Suzanne Nicholson ~ Checking Your Blind Spots: Preaching in the Gaps
I recently started the long overdue chore of cleaning my home office, including organizing old sermon files. As I sifted through these folders, I discovered certain patterns in my preaching. Despite writing my Ph.D. dissertation on Paul, I much prefer preaching from the Gospels. I discovered that I visit Matthew and Luke far more frequently than Mark or John. I surprised myself by the number of times I had preached from Isaiah and the Psalms, with fewer than expected sermons coming from the Old Testament narratives.
Preachers do tend to have favorite passages and topics for preaching and teaching. If you don’t preach from the Revised Common Lectionary each week, it can be easy to fall into predictable patterns that limit your congregation’s exposure to the full range of God’s Word. We all have blind spots, and it’s worth asking where we might be missing the opportunity to address a pressing need. Not only do we have personal blind spots, but we often have cultural blind spots as well. I’ve compiled a list below of sermon topics that churches sorely need to hear today. (Admittedly, these come from an American cultural context; those in other cultures may have vastly different needs.) Perhaps you’ve preached on these recently; if not, I encourage you to consider their merit:
- Wealth: American consumer culture constantly tells people they aren’t good enough until they have the fastest car, the most stylish clothes, or the latest cell phone. From toothpaste to hair gel to laundry detergent, Americans are told they need more and better products. But Scripture regularly critiques the love of money and the misuse of wealth. Luke, in both his gospel and Acts, is particularly well-known for critiquing wealth. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31), for example, is only found in Luke’s gospel, and it offers a stinging rebuke of the self-centered rich man who even in death thinks that the impoverished Lazarus should do his bidding (“…send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue”). American Christians, especially, need to be reminded regularly that our priorities must be focused on a life of other-centered service, not self-centered gain.
- Suffering/ the way of the cross: This closely related topic reminds disciples that the path of Christ was the way of suffering (e.g., Mk. 8:34-38). The Gospel message is offensive to many, and we should be realistic about the hardships involved in proclaiming God’s truth. In prosperous countries like the U.S., where creature comforts are advertised non-stop, it can be difficult to develop a willingness to suffer for the sake of Christ.
- Conflict management/ speaking the truth in love: Very few people are good at conflict management. It’s easier to gossip about someone who wronged you (especially online!) than to have a conversation with that person to try to repair a broken relationship. But Matt. 18:15-17 prescribes a pattern for approaching others to right a wrong. It’s one thing to preach on the topic, but how many of us actually practice this?
- Forgiveness: The road to reconciliation must involve forgiveness. But this can be a tricky concept. On the one hand, we are called to forgive repeatedly: 70 times seven in Matt 18:21-22. But that passage follows the teaching about confronting someone who has sinned against you. Forgiveness does not mean allowing yourself to be a doormat for someone to repeatedly abuse you. Our congregations need to hear sermons about repentance, forgiveness, and healthy boundaries.
- Domestic violence: Statistics suggest that 1 in 3 women have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking from an intimate partner during their lifetime. This means that many couples in your church are dealing with this issue. Abusers sometimes twist Scripture to coerce their victims to forgive the violence and “bear the cross of Christ.” Pastors would do well to instruct the men in their congregations that a husband is called to love his wife as he loves himself, just as Christ laid down his life for the church (see Eph. 5:25-33; note that “submit to one another” in v. 21 is the theme for the entire section).
- Theology of human sexuality: Although lately many memes, articles, and comments have been posted on social media regarding the debate over sexuality and gender identity, perhaps the reason some denominations are having such strenuous debate is because so few churches teach about healthy sexuality. God forbid that the only teachings about sex our church members receive are the lurid and deviant portrayals in modern media! Gen. 2:15-25, Song of Songs, 1 Cor. 7, and Eph. 5:21-33 provide good starting points for discussion.
- Spiritual disciplines: In his sermon on “Means of Grace,” John Wesley described reading the Bible, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper as key ways in which we receive the grace of God and become more fully formed in our faith. Consider the ways in which your church encourages these behaviors, both in public and in private. Is prayer a routine box to be checked on the Sunday liturgy list? Or does it provide an invitation to develop a deeper relationship with Christ?
- Sabbath keeping: I confess I struggle with practicing what I preach in this area. Although Jesus corrected an overly rigid observance of the Sabbath when he declared that “Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27), he never said not to observe the Sabbath. Rather, he allowed compassionate care of others (see also Matt. 12:1-14 and Lk. 13:10-17). Nonetheless, the design of observing a holy day once a week derives from the creation narrative (Gen. 2:2-3). God modeled rest for a creation that needs rest. We should not feel guilty when we say “no” to working non-stop.
- Holiness: God’s salvation from sin is a salvation to holiness. We are called to imitate Christ in every area of our lives (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:1, Rom. 6:1-14, Rom. 8:29). For Wesleyans, sanctifying grace is a key component of relationship with Christ. We have the hope of transformation because the Holy Spirit lives in us. If the Spirit lives in us, then our actions must look different from the world (Gal 5:13-26).
- Racial reconciliation: Jesus made it very clear that ethnocentric marginalization of minorities does not belong in the kingdom of God. When he preached the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37), his choice of a Samaritan as the hero of the story demonstrated to Jews that your neighbor is anyone who is in need – or anyone who offers assistance – regardless of racial or cultural differences. After all, eternity with God will celebrate believers from all nations (Rev. 7:9-10). Let’s prepare for eternity by worshiping with each other now!
- Gender equality: In so many ways, Jesus gave women status in a world that did not recognize women’s worth. He allowed Mary to sit at his feet and learn (Lk. 10:38-42), he allowed women to travel with him (Lk. 8:1-3), and women were the first to preach about his resurrection (Lk 24:1-12). Paul had many female co-workers in Christ, and he referred to Phoebe as a deacon (Rom. 16:1-2) and Junia as an apostle (Rom. 16:7). How often have you preached about the faithful women of the Gospel? Which women in your church have you lifted up to positions of leadership?
- Persecution of churches overseas: As conversation in the public square becomes more vitriolic, sometimes Christians experience increased bullying for their faith. But many churches overseas daily face the prospect of dying for their faith. We should regularly be in prayer for churches in Nigeria, China, Sri Lanka, and other areas of the world who are experiencing trouble (James 5:13-16). American churches should consider how to use their wealth to aid tormented congregations and fellowships. Our brothers and sisters need our help.
- Lament: Too often Christians feel like they have to have it all together and need to be happy in order to be a good Christian. Unfortunately, much of pop Christian culture reinforces this notion with upbeat songs and sales of Blessed! coffee cups and t-shirts. But even the great King David cried out to God on a regular basis, proclaiming how awful life felt at times (e.g., Psalms 12, 13, 22, 86). God can handle these powerful emotions. And we can’t come to a place of peace unless we deal with the tragedies of this broken world.
- Preaching through a book of Scripture: Recent surveys suggest that many Christians in the U.S. do not know basic facts about the content of the Bible; for example, only half of American Christians can name the four gospels. Clearly, we need to offer better teaching to our congregations about the scriptural narrative. A sermon series that preaches through a book of the Bible not only helps believers know the content better, but also models the importance of studying Scripture in depth.
What other blind spots would you add to this list? What does your congregation desperately need to hear in order to have a fuller picture of life in Christ as a body of believers?
 The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010. https://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf