A friend new to ministry recently asked me for advice on preaching…
For the first few years of my preaching, thinking every Sunday sermon needed to include a ‘slice of life’ anecdote, I neglected to mine the deepest reservoir of imaginative potential: scripture.
It sounds self-evident now, but when I started preaching I tended to view the given text in isolation, attempting to draw out the meaning of the passage and then apply an illustration that would connect to the text’s contemporary implications. Trying to come up with an original, vital anecdote every week can prove to be an exhausting endeavor, and viewing the pericopes in isolation can ignore the elegance with which scriptural texts are woven into the larger fabric of scripture.
It’s common wisdom that the form of the sermon should be match the rhetorical form of the text.
A sermon on Romans 8, in other words, should attempt to echo the loftiness of Paul’s own language in describing the impossibility of anything separating us from Christ Jesus.
The form of the sermon should match the form of the text is a common preaching pointer; that is, don’t say what Paul said, do what Paul did.
This method alone could yield surprisingly imaginative results.
But I think you can take this principle a step further.
What about having the narrative arc of the sermon match the narrative arc of a particular character?
What is there, for example, in the beginning, middle and ending of Peter’s story that has Gospel in it? Why can’t Peter’s story produce a three-part narrative sermon?
Not only can we allow a biblical character’s narrative arc to create the form of the sermon, I believe we can allow scripture’s chronology to create the structure of the sermon and even the worship service itself.
Let me explain.
A couple of years ago I was struggling with how to preach Holy Week in light of the fact that so few worshippers, as a percentage of the congregation, attended the Holy Week services. How to bridge the gap from Palm Sunday to Easter? How to expose my listeners with the riches of texts around Christ’s passion? Then it occurred to me that there’s no rule from on high that the sermon needs to come at the middle or end of the worship service. For that matter, there’s no rule that demands the sermon stand as a discrete unit within the worship service. Why can’t the sermon be broken up into parts across the service, divided, for instance, according to the chronology of Holy Week?
One Palm Sunday we did just that, breaking the service into thirds with abrupt and distinct mood shifts for each part and setting the scene with palms, live lambs, a foot-washing basin and a fully set Passover seder. The ‘sermon’ became a series of vignettes that unpacked the events of the week ahead.
For a recent Holy Thursday service, I followed this same principle of using scripture to lead my imagination. And I wondered what it would be like to hear Isaiah’s Suffering Servant songs in the context of Holy Week. What would it sound like, I wondered, to put one of Isaiah’s songs in the mouth of Mary as she anoints Jesus? Or on the lips of Jesus as cleanses the Temple? So again the service was structured chronologically. Isaiah’s songs were set to contemporary Americana music and the sermon was preached, referencing both Isaiah and Gospel passages, in a lessons and carols format.
Too often we think that to be creative we have to turn to the options given to us by media and technology, but I truly believe we can be most creative by getting more deeply lost in the story.
Karl Barth, whose words I was reminded of recently, puts this better than me:
“Such preachers need not be alarmed, discouraged, or despairing, for one thing that is told them by way of consolation is that everything is already there that has to be said… One thing alone we must do, namely, open our eyes and see the treasure that is spread out before us, and then gather it and draw from the unsearchable riches and pass them on to the congregation. The encouraging “do not worry” must strike at the heart of the discouraged preacher, for the heavenly Father has made provision, and we have simply to be prepared to listen to his Word. Our own inspiration by which we swear in the beginning will leave us in the lurch sooner or later. The the exposition of scripture must replace it. This alone will endure.” (Barth, Karl. Homiletics (Louisville: Westminster JKP, 1991), 92.)