Sermons Need to be More Theological
A couple springs ago, as I was preparing to teach an adult catechesis, a parishioner came up to the front of the classroom to talk with me. Osama Bin Laden had been killed by American troops just a week earlier. The parishioner, a career military man, began reflecting on the events of the past week and the events of September 11 which lay in the foreground of everyone’s minds. He mentioned watching on television the crowds around the country celebrating Bin Laden’s death with jubilant flag-waving and not a few flip signs that spoke of revenge. He paused for a few moments and I was unsure where his reflection was headed.
He looked at me and said: ‘I’m sure its good that he’s dead and no longer a danger to people, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for a Christian to celebrate an enemy’s death.’ I nodded and murmured my agreement.
Then he said: ‘I don’t think you understand. I didn’t think that way a few years ago. Your sermons have changed the way I think and interpret scripture.’
I don’t take much stock in what’s said about my preaching at the sanctuary door, whether its complimentary or not. His feedback, though, I count as the most valuable response to my preaching I’ve ever received because he wasn’t commenting on style or how a particular sermon made him feel, he was acknowledging that, over time, my preaching had equipped him with a theology.
Looking back over 12 years of sermons, the most notable change in my preaching from then to now isn’t one of style or facility with scripture.
What’s different today is my deliberate effort to articulate from the pulpit a theological framework.
That’s not to say I didn’t have a theology when I first got started.
On the contrary, like any newbie pastor, when I wrote my first sermons Augustine, Barth and others were already worn and well dog-eared. In the beginning I didn’t allow- or know how- my theology to inform or guide my preaching. They were like two neighbors who seldom spoke.
On the one hand, I suppose this freed the scriptural text to speak its claims to me on its own terms and not have a rookie preacher trying to squeeze a piece of scripture into a preconceived theological category.
On the other hand, in the absence of an overarching theological compass, what emerges in my early sermons is a sort of schizophrenic God, whose disposition towards us and whose purposes for us shift from one Sunday to the next.
If there’s anything I’ve learned over these 12 years, it’s that without a compass you can’t lead anyone any further than where they already are.
As important as finding your voice is to how you preach, articulating your theological perspective is essential to what you preach.
In my preaching now, I approach each piece of scripture with an eye to the whole and how it fits. This isn’t to pretend there aren’t a variety of genres and authorial intents in scripture. It’s not to claim that scripture is univocal on all matters or that the differences between, say, Paul and James can always be reconciled.
Nonetheless, I believe there is a thematic, and theological, unity to scripture.
I believe the creation God declared ‘good’ is distorted by Sin.
I believe God is determined to get what God wanted in the very beginning, that God calls Israel so that through their relationship and witness God’s creation might be redeemed.
I believe this is what the Old Testament is about. Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to be the New Adam for us, and I believe until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the life that is made flesh in Jesus Christ, a life which Easter and Pentecost make possible for us.
In a nutshell, that’s my theology and I’m intentional about trying to echo it in all my sermons.
The point isn’t that you need to agree with my theology; the point is you need to be able to succinctly articulate your own theology and weave it consistently into your proclamation. If you have a theology that leans towards blood atonement and salvation by grace through faith then that’s wonderful and you should hit that note in your preaching with clarity and consistency.
Preachers do not need to be homogenous in their theology, but preachers do need to provide their listeners a theological framework to apprehend scripture from week to week.
The rhythm of the church and the trajectory of the lectionary, though I don’t always follow either, also attempt to flesh such a framework.
The man who commented to me about Bin Laden’s death was trying to tell me how, over the course of six years, my preaching had given him a new perspective about how Christians regard the enemy. He’d acquired that perspective because I’d returned again and again in my preaching to my theology of the incarnation; specifically, how the incarnation makes Jesus’ way of life the life God desires for us all.
Providing the sermon’s listeners with a consistent theological framework does not mean every Sunday the preacher must beat the drum of his or her theology so that every sermon ends on the same point. I try to think of sermons not as discrete, independent units but as pieces that build towards a whole.
I try to think of sermons as coming together to form something like a musical composition and, within that composition, there needs to be a movement (my theology) which gives shape and structure to the whole.
With such a movement in place, variations on the theme are free to be variations and not deviations.
Writing with an eye towards my theological perspective, I’ve found, allows the sermon to be in submission to the scripture, to the whole of scripture. Certainly it’s possible to rush headlong into our theology that we constrict scripture’s voice and make it say what it does not say, but for me the opposite has been the case. My sermons now, I believe, are less episodic and less dictated by the preacher’s whim, even when the sermon seems whimsical.
I also appreciate how a consistent theology empowers the congregation to be able to hear me and interpret the text on their own.
As a preacher, you want the congregation not only to hear God speak from week to week. You also want to give them, over the long-haul, a worldview.
What preachers oftentimes cynically dismiss as ‘doctrine’ is, I’ve found, the sort of substance for which many listeners hunger. Listeners want a theological container into which they can put the many sermons and scriptures they hear. Sermons can be doctrinally substantive without being dogmatic or arid. In fact, I’d argue that sermons should be theological without having the overt appearance of ‘doing theology.’
Emily Dickinson said the poet should tell the truth slant so that it sneaks up on the reader unawares.
I think it’s the preacher’s task to preach.
And do theology on the slant.