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Sermon illustrations

Tradition

The Calf Path

In this well-known poem, the Calf Path, Sam Walter Foss presents an allegory of the foibles that go hand in hand with an unthoughtful allegiance to tradition.

One day, through the primeval wood,

A calf walked home, as good calves should;

But made a trail all bent askew,

A crooked trail as all calves do.

Since then three hundred years have fled,

And, I infer, the calf is dead.

But still he left behind his trail,

And thereby hangs my moral tale.

The trail was taken up next day

By a lone dog that passed that way;

And then a wise bell-wether sheep

Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,

And drew the flock behind him, too,

As good bell-wethers always do.

And from that day, o’er hill and glade,

Through those old woods a path was made.

And many men wound in and out,

And dodged, and turned, and bent about

And uttered words of righteous wrath

Because ’twas such a crooked path.

But still they followed—do not laugh—

The first migrations of that calf,

And through this winding wood-way stalked,

Because he wobbled when he walked.

This forest path became a lane,

That bent, and turned, and turned again;

This crooked lane became a road,

Where many a poor horse with his load

Toiled on beneath the burning sun,

And traveled some three miles in one.

And thus a century and a half

They trod the footsteps of that calf.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet,

The road became a village street;

And this, before men were aware,

A city’s crowded thoroughfare;

And soon the central street was this

Of a renowned metropolis;

And men two centuries and a half Trod

in the footsteps of that calf.

Each day a hundred thousand rout

Followed the zigzag calf about;

And o’er his crooked journey went

The traffic of a continent.

A hundred thousand men were led

By one calf near three centuries dead.

They followed still his crooked way,

And lost one hundred years a day;

For thus such reverence is lent

To well-established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach,

Were I ordained and called to preach;

For men are prone to go it blind

Along the calf-paths of the mind,

And work away from sun to sun

To do what other men have done.

They follow in the beaten track,

And out and in, and forth and back,

And still their devious course pursue,

To keep the path that others do.

They keep the path a sacred groove,

Along which all their lives they move.

But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,

Who saw the first primeval calf!

Ah! Many things this tale might teach—

But I am not ordained to preach. —

Sam Walter Foss, The Calf Path

Innovation or Heresy?

It’s funny how sometimes members of the church can associate anything new with “heresy.” We often make the mistake of confusing technological innovations or scientific discoveries for changes to the gospel. The most famous case of this is probably the prolonged dispute between Galileo and the Catholic church over heliocentrism, that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. The mistake made by the medieval church was to allow assumptions about the world (and really most people at the time) to crystallize into doctrine, assumptions that were formed not by scripture, but by culture and tradition.

This same scenario repeated itself in the late 19thcentury, when at an annual church conference in Westfield, Illinois, a college president proclaimed, “We are approaching a time of great inventions. For example, I believe the day is not far off when men will fly through the air like birds.” A bishop then accused the president of heresy, “The Bible tells us that flight is reserved for the angels! Ironically, the last name of that bishop was Wright. His two sons, Orville and Wilbur, were the first to record a successful powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

Today we look back at those two scenarios and our first reaction is to scoff: how could they be so foolish? But we do the same thing all the time in the church today. People argue you can’t have coffee in a sanctuary. Others argue you can’t have guitars in worship. Whatever “it” is, we often make the mistake of assuming just because it is new, it can’t possibly be good. Whenever anything new comes along, and knocks on the door of the church, we ought not simply reject it out of hand, but rather engage in a thoughtful, engaging dialogue from a Biblical basis as to whether or not this new element is heretical, or simply something new that we have to get used to.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Reading the Gospels for the First Time

Thomas Linacre was king’s physician to Henry VII and Henry VIII of England, founder of the Royal College of Physicians, and friend of the great Renaissance thinkers Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Late in His life he took Catholic orders and was given a copy of the Gospels to read for the first time.

The Bible, of course, was still the preserve of the clergy and not in the hands of ordinary people. And Linacre lived through the darkest of the church’s dark hours: the papacy of Alexander VI, the Borgia pope whose bribery, corruption, incest, and murder plumbed new depths in the annals of Christian shame. Reading the four Gospels for himself, Linacre was amazed and troubled. “Either these are not the Gospels,” he said, “or we are not Christians.”   

Os Guinness, The Call, Thomas Nelson, 1998, pp.109-110.

Why Do you Cut off the Ends of the Meat?

A little girl asked her mother, “Mommy, why do you cut the ends off the meat before you cook it?” The girl’s mother told her that she thought it added to the flavor by allowing the meat to better absorb the spices, but perhaps she should ask her grandmother since she always did it that way. So the little girl finds her grandmother and asks, “Grandma, why do you and Mommy cut the ends of the meat off before you cook it?”

Her grandmother thought a moment and answered, “I think it allows the meat to stay tender because it soaks up the juices better, but why don’t you ask your Nana, after all, I learned from her and she always did it that way.” The little girl is getting a little frustrated, but climbs up in her great-grandmother’s lap and asks, “Nana, why do you cut the ends off the meat before you cook it?” Nana answered, “I don’t know why these women do it, I did it because my pot wasn’t big enough.”…

Submitted by Chris Stroup, Source Unknown

Working on Our Muscle Memory

Editor’s Note: The following illustration came from one of my own sermons, as I was trying to help a congregation see itself not as a building, but the body of Christ. It has been adapted for TPW.

Now, one of things I’ve realized, even in my own perspective on the church, is that we all have a default way of thinking about “church.” That is, for the majority of us in North America and Europe, when we hear “church” we often think of a building with a cross on top.

We know from studying biblical passages about the church we should picture a human body or a gathering of Jesus followers instead, right? But it’s kind of like muscle memory. You all know what muscle memory is right? It’s the idea that we have certain ways of doing things, say swinging a golf club and when we try to say, change that swing, we struggle, because we already have muscles that expect to move a certain way right? So for instance, recently I had a golf lesson. And the instructor, who knows a lot more about golf than I do, said, “I think I’d like to change your swing.”

Now, this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear, “Oh, you are just doing this little thing wrong. Fix it, and you’ll have a zero handicap.” Okay, let’s be honest, that was never going to happen.

So, let me demonstrate how I used to swing. (Show the congregation.) It wasn’t terrible, but it also had its problems. So the instructor made a couple tweaks, and I’ll be honest, at first, felt very awkward, even flat out wrong. I thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure I’ll never hit the ball well with this swing.”

But strangely enough, with a little practice, not only did I start to hit the ball straighter than I was before, but I was also hitting the ball further. So why do I bring this up? It’s because we all have quite a lot of “muscle memory” related to the church. We all see and expect the church to look and act a certain way. The problem is, sometimes, in order for the church to grow, we need to look back at scripture and ask, “What if our muscle memory is off?” What if we are doing things, not because they have to be done that way, but because they used to work well this way, but they don’t really work anymore? Remember, we’re not talking about changing the gospel or the essence of the Church. We are talking about fixing some of our mechanics in order to more faithfully proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, in our place and time.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Sermon, Luke 15: Locating the Lost, Oct.10, 2017.

See also Illustrations on ExperienceHistory