I’m working on a journal article with Dr. Johanna Hartelius, cohost at Crackers and Grape Juice, on the apocalyptic rhetoric of Fleming Rutledge. Reading again Karl Barth’s Homiletics and reviewing Fleming’s sermons, it has struck me once again her insistence that the grammar of our preaching betrays our theology.
I remember one occasion from homiletics class when I was in seminary. This belligerently confident, hyper-evangelical classmate preached his sample sermon before the class. His sermon was frenetic. He clearly thought he was the superior preacher to all of us and, admittedly, his delivery was effective.
However, our professor, Dr Kay, looked restless and irritated through the entirety of the 20 minute sermon. Once the student finished Dr Kay breathed out his exasperation and declared to the preacher:
‘Do you realize not one of your sentences had God as their subject.’
The point seemed lost on the preacher. But it hit me hard.
The preacher from my introductory homiletics class is but an extreme example of a mistake I think preachers, myself included, commit all the time.
God is seldom the subject of our verbs.
Guess who is?
That’s right. We are.
We speak of seekers instead of the sought.
We speak of our purpose instead of God’s purposes.
We speak of our questions about God instead of God’s questioning of us.
Too often our preaching is the sermonic equivalent of bad contemporary Christian music: I long for you. I hunger for you. I want more of you.
Will Willimon, in his book on preaching and Karl Barth, comments on Barth’s belief that all preaching is a reenactment of the primal miracle ‘And God said…’ Yet frequently our preaching is a less urgent, pale imitation: ‘This is what I have to say about God today.’ We preach as though God is not the one speaking to us through the text and gradually, without such urgency of the Living Word, we imply that God never spoke.
I believe the problem with most sermons is not one of delivery, style, rhetoric or technique (though there’s plenty of room for improvement there too).
The problem is theological.
Probably this sounds obvious but I wouldn’t say it if weren’t true and a desperately needed reminder: it’s about God.
The deficiency in many sermons, my own included, is that they’re not about God. They’re about our needs, our questions or our issues. They’re anthropological not theological. We’re the subject of the sentences. We preach the parable of the prodigal son as an allegory from which we can take lessons of family relationships. We turn the story of the woman from Samaria into a moralism about inclusivity. We take the transfiguration and preach on the need to return to the valley and serve the world’s hurting. Of course, each of those passages can have those implications but fundamentally they’re passages about God. All too often it’s the revelation we leave out.
Dr. Kay’s comments to my cocky classmate have always stuck with me, but truthfully if you go back through my old sermons and diagram the sentences you’ll find that God is the object of my sentences not the subject.
The majority of homiletics resources focus on the mechanics of the sermon process, on technique, rhetoric and sermonic forms; meanwhile, discussions about preaching primarily focus on the appropriate role of media in sermons. Others speculate if the preaching task will remain a viable exercise in the future.
What’s absent from the standard, available fare is the kerygma. There’s little awareness of preaching as fundamentally an announcement, an event of the Living Word that provokes a crisis in the listener and demands a decision.
I’m enough of a closet Calvinist to take seriously the Second Helvetic Confession’s stipulation that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” I believe- I depend on- that when the Word is faithfully preached and faithfully received it is the Living Word. This is one reason why debates about the authority of scripture are so very boring. The question is never just did God say that because we have a God who continues to speak today.
What’s more, if the Second Helvetic Confession is correct, then preaching which merely uses scripture as an illustration of an argument arrived at by others means risks malnourishing its listeners. Preachers can literally starve their listeners on a steady diet of propositions, points and helpful hints.
I listen to a lot of sermons. Sometimes I think it’s a best practice sort of exercise. Other times I think it’s masochistic. So few of the sermons I hear are animated by the conviction in the Living Word that emerges in the Helvetic Confession. They’re a message about Jesus. They’re lessons drawn from what Jesus said. They do not pulse with a God who says.
To be honest, this is the problem I have with much of the topical series preaching that’s common today. Sermon series like ‘Antidotes for the Out of Control Life,’ ‘Difficult Decision’ or ‘Fearless: Live Your Life without Fear’ can be effective and helpful to listeners, I know, but they’re also inherently anthropological.
And don’t think I’m wedded to the revised common lectionary because I’m not.
My wariness about topical sermon series is that it’s our questions or felt needs that drive the sermon. Indeed they’re imposed upon the scripture text from the start of the planning process. The topics of the series predetermine what the Word can and cannot say. They constrict God’s speech.
Once a year I preach just such a sermon series. It’s always carefully planned and promoted to attract young unchurched families. Every year, without question, these are my very worst sermons. I mean just awful.
I used to think they’re terrible because I’m no good at the quasi-Dr. Phil ‘how-to’ propositions such sermons require. That may be true but even more I think its because these sermons aren’t really about God. God is a device, an object or a means to my preconceived end. God’s not the subject, and I’ve found that if God’s not the one speaking then I literally have nothing to say.
Don’t be mistaken. I’m not saying that faithful proclamation needs to be accompanied by a Geneva collar and a mahogany pulpit the size of a C37. Preaching can be deductive or narrative, rationalistic or impressionistic, from a pulpit or the sanctuary floor, with or without PowerPoint slides. But it needs to have God as the subject.
Henry Emmerson Fosdick famously said that folks don’t come to church to hear about the Jebusites. Karl Barth famously said that folks come to church with anticipation, wondering ‘is it true?’
They were both right.
People do not come on a Sunday morning for the arcane or the minutiae. They do not hunger for facts. They do hunger for a Word from the Lord.
I can’t help but wonder sometimes if the popularity of topical preaching today has less to do with the utilitarian nature of our culture (though that has to be a large part of its appeal) and more to do with our Enlightenment-bound lack of confidence in the Living Word. Perhaps the lack of confidence that afflicts preaching isn’t a lack of confidence in our skill, ability or call but a lack of confidence that the God who became incarnate in human flesh can today inhabit our words.
As a result, what often suffers is our urgency. It was said of George Whitfield that he ‘preached as a drowning man to other drowning men.’ The waters must have receded because the problem today with much anthropological preaching is just this lack of urgency. Sermon topics such as ‘Antidotes for the Out of Control Life’ ask for listeners’ consideration not their decision. Its aim is for listeners to apply ‘principles’ to their lives; its aim is not to let the Word loose to provoke a crisis or event in the listeners’ lives.
The danger behind anthropological preaching is that as long as God is the object of my preaching and not the subject then I, as the preacher, set the pace. Not God. This is very different than God calling me today, speaking to me now, through the text in a way I could not have anticipated 18 months ago when I planned my sermon series.
It’s not only the sermon’s urgency that suffers. Anthropological preaching is very often boring too, boring not because of its mode of presentation or skill in delivery but boring because God is not allowed to say anything unexpected. The Word needs to service the predetermined topic; there’s no room for the Word to speak anything contrary, unexpected or counter-intuitive. The Word needs to fit into our prearranged categories. Practically speaking, this can be deadly for a listener’s sense of anticipation. It can bore them. Speaking theologically, it’s a problem because any God who takes up residence in a peasant Jew from Nazareth is a God who refuses categorization or easy deduction.