makes a difference in the rest of our lives.
Our orientation to the Word of God and it’s meaning for our lives is something we carry with us as a compass and a guide; to stir and inspire, to assure and comfort, with the bottom line always being God’s love for us- through thick and thin…
At the same time, when I think about the Bible, and the study of it in our congregation, an old adage comes to mind. I think it comes from Leighton Ford who once worked closely with Billy Graham, “God loves is the way we are, but God loves us too much to let us stay that way.”
Maybe that’s how you’ve experienced life of late.
Perhaps, as much as anything else, the Bible serves as a kind of mirror for our lives, a constant, unchanging story in itself, whose story reflects back onto our lives with new meaning and insight at every turn, and every moment in which we engage it. And that’s just the point, we must engage it. So despite the fellow in that first receiving line, here is my lecture line for you, not enough of us are engaged in Christian Education. We’re not consistent enough with getting children and grandchildren here, not enough adults engage in Bible study, too many of us are frightened by the challenge of a long-term study in a small group gathering. Our friend Brad lived his life learning every day. His life is a reminder that we do not know all God wants us to know, until we draw that last breath.
You know, I’ve always loved Bible study as a way to look at life. There is no better way to do it. The interactive quality about a good Bible study is like nothing else. There, a good question is as good as a good answer every time; because God is in the question just as much as the answer.
Sometime ago a colleague shared with me a question he uses with session: “What Bible verse or story best describes the journey of faith we are on as a congregation?”
How would you answer that? Perhaps it’s the disciples on the storm-tossed seas, or maybe with Grace Café, the food pantry and our backpacks, it’s Jesus feeding the 5,000, or maybe it is Pentecost, as like the disciples, we are waiting, watching for how the Spirit will next be revealed to us.
How would you answer that question for your life? You don’t need to try too hard, hard is not the point. Nor does it need to be an obscure passage that no one else would ever embrace. In fact, the first that comes to mind may just be the best one. What speaks to you? What strikes you? How is God tugging at you?
It may be where you are in the life of our congregation, now in our 140th year, grieving as we all are, are you finding your way as a new member, or an officer to be, or engaged in life in some other way; as a grandparent, parent, caregiver, or care seeker. It may be about how it is time to take your faith formation off the back burner and bring it to the front of your life. It may be about where you are in your own life, whether you are 7 or 97.
The good news of the gospel is that God meets you in your story; wherever you are, to instill wisdom, confidence and hope, every step of the way, and will never, ever depart. You can look it up!
Now, to add to our insights, and complete the sermon, what better way to kick off bible school than to invite our CE committee to guide us through a survey to help them add to our foundation? So, Lucinda, come up and take it from here: