Guest / Limited Access /
What Sermon Illustrations Should Be Banned From Pulpits?
Image: James O’Brien

Any We've Heard Twice

Marguerite Shuster

Years ago, my church-going uncle, observing a tiny grandchild struggling to carry a Christmas present almost as big as he was, slyly intoned, "It's not heavy; it's my present."

Of course, he was invoking an illustration that is now 130 years old, of a little Scottish girl carrying a large baby. When asked if he is heavy, she responds, "He's not heavy; he's my brother."

By the time I first heard the story, the girl had transmuted into an African boy trudging along a long, dusty road, trying desperately to get help for the disabled brother on his back. The line has become the slogan for the Boys Town nonprofit; the title, slightly altered, of a hit Hollies song; and the theme of a Miller Lite commercial (good deeds being appropriately rewarded, of course, by a tall cool one). The story clearly strikes a chord across time and genres, so why would I suggest banning it from the pulpit?

My uncle's response gives the first clue: Everyone has heard this anecdote already. It readily provokes parody instead of a deep understanding of the truth that love makes burdens light. I tell students that if they have heard an illustration even twice, using it themselves is risky. Of course, the problem for the preacher is exacerbated by the viral quality of today's good stories, to which nearly all of us have instant access. Such stories can be made to work only if the preacher signals a fresh twist upfront.

A subtler difficulty, but one all too common, is moralism and guilt-induction. Yes, love lightens burdens, but even the most loving people can become exhausted and overwhelmed by burdens, say of caregiving, that have pushed them beyond ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

From Issue:
Read These NextSee Our Latest
RecommendedHere's How 770 Pastors Describe Their Struggle with Porn
Here's How 770 Pastors Describe Their Struggle with Porn
More than half have wrestled with it, but less than 1 percent recommend telling their congregation.
TrendingWhat to Give Up for Lent 2016? Consider Twitter's Top Ideas
What to Give Up for Lent 2016? Consider Twitter's Top Ideas
(UPDATED) Charting how Lenten abstinence has changed over time, as 2016 data comes in.
Editor's PickThe Lord Is My Shepherd or Predator?
The Lord Is My Shepherd or Predator?
Many people today find the famous psalm troubling. But we need it now more than ever.
Christianity Today
What Sermon Illustrations Should Be Banned From Pulpits?
hide thisJune June

In the Magazine

June 2014

To continue reading, subscribe now for full print and digital access.