There is one type of sermon illustration I no longer practice. Way back when, in my younger preaching days, I would use examples of Gospel wisdom found in well-known saints of the church and the world. There would be references to Mother Theresa, Archbishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, and Dorothy Day. Each one has several stories associated with her/him that bring to life what can happen when we let the Gospel come alive in us. Google one of these stories and you will find tens of sermons by mainline clergy. I know because if my sermons from the first fifteen years of my preaching were online (we didn’t do that then) you find these names scattered through the church year.
Here is my problem with that kind of preaching illustration. People hear these stories and they know the source. The ordinary person, like you or me, can say, “Well of course a Saint would do that, it’s why everyone recognizes her/him as a saint in the first place. But little old me, flawed me, I can’t be expected to do that. That example makes me feel like the Gospel is a bridge too far, only for saintly people.” Instead of inspiring people to make the leap of faith and change their lives these stories of the saints only reinforce the notion that there are these saints who do special things and the rest of us who struggle on.
When I go to hear speakers at fundraising breakfasts who have lived on the streets only to find their way to the top of the corporate world I feel a little uncomfortable. I know many who struggle will say that story is the exception that reminds me how inadequate I am. The ordinary person who struggles with addiction, mental health, low self-esteem, the lingering effects of abuse, s/he will not hear the shiny corporate man or woman and say, “I can do that!” More likely s/he will shrug their shoulders and say, “whatever s/he had to overcome their challenges and barriers I don’t have it. Thanks for rubbing it in!”
Now the references I use are to flawed people like myself, people who have not turned the magic corner, have not lived happily ever after, people whose challenge remains, whose struggle is not over, but who find a way in each day to see and embrace the light. These are the folks I reference now, their struggle is such that ordinary people like me can say, “I can identify with that, there is something there I can use for my life. That person has found a more hopeful way. Perhaps it’s worth considering.”
My examples now include people I meet on the bus, people I’ve met who occasionally step outside their challenges to feel the warm breezes of being loved and loving others, people who I meet while standing in line, humble people who know what their challenge is and speak with an authenticity and honesty that make them an inspiration to us all.
I don’t look for happy endings, I now look for spirit-moments, epiphanies, moments of grace and transformation, when we know we are part of something bigger and can touch the place where we know we are blessed.
Those are my kind of stories. No one knows the name. Everyone knows the experience.