Is Your Preaching Predictable?

Sept. 15, 2019 – Luke 15:1-10

This text is a lost and found scripture. Jesus will offer three examples and the parable of the lost boy overshadows the first two, so use it another time.

A critical rule to follow when dealing with a parable is to look first to why Jesus told the parable and to whom. In this case the Pharisees and the Doctors of the Law were grumbling, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Jesus, hearing his critics, responds by telling them three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, as well as the lost boy.

I lose things, so much in this text is personal.  And I know young people who seem like lost sheep with no one looking out for them.

So, what can we say about these parables that has not been said about 99 times?  We need to mull things over.

Let’s see. Someone is going to make the shepherd pay for leaving the flock to the wolves, while he searches for one lost sheep. And we tire of hearing the poor widow tell of the lost coin. Her life is all about loss since Harry died.  Pastors know that woman so well, with her lament of sorrow.

The parable holds a mirror up to life. It catches us in the tough moments.  The parables speak of loss—the kind that we experience. How we respond to life in the tight places makes us interesting. Good preaching puts us into the story.

Preachers who do the best work help us see that as bad as loss is, it’s not the end of the world.  Our response is the critical part. The widow is persistent just like my Grandma.  The shepherd knows that looking for the one lost sheep is just what a shepherd worth his salt would do.  I know farmers who carry baby lambs into their homes to get them through the night. And parents let the kid who dropped out of school move back home as he/she struggles with feeling lost.

The goal of the sermon is to avoid the predictable. Kierkegaard believed the sermon ought to slip up on the behind side of the listener.  Predictability is the great enemy of preaching!

Good preaching avoids the Oxford Dictionary’sdefinition of the sermon as “a long, laborious lecture.” I still remember what Fosdick said in a lecture entitled “What’s Wrong with Preaching Today.” He noted that we would be amazed at the number of people who do not care to hear the history of the Jesobites.

I have been looking into the art of preaching by looking over the shoulder of some preachers who I value.  John Ruskin said the sermon ought to be 30 minutes “to raise the dead” (I think more like 15 these days).  Colleague Gene Lowery said, ”If you begin with an itch, you had better find a scratch.” Fred Craddock once told some of us, “If you boil water, then at least make soup.” The black preacher would say, 

“Start low,

Go slow,

Reach up and touch the fire,

Sit down in the storm.”

The sermon finally should have in it that special personal moment when you hear something that has your name on it – unavoidable truth.  Perhaps your head doesn’t fall off until Wednesday, but you will come back for more. 

Dear God, come into our sermons, help us to pay up personally that the listener will hear and know that we are safe and free to live and love and be about your business.  We pray in the name of Jesus.  Amen.


The Rev. Bill Cotton of Des Moines is a retired clergy member of the Iowa Annual Conference. Together with colleagues and friends, he produces “MEMO for Those Who Preach,” a resource delivered by email.l 


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