SERMON: Fig-Leafing It
Introduction: Lenny preached this “guest sermon” at the College Wesleyan Church, where he and his family attend. He serves as the Director of Wesleyansermons.com and Assistant Professor of Proclamation and Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary. Lenny invited Dave Ward, his friend and frequent contributor to Wesleyansermons.com, to listen to the sermon and offer some questions. Dave presently serves as Assistant Professor of Preaching for undergraduate students at Indiana Wesleyan University. Here is their conversation.
Dave: Lenny, this was a great sermon with community building potential. Thanks for sharing it with us. Fred Craddock writes in his book Preaching that to some degree all preaching is a form of self-disclosure since it reveals how we think and what we love. On the other hand, he warns against turning the pulpit into a public confessional or an overly preacher-focused event. Share with us how you thought through that tension with this sermon in particular.
Lenny: This is an important question, Dave. I felt as though this particular sermon intersected tightly not only with the congregational context of College Wesleyan Church but also the more personal context of my life. “Fig-leafing” to hide my own sense of insecurity, inferiority, and inadequacy has been a very real, very challenging struggle for me over the years. But, as Craddock warns, I didn’t want the sermon to be a therapy session for the preacher thrust on the congregation. There is a fine line, for sure. The reason why I put some of my own struggle with fig-leafing “out there” was due to the challenge of the topic itself. My sermon was designed to challenge our tendency in congregational life to cover up our struggles with the fig leaves of ability, accomplishments, and appearances in a way that prevents the intimacy we crave with each other. Since I was essentially inviting people to “get naked,” I felt like I had to be among the first to take off some leaves. I didn’t want to be like the scribes of Jesus’ day who put burdens on others that they themselves were not willing to bear. So, I stripped off my leaves first.
Dave: One of the things I enjoy about this sermon is its therapeutic function. Some pretty good preachers have viewed preaching as a kind of theological group counseling tool (i.e. Harry Emerson Fosdick and Peter Scazzero more recently). That means you’re in good company when you serve as a sort of pastoral counselor in the pulpit. What do you think are the benefits and dangers of that kind of approach?
Lenny: The church should be the one place on earth where we are not afraid to be ourselves. However, as you know, the church is too often the place where we are most afraid to air our struggles and sins. The benefit of tackling issues like insecurity, inferiority, and inadequacy head-on is that it allows the church to become a sort of “city of refuge” where people can flee for grace and safety. But, as you suggest, there are dangers of dealing with internal emotional hang-ups. Some of these sermons can quickly deteriorate into pop-psychology, a bunch of self-help mumbo-jumbo that is completely void of God. This is why the second half of my sermon becomes very Christological. Jesus is not only the example of fig-leaf free living; he also becomes God’s covering for our nakedness once we strip our fig-leaves off. Here is the question I ask myself to avoid a theologically anemic sermon: Is the power and presence of God central to the sermon and necessary for its application? Based upon this question I felt good about the sermon “Fig-Leafing It.”
Dave: Genesis 3 is a gold mine of preaching insights. God’s goodness, our mistrust of God’s goodness, sin and atonement, the nature of humanity, multiple themes regarding relationships including shame and transparency all seem to be referenced. How did you decide to land on our tendency to “fig leaf it” as you put it? What was your actual process that brought you to that for a central focus?
Lenny: College Wesleyan Church, where I preached this message, just came off an excellent 10-week series focused on being the church outside of the walls of the church in terms of outreach, mission, and evangelism. So, I wanted to preach a message designed to help the church be the church inside of the walls of our church. In a church like ours, full of overachievers who work together throughout the week, relational intimacy in the church can be a real challenge. Additionally, the many new people moving into the area to study or work are starving for the kind of relational intimacy they experienced before coming here. To answer your question, I landed on the central focus of this sermon because I perceived it to be a response to some of the often unstated but very real needs in our congregation. In short, the needs of the preaching context steered me toward this particular sermon among the many that could indeed be preached from Genesis 3.
Dave: I feel this sermon has some shelf life to it. People probably still remember the central ideas of your sermon and perhaps their own takeaways from it even though significant time has passed. What did you intentionally do in this sermon to try and make it more memorable for people?
Lenny: In most of my sermons, I attempt to create a concrete metaphor to align tightly with the conceptual focus of the sermon in a manner that fosters clarity and memorability. The metaphors of the fig-leaf (abilities, accomplishments, appearances) and nakedness (inadequacy, insecurity, inferiority) came right from the Genesis 3 text. More often than we may realize, the best prevailing concrete metaphors are found right in the biblical text itself. Along with these vivid metaphors, I tried to employ a few strategically repeated statements (I call mantras) to clarify how I was using the metaphors. So I said things like: “the fig-leaves we wear become walls that prevent the intimacy we crave,” and “stripping off the fig-leaves to get naked so we can be covered with Christ.” Another device I used in this sermon for memorability, other than the metaphor and the mantra, was a structure built on narrative plot instead of linear points. While there’s a place for both point-based and plot-based sermons, the latter has a way of drawing people in to the message by building tension, climax, and resolution. People don’t just think the narrative sermon; they tend to feel it. And we humans have a way of remembering what we felt more than what we thought. Finally, people responded to the sermon by writing their particular “fig-leaf” struggle on a piece of paper shaped like a fig-leaf before “stripping it off” and throwing it in a trash can during the final song. These four elements (metaphor, mantra, narrative tension/resolution, and participatory response) can enhance sermon clarity and memorability and, I hope, life-transformation.
Dave: Okay, Lenny, you’re a homiletics professor. Put yourself on the examination table for a moment. Forgive me if this could be painful, but what would you tell yourself to work on in the future if you were your own professor of preaching?
Lenny: You’re really pushing the envelope of our friendship here, Dave . Actually, this is a question you know I appreciate. One thing I would change is that I might use less metaphorical language. I mixed the metaphor of fig-leaf removal with the archaeological dig about half way through the sermon. While this might work, the two images might have been confusing. I would have been better off, I think, to stay with fig-leaf removal language while avoiding the archeological language altogether. I would have also given more space to the Christological climax of the sermon. I devoted lots of sermon space to analyzing the problem with fig-leafing and to God’s ecclesiological resolution (the local church as fig-leaf removal tool), but not enough to the climactic work of Christ. These are a couple of changes I would make, though I’m sure I could easily think of a few more if I tried.