A (Family) Round Table about Preaching The Brothers (and Son) Mueller

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A (Family) Round Table about Preaching

The Brothers (and Son) Mueller:

Rev. Herbert C. Mueller III, Rev. William E. Mueller, Rev. Timothy P. Mueller, Rev. Herbert C. Mueller Jr.

When three brother preachers (and a son who’s also a preacher) get together at family reunions, what do we talk about? Well, preaching, of course!

Herbert C. Mueller Sr., the patriarch of our family, now with the Lord, was a pastor for more than fifty years. Three of his five sons became pastors, plus Herbert III (son of Herbert Jr.) has now served as a pastor for about seven years. So, while this time we couldn’t actually be together for a “conversation,” we put “fingers to keyboards” to compare notes on our preaching. Call it a virtual family round table about preaching.

We are (beginning with the youngest): Rev. Herbert Mueller III (known as Bert) graduated from St. Louis in 2004. He began ministry at Trinity, Amherst, Nebraska, a town of about two hundred fifty souls, but recently accepted a call to St. Peter’s and Grace Lutheran Churches in Westgate and Fayette, Iowa, also a rural setting. Rev. William Mueller, a 1994 St. Louis grad, has served two parishes in Minnesota (a small town and then a suburb), but now is senior pastor of Suburban Bethlehem Lutheran Church, a large parish with a school on the outskirts of Fort Wayne. Rev. Timothy Mueller, also a St. Louis graduate, has served one rural dual parish since January 1988: St. John’s and St. Luke’s Lutheran Churches near New Minden, Illinois, about an hour east of St. Louis. Rev. Herbert Mueller Jr. (Herb, in family parlance), since graduating from St. Louis in 1979, served three parishes in Illinois, then was Southern Illinois District President for sixteen years, and now serves as First Vice-President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Writing for you here, we’ll just be, respectively, Bert, Bill, Tim, and Herb. Though we did not consult regarding our answers, each responded to a series of questions Herb posed:

What is your biggest challenge

in preaching?

Bill: My biggest challenge is time! I love preaching; I love sharing the message of God’s infinite love for sinners in Jesus Christ with people who are, literally, dying to know him and believe in him. Preaching is, as we’ve heard time and again (and I’ve seen it in three different-size congregations) the number one thing a preacher does. No other act will impact as many people as the single act of preaching. For me personally, the challenge is time. Time for prayer, time for sermon preparation, time simply to interact with God’s people so that I know what issues they’re facing and how a particular text will impact their faith life.

Bert: The biggest challenge I face when it comes to preaching is time. I find that it’s not freshness or communicative acumen that I lack, but time. My freshness problem is solved by digging into the text in the original languages. My communication challenges are resolved by being with my people. But time is a problem I’ve not yet solved. Both digging into the text and remaining with the people take significant investments of time.

Tim: Probably the biggest challenge in preaching is loving the Lord (and therefore his Word and his people) as I should. Too often I find myself filled with dread at the thought of preaching rather than joyfully anticipating: “God has given me the privilege of speaking his saving, life-giving Word to his people! Wow!” The antidote is to get into the text sooner and more deeply and let the Gospel of Christ fill me so that I can’t help but want to share it with others.

Herb: Tim has specifically described as challenge the First Commandment dimensions of preaching, but note the similarities to Bill and Bert. For Tim, too, the antidote to the challenge is time spent in preparation. (And, no, we really didn’t consult on our answers!) Preachers need time to be in the text to know what it says and time to be with the people to know what they need to hear.

What do you believe are the issues

your hearers are facing?

Bill: Insecurity of various kinds, challenges to the Christian faith, parenting, and so on.

Bert: My hearers are facing every problem imaginable. Of course, the biggest problem they’re facing is sin and its inevitable result, death. But the sins are different from person to person, from age group to age group. Right now the one issue that I come back to time and time again is just that, time. My people are so busy with everything under the sun that they see church as just one choice among many. I myself live in the same hectic world and schedule.

Tim: The two greatest issues, I believe, are works-righteousness and despair. The opinion of the Law dwells deeply within each of us. So many of our people live by the thought that they are going to be saved, in some way or another, by their good works. The free gift of salvation is right there in front of them, but they still want to trust in themselves. ... That is my chief fear for those who are not hearing the Word regularly: they can easily fool themselves into thinking that they’re okay before God as is and don’t need Jesus. It’s also why I believe people need lots of spiritual care as they approach the end of life—to make sure they’re ready to meet their Maker on the basis of faith in Christ alone.

Despair is the other danger I fear for my hearers. I think of a wonderful, faithful member, about whom a niece revealed to me after his death that he did not have the hope of going to heaven. It was like a dagger in this preacher’s heart. For about fifteen years, this man had listened to me preach Sunday after Sunday, week after week, as he faithfully came to church. I admired greatly the way he was patient with his wife, who had been suffering from severe mental illness. Then for about three years, I brought the Gospel and Sacrament to him in the nursing home on a monthly basis—more often after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. At the funeral, one of his nieces told me about a conversation she had had with her uncle about a month before he died. She had asked her uncle, “Aren’t you looking forward to going home to heaven?” He replied, “I’ve done some terrible things in my life. There is no hope for me to go to heaven.” Thankfully, she replied with a wonderful, Christ-centered witness: “But that’s why Jesus came and died on the cross for us and rose again—to take away our sins and give us eternal life!” I hope he died believing her testimony and that she was able to get through to him where I, his pastor, somehow was not. It shows the importance of Walther’s Thesis XXV, that the Gospel must predominate. I also think of a woman who in the course of adult class told me about the abortion she had had years before and her resulting fear of God: “There’s no way I belong in God’s house after what I’ve done.” Hurting people need to hear, again and again, the message of full, free pardon for the sake of Jesus.

What gives you the greatest joy

in preaching?

Bill: Sharing Jesus. Even though my seventeenth Easter is upcoming, I still wake up Easter Sunday amazed that I get paid to tell people Jesus rose from the dead. Bringing the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, bringing the “nevertheless” of the Gospel and seeing that Gospel message take root and grow gives me the greatest joy.

Bert: I love the whole thing. For me, preaching is a very personal event. [I must write my sermons] for myself as well as for my people. I tremble, too, when I hear God’s Holy Law, and I rejoice when I hear the sweet Gospel. I’m struggling with the same sins my people have, and I need the same forgiveness and peace Jesus gives to them through my preaching.

Tim: When I really feel like I have something to say, when I really have drunk in the Gospel message for my own self, and I am preaching away and the people have been prepared by hearing the Law—when I drop on them that mother lode of the Gospel, I feel like I could grab that piece of the pulpit with the Bible on it and fly around the sanctuary. I watch them, quiet and intent on soaking up what is being delivered, and see their faces change as they come to see that salvation and forgiveness of Jesus Christ is for them. When they get that, when you really sense that they get it, there is nothing more rewarding for me as a preacher.

Herb: That’s why the Gospel ought never be assumed, but must be delivered, full and free, over and over again, with all its many facets.

In your estimation, what do people of your generation most need in preaching?

Bill: Jesus—in ways they understand, appreciate and can apply. This is preceded, of course, by textual, contextual, and applicable preaching of the Law.

Tim: Unlike so many cultural experiences, which are tailored to (and thus separated into) various generations, we in our congregation have to speak to all generations in worship and preaching. Because of my dual parish situation, we don’t have the option of tailoring a service to a certain group, and I’m not sure I would be comfortable with that anyway. I take great delight that we have everything from newborns up to people in their nineties listening together to the Word of Christ. We have people with a cane at the altar rail next to the little one held in his or her mother’s arms. Perhaps I should be more in tune with the needs of the different generations, but I try rather to think of them as individuals.

Bert: Preaching has to be real. And it must be Law and Gospel. While medieval man asked, “How can I, a sinner, find a gracious God?” postmodern man often asks, “What has God done for me lately?” Yet we ought not cater too much to the postmodern mind-set in preaching. We ought trust that the Law will indeed eventually disabuse people of the notion that they deserve anything from God or that they are able to offer God anything except their sins. The Law will lead people to ask, “How can I, a sinner, find a gracious God?” even if they are postmoderns! Then we trust that God’s Gospel will indeed do his proper work.

Describe your goal in preaching.

Put into words what you hope

to accomplish.

Herb: My prayer is always simply that the people would see and hear Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead for our salvation.

Tim: My goal would be that those in the audience without faith in Christ would be brought to faith, and that those in the faith would be strengthened in their faith in Christ by the message they hear. In our small rural community with a relatively stable population, the vast majority of the hearers are already church members and hopefully Christians. However, the Word is a Means of Grace by which these will be preserved in their faith. Having been in the same congregations for twenty-three years, I have seen the chronic nature of the struggles people face and the crosses they bear. Some are still struggling with the same issues they faced two decades ago. They need weekly bolstering from the Lord so that they will not give up, not despair, not fall away. It’s amazing to me that people do keep coming back. There’s a core group of people here that has heard me preach over twelve hundred times, and they will be here next Sunday. It’s a tribute to the power of the Word, the faithfulness of God to give life through Word and Sacrament, that they keep coming. (Although I do grieve over those who have become inactive in my time here.)

Bert: Basically, my goal is to use the words of the text to show my people the depth of their sin and the awesome wonder of God’s free grace for sinners in Jesus Christ, our Savior. I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in my name to all nations” (Lk 24:47).

Bill: My private prayer at the altar before most sermons is for the Lord to use the words I’ve marshaled together for the sermon so that his people assembled in his sanctuary may see Jesus through what this preacher says. Jesus—knowing him, living in relationship with him, placing our entire lives into his hands—is what makes the difference for people today.

Outline briefly the process you follow

in preparing to preach.

Bert: My first and most important step is translating the text. Often in the process of translation, a specific word or phrase will stand out. If this is the case, I may base the entire sermon on that one word or phrase. In other cases, I follow the basic outline of the text to explain each part and how it applies to our lives in Law and Gospel terms. I do make use of outlines, but sometimes I have a good idea of what I’m going to say anyway, and after translating I sit down and start typing. This sometimes has the effect of suggesting an outline. I generally try to achieve a functional memory of the text, but I do carry a manuscript with me.

Tim: Our homiletics professor, William Schmelder, used to say that the preacher should have two signs up in his study, “Text” and “Hearer,” and should study them both throughout the week. I study the hearer by spending time listening to people one-on-one, finding out what makes them tick, figuring out what’s really on their hearts and minds. I believe pastoral care is a huge part of the preparation to preach. My “in” with the people when I step into the pulpit is that they know I care about them, because I’ve been willing to spend time with them and their loved ones in their time of need. I really believe that’s a big reason why they bother to show up and listen to the sermon; they respect what I’ve done in teaching their kids, in visiting Grandma in the nursing home, in driving way over to who-knows-where to visit their grieving or incarcerated friend or relative, in helping them when their spouse left, and so on.

One of my favorite times in preparing to preach is while mowing the lawn on Saturdays. It helps in two ways. First, it gives me a chance to mull the text over and to think of what it’s saying to specific people in the congregation with their particular needs. I would never say anything in a sermon that could be traced to a specific individual’s situation, but I do think of specific individuals in the congregation and what they need to hear that Sunday and what the text offers. Second, mowing the parsonage lawn (which is right next to the church) gives a testimony to the worshiping community that the pastor can be trusted. Who will bother to listen to a guy who can’t even keep his lawn mowed? (That really is a part of our small-town culture.) In the course of the week, when I get the chance, I’ll also use the text for the following Sunday in my visitations. This helps me “try it out” and see what effect it has on people. Preparation involves reading the text in the original language and—as much as time will allow—doing word studies and parallel studies, doctrinal studies, and so on, always looking for homiletical material that will unfold the text for the hearer. I do write a manuscript, but try not to take anything into the pulpit except my Bible, so on Sunday morning it’s just me, the text, the hearer, and—God be praised—the Lord himself! I’ve heard it said: “The Bible is unlike any other book in the world. Whenever and wherever it’s opened, the author is right there.”

Bill: Pray. Read the text in the original language. Make note of any turn phrases or words that jump out from the text (Hebrew is such a graphical language; Greek has its sweet words and turns on phrases with its moods and tenses), usually looking for key Gospel words or phrases, but sometimes the Law jumps out as well. (I’m usually looking for the Gospel as my flesh knows the Law.) If time allows, do some looking up of scriptural references or word studies. Think and pray about how this text is going to affect the people I know who will be sitting in the pews Sunday morning. Knowing their struggles allows me to begin to understand how the text is going to hit them. An illustration I use is to think of taking a ball, throwing it at a wall, and seeing how it bounces. That’s what I ask of a text and God’s people. How is this text going to bounce off his people? Just as the way a ball bounces off a wall reveals the contours of the wall, so the way God’s people react to a text says a great deal about the issues they’re facing.

Outline, outline, outline, outline. No matter how little time I have for preaching, this step—along with prayer—is always done. Even if it’s just scribbled in my handwriting, there is always an outline, a thought plan by which I pray, with God’s guidance, to navigate a text with his people. Many folks in my parish love the outline printed in the bulletin (I’ve seen some posted on workbenches where they work, and they’ve told me how much they appreciate it so they can remember their call to faith in Jesus and to live in him), so about sixty percent of the time when I preach, there’s an outline in the bulletin.

Pray, pray, pray.

Forget, forget, forget. I remember a professor at Ann Arbor telling us that, in his opinion, the worst thing a parishioner can say to their pastor at the door is “Good sermon, Pastor.” I was baffled when I heard that as a young college student, but as a seventeen-year preacher, I get it. It’s too easy to rest on our accomplishments as preachers. We can too easily become smug in thinking we’re such great preachers (even on just a sheer statistical plane, there’s always a chance that the worst of sermons will be well received by at least one person). The preacher must put the compliments—and constructive criticisms of his preaching—into perspective. Learn what can be learned from the comments, place his preaching preparation at the foot of Jesus’ cross, and move on! There’s another Sunday coming! Another opportunity to share Jesus!

Is there anything else

that’s key for you in preaching?

Tim: Genuineness. People can sense a fake, especially after all these years when we’ve been together so long. They all know my kids, and I know theirs. So many things these days are manipulative or “salesman-like.” I simply try to place the Word of God before each hearer’s conscience and let God do the rest (2 Cor 4:2). I hesitate even to use illustrations that I’ve lifted from other sources. I would rather find one from the Bible or from everyday life. I’ve been told that people like the fact that when I speak, they can tell it’s “from the heart.” Or, as one man used to tell me, “We know you mean well.” That’s also why I give them straight-up “meat and potatoes” sermons, nothing fancy, just a theme from the text itself and the unfolding of the words of the text for them, with the Gospel predominating, using two or three main points. In short, there’s much in my preaching life for which I need forgiveness. I would in no way urge my methods on anyone else or suggest that they would even be appropriate for a different congregation in a different ministry. I thank God that he hasn’t struck me down in the pulpit but has allowed me to continue. By his grace, I’ll keep at it and, by his mercy, improve. To God alone be the glory!

Bert: The Law must be proclaimed, but not “used,” by the preacher. God will use the Law for his purposes in each hearer. No, this does not have to be “fire and brimstone.” But it should be real and deal with real sins that should hit me right between the eyes. I should be led to consider my own idolatry and my own lack of love (even hatred) for my neighbor, things Jesus says are also, indeed, in my heart. There’s no way I can pick myself up. When a preacher preaches this way, there is literally no way out except by death. There are two deaths presented then: my own death and the death of my Savior. Jesus’ death takes care of my death and the death of my hearers. His death was indeed for me, for my sin, and for the sins of the world. Therefore, he becomes my hope, my life, my joy, my peace, my sanctification, my life, my all. “Christ, the life of all the living, Christ, the death of death, our foe” (LSB 420:1). That’s Gospel. But I can only hear that properly after the Law has done its work. The Gospel will be sweetest after we really hear the Law. And the sweet Gospel does indeed change lives!

Bill: When I get to participate in the installation of a pastor, in the laying on of hands, I usually say something like this: “I pray that you remember that the Gospel you preach and share with God’s people is also the Gospel for you.” This Jesus I get to share in preaching is also the same Jesus for me. The sinner I know best is comforted by the Savior I want to know more and share more.

Looking back around the table . . .

Herb: Initially, we thought there would be greater differences among us, since we serve in different contexts and come from different generations. I’m definitely a “boomer.” Tim is probably a late “boomer.” Bill is very much a “post-boomer.” Bert is an early “millennial” or late “baby-buster.” And how far we’re all removed from our father, of the Greatest Generation (and now really of the greatest generation!). There are superficial differences, to be sure, but when we compiled the answers, we were surprised by how similar we are. We are each desperate that people would see Jesus, hear Jesus, trust Jesus, follow Jesus, be transformed by Jesus through the gifts of his grace in Word and Sacrament. And that is the heart and soul of Lutheran preaching, wherever you are!

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