Sermons Are Not Systematic

The United Church of Christ is a non-creedal tradition. That means that we don’t have a list of Things People Have to Believe. There is no central authority that tells our congregations or our members what they have to believe or how they have to worship. Instead, as the United Church of Christ website puts it,

We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the apostolic faith. The UCC therefore receives the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith.

And that creates a neat little challenge for preachers.

When I start preparing a sermon. I’m not bound by a list of Things People Have to Believe. I don’t have to bring everything around to a predetermined theological point. Instead, I’m bound by the scripture passages for that week (and their historical and literary context), the needs of my congregation, and the movement of the Holy Spirit.

And that means that the people of the congregation aren’t getting a single message or a systematic theology.

The Bible is a diverse collection of texts. While the biblical authors may have been inspired by God, they are not delivering a single unified message. They disagree. They emphasize different points. They argue from different perspectives and in different contexts. Working with one or two passages at a time tends to show different sides of the Bible in different weeks.

The needs of the congregation change over time. During different weeks, the world is a different place and the people are dealing with different things. That means using the Bible to do different things, offer different challenges, and bring different comforts.

The Holy Spirit moves in different ways. On some days, she is convicting me of my sin. On others, she is offering comfort for my sorrows. On still others, she is calling me in a new direction. And, of course, a million other things. The Holy Spirit does not seem intent on having me deliver the same message every time I speak.

All of this is really to say two important things. First, I am called to preach the gospel and I believe that I am faithful to that call. I believe that my sermons are well-supported by scripture, the traditions of the church, and the testimony of the Spirit. Second, my sermons are rarely (if ever) showing the members of my congregation the fullness of the gospel. Instead, they are offering snapshots of something much bigger than anything I can deliver in that time.

The fullness of the gospel is seen and experienced in the fullness of Christian life. In prayer and in communion. In scripture and in tradition. In potluck dinners and hospital visits. In hymns and, yes, in sermons. But the sermon is just a part of that.

We experience the gospel in the fullness of Christian life. In prayer and in communion. In scripture and in tradition. In potluck dinners and hospital visits. In hymns and, yes, in sermons. But the sermon is just a part of that. Click To Tweet

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

Pin It on Pinterest