Archives For Reflections on Preaching

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry recently asked my advice on preaching…

Here are 3 quick pieces of advice:

Write 250 Words a Day 

Some invaluable advice I received in a creative writing class in college was that I should adopt the habit of writing at least 250 words a day. Really, it’s only two paragraphs. They need not be brilliant examples of writing. It doesn’t need to be the great American novel, a dissertation or moving sermon. It can be about anything under the sun.

The sheer habit of writing, however, will prime your creative pump (hence this blog) and make the writing of the sermon at week’s end much easier.

Be Creative 

The first caution about being creative is the caution above about your listeners’ BS radar. Being childish and trite is not the same thing as being creative.

The second caution about being creative is that technology is now omnipresent in our culture. Using PowerPoint and YouTube are not creative in their own right and they’re certainly no longer counter the status quo. This just makes the bar for creativity higher.

Use your imagination.

Variety

Tim Keller is a far more accomplished pastor and preacher than me so who am I to judge, but it amazes me that nearly every sermon he preaches- no matter the form of the text- has the same 3 Point Rational Exposition Form.

Scripture is replete with manifold forms of communication. Logical exposition is a surprisingly a small portion of the scriptural witness. So why is that variety not evidenced in our preaching?

If our sermon forms were any indication, someone new to the bible might suspect our scripture resembled something more like the Quran, filled with rational rules and precepts.

To preach biblically is to let the bible’s moods and methods lead us.

Preach narratively.

Preach poetically.

Preach parabolically.

Lament.

Unsettle.

Praise for Praise’s sake.

Challenge.

Draw a vision of God’s future.

 

Preachers, Get Lost

Jason Micheli —  August 14, 2013 — 1 Comment

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zIn the story.

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.)

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry recently asked my advice on preaching…

I remember a preaching professor, Dr Cleo Larue, closing class by saying

‘Next week is reading week. So for God’s sake read.’

Another mentor told me upon graduating that the best advice he could give me was to subscribe to the New York Times.

It’s some of the best writing available out there and it will teach you how to write better sermons, he said.

No doubt you’ve heard similar advice given to you from others, but I’ll repeat because these ten years have born it out for me:

What you preach, how you preach, how well you prepare to preach, the ideas that come to you to preach etc – it all hangs on you reading.

Read as much as you can as often you can as diversely as you can.

There’s nothing more depressing (to God too I would wager) than a preacher who hasn’t read anything but Max Lucado since he or she left seminary.

For God’s sake, read. Your preaching will be blessed for it.

Some Suggested Reads 

Some of you have responded to previous posts by asking for suggestions on reading.

Fully aware there is no shortage of preaching texts and even more aware that our reading tastes mirror our own idiosyncrasies, I nevertheless offer you some texts that have sit on my shelves with dog-eared pages, inky notes and not a little sweat pored over them.

On Writing 

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch

On Preaching

Discovering a Sermon by Robert Dykstra

The Heart of Black Preaching by Cleophus Larue

The Gottingen Dogmatics by Karl Barth

The Undoing of Death by Fleming Rutledge

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_z

A friend new to ministry recently asked me advice on preaching…

Some will bristle at this suggestion but I offer it anyway, fully believing in its truth.

In your ministry, preaching is the most important thing you will do.

Theologically, I believe this is true. Bringing a Word on behalf of your congregation is a sacred vocation.

But I say this for practical reasons too.

 

I realize the Emerging Church conversation has had much to say about the decline in the relevance of traditional preaching, even wondering if preaching has a future, but there is no other aspect of your ministry in which you will engage, form and equip a greater number of your congregation.

The preaching event is when the greatest number are exposed to you.

Indeed for many the preaching event will be their only exposure to you or to the life and ministry of the church.

The commitment and quality you bring to the pulpit each week significantly determines how the congregation views you and evaluates you.

What’s more- in many areas of your ministry you are a generalist and in many of those areas, such as finance, education, recruitment or planning, lay people in your congregation will have a greater expertise.

Unlike any other facet of your work, preaching and worship are the venue in which you are the resident expert and you should leverage that opportunity.

This isn’t to say the time you spend with a particular family in crisis isn’t more valuable.

It’s to say that you cannot have such moments with every family in your congregation.

You can’t build close, personal relationships with every one in your community.

You can’t personally disciple every individual.

Preaching is when everyone gets to have twenty minutes

with you.

It makes no sense, therefore, to waste that opportunity by giving it less time and attention than you would to any other part of your ministry.

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zMaybe its because I came to faith late in my teens and was previously a ferocious cynic, or maybe its because many of my friends and family are still very much unchurched.

Perhaps its because I know how savvy youth are in their ability to discern and evaluate what is authentic and what is not.

For whatever reason, I think preachers would do well to recognize- and operate on the realization- that listeners have an acute, sensitive and highly developed radar when it comes to bullshit.

Empty bromides, canned jokes, insincere praise, vacuous propositions, trite illustrations.

It will all register on their BS radar.

Incidentally, this is connected to my caution that the congregation will know when you’re prepared for a sermon and when you’re showing a movie clip because you’ve nothing to say.

Even if they dare not tell you, listeners know BS when they hear it.

You do, right?

So it’s astounding how so many of us preachers shovel it from time to time in our sermons under the delusion no one will call us on it.

Be true and do the work that authenticity requires.

bullshit-meter

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry recently asked my advice on preaching…

This is the caveat to my earlier thoughts on how preaching is a craft best learned through imitation of a master:

Find (and Don’t) Apologize for Your Voice

Any writer and any preacher needs to find their unique, authentic voice. I believe God calls us not in abstraction to fill a general role.

God calls us in our particularity to preach.

Our call is every bit as incarnational as our Savior.

Your call to preach necessarily entails your own individual voice. Too many preachers get frustrated thinking they have to be just like another preacher.

There’s no mold you need in which you must conform.

Believe me, plenty of my parishioners would love to squeeze every square inch of me into any other mold but me.

God can use your life, experiences and perspective to bring a Word no one else can bring. There should be vitality and urgency in your sermons, knowing you have something to say that no one but you can say.

The only rule about finding your voice is that there is no rule to finding your voice other than writing and preaching, writing and preaching, writing and preaching…learning what works and trusting your instincts….and trusting that your listeners will meet your gift with gratitude.

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry recently asked me for advice on preaching…

I’m convinced that I would not be doing what I do today had I attended a church with crappy preaching when I first became a Christian. Or, if I still was doing this (God’s stubborn call and all) then I’m convinced I’d doing it badly had I not first been exposed to Dennis Perry’s preaching.

The best advice I ever received as a novice preacher came from Dr Robert Dykstra (my own personal Yoda).

Dr Dykstra said I should identify a preacher, whose style and delivery I both admired and felt approximated my own desired style and delivery, and to mimic that preacher.

The advice actually included the suggestion that I obtain or transcribe a manuscript of a sample from that preacher, memorize it, and then videotape myself delivering that sermon in the manner of the preacher.

In the same painters learn to paint by copying the works of earlier masters, the thinking behind this advice was that in mimicking a master preacher I would intuitively learn what makes a sermon work.

And then I would be more likely to create one on my own.

This is exactly what I did and to this day my own preaching looks and sounds an awful lot like the preacher who gave me that advice.

Don’t believe me? Listen here.

My preaching may not always be exceptional but I do know what makes a sermon work, thanks to this advice.

To a large extent, preaching is not something that can be learned in a classroom or from manuals or on our own.

It’s a craft. Like woodworking, painting or bricklaying, it’s a craft best learned by imitation and apprenticeship.

It’s no accident that most of the Church’s great preachers grew up in congregations where they listened to the preaching of great preachers.

Thanks to the internet and media libraries this mode of imitation is easier to pull off than it was when I was in seminary. I’d encourage you to find a master and make yourself their apprentice.

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry recently asked me advice on preaching…

When asked about his own effectiveness in the pulpit, Gardner Taylor replied that

‘the key to a great sermon is to fix your #$# more firmly…to the seat of a chair.

It may seem like a flip throwaway line, but its perhaps the best preaching advice anyone can receive.

To the extent my own preaching has avoided being a complete disaster, its due to the amount of work I’m committed to putting in during the week. Naturally, everyone’s manner of preparation will vary. For some the sermon will come a piece at a time during the week. For others the sermon will require brooding all week long and come all at once on Friday or Saturday. The manner of prep can vary but I’m convinced the need for preparation and study is absolute.

My own habit is to read, study and brainstorm the possibilities in the text for about three hours each day, Monday through Thursday. While I have the upcoming sermon series planned 18 months ahead, I write the sermons from week to week. Those three hours can come in snatches during the course of the day or sometimes they come all at once- now that I have children I most often wake early in the morning and am the first there when they unlock the door at Starbucks. On Friday, then, I write the sermon. It can take all day. Sometimes it takes not nearly that long. I save Saturday morning for writing the ending and editing the sermon down.

Preaching is a gift but, no less than painting or music, its a gift that requires our work or it will never become a craft.

Too often I think talk of the Holy Spirit and spontaneity in the pulpit is just a guise for laziness.

I’ve never understood why the Holy Spirit, who is always involved in the carefully orchestrated, foreshadowed acts of scripture, is always maligned by being associated with spontaneity.

Fair warning: chances are your congregation won’t understand it either.

Here’s one golden nugget of wisdom I can offer after ten years in the pulpit.

If you’re hungry for one absolute in all this that you can stick in the pocket of your preaching robe, here it is:

the amount of work and effort you put into your sermon preparation will convey to the congregation and will give you credibility with them.

Whether your every sermon is Pentecost redux or not, they will respect you for respecting them by preparing so intently. This will in turn give you credibility in every other facet of your ministry.

Another fair warning: that absolute comes with a correlative. The opposite is also true. Your lack of work in sermon preparation will show (they’ve listened to sermons their whole lives!) and your credibility will suffer. You cannot mask or dissemble your lack of effort in the previous week with canned filler material.

We’ve all received the same email forwards.

We’ve all heard the same generic stories from illustration books and we’ve all seen the same video clips and can sense when their connection to the text is tenuous at best.

You can’t fool the congregation into thinking you’ve devoted time and sweat to your sermon when you have not.

A part of this work, I believe, should be writing out your sermon manuscript. I don’t always preach from a manuscript or from a pulpit, but I always write a complete manuscript. I know not everyone holds to this habit, but here is why I do.

I was taught preaching by a famous black preacher, who impressed upon me the fact that even the great black preachers, who often appeared spontaneous in their delivery, wrote out their manuscripts. The reason for this, he said, was the esteem in which the black church holds the Word.

The power and beauty of the Word requires our own devotion to and precision of language. After all, we believe salvation comes by hearing.  We believe the chief act of this God is to speak. We believe that before he was Jesus, the Son was the Word.

Words matter in our faith.

To proclaim this faith with the integrity it deserves, I believe, requires we take care with our words.

Such care, I believe, requires more than an outline, idea, or notes. Our words have more than utilitarian function. To be made in this God’s image is to be able to create and give life…with words. Preaching from an outline or notes is fine provided there is a manuscript behind it.

Preaching is less about being Peter, suddenly blessed with the words to convert thousands.

Preaching is about wrestling with the Word and, like Jacob, being blessed week in and week out.

The proper venue for our preaching isn’t Pentecost so much as it is the Jabbok River. It’s where we go week in and week out to meet God, even if the encounter leaves us limping.

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry recently asked me for advice on preaching…

By my count, in these 12 years, I’ve traced the sign of the cross on the foreheads of 8 babies. I’ve thrown earth on the caskets of 3 children and buried something like 80 people.

How best to preach funerals?

The sheer demographics of our denomination, aging and graying, makes it an important question.

It’s a question I wrestled with when I first started ministering and noticed the disparity between how I was trained to preach funerals and what my congregation’s expectations were for how I would preach funerals.

In seminary I was taught the sound principle that funeral sermons, as the funeral itself, should proclaim the Resurrection. They should be about God and God’s raising of Christ from the dead.

As a matter of theological principle, I concur.

I bristle sigh when families request to release balloons at gravesides, play secular music, show film clips, or read extra-biblical poems, and it depresses me that such requests have only increased with the passing of years.

Why do so many think an email forwarded poem honors or in any summarizes a person’s life?

Why do so many think its appropriate to sum up a loved one’s life by way of exclusive reference to their hobby?

Too many, thinking they’re novel and the first person ever to request it of me, want their loved one’s funeral to be a ‘celebration of their life.’ What they usually mean, whether they’re aware of it or not, is that they want the funeral to be a celebration of the deceased’s life and not a celebration of the life that defeats death.

I get the propriety of what I was taught in seminary but experience has shown me that many have contrary expectations.

Where I was taught to proclaim the Gospel, cultural practices (and prejudices) have taught them to expect a eulogy.

Thus the high premium on the pastor who knew the deceased well as well as the standard by which many funeral sermons are judged: ‘It sounded like you knew him/her well.’

I wish more listeners would grade me instead by saying ‘It sounded like you know the Gospel well’ or ‘It sounds like you know Jesus Christ well.’

But as much as I wish that were the case, it’s not and probably won’t be any time soon, given our post-Christian culture.

So what to do?

And how to do it well?

I’m not at all convinced I do this well, but I offer my approach.

The introduction to the baptismal ritual has us say that through the sacrament ‘we are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation.’ This is the lens through which I approach the funeral sermon, helping me look for bits, anecdotes and memories when I counsel and prepare with the family.

What baptism means, I think, is that what’s important about our lives is how they participate in Christ’s life.

Accordingly, in preparing a funeral sermon I try to brainstorm a particular scripture called to mind by the deceased’s story. Often the scripture is not overtly about death or resurrection at all.

Every funeral sermon text need not be Psalm 23 or Revelation 21. Instead the scripture could be a sort of parable or allegory or analogy of the deceased.

For example, I’ve used the Book of Ruth and the Prodigal Son for dysfunctional or unusual families. I like to use the Wedding at Cana for folks with no obvious religious life but who enjoyed life, or ‘Christ our Advocate’ scripture for lawyers.

In doing so, I try to renarrate the scripture in light of the deceased’s life. I think this opens up a way to be faithful to scripture and also to honor the assembled’s expectation. It also alleviates the burden of ‘knowing’ the deceased; in that, rather than the sermon needing to be a eulogy-like litany of facts- too many funeral sermons sound like resumes with resurrection at the end- all that’s needed are a few pregnant images from the person’s life to make the scripture sound contemporary and alive.

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend who is new ministry recently asked me for advice on preaching...

A while back I was talking with Lauren Winner and she reflected, bemusedly, about what she must have been thinking to write a memoir, Girl Meets God, at only the age of 24.

Acknowledging an inevitable psychological need to reveal parts of herself, Winner also acknowledged that she would rather err on the side of divulging too much of her life than too little.

The Church needs more authenticity she said.

I think the same can be said of the pulpit.

Preachers need more authenticity.

Cormac McCarthy, my favorite novelist, admitted to an interviewer that he has no interest in literature that doesn’t have death in it.

Matters of life and death are too important to neglect for a novel to ring true.

Likewise, Gardner Taylor, the dean of black preachers, often critiqued younger preachers for sermons that had no blood in them, meaning there was no sign in them of the preacher’s own struggle with life and faith.

While it’s certainly inappropriate for preachers to use the pulpit as their own private confessional or to coerce the congregation into playing the role of therapist, in general I think more preachers’ sermons need to have blood on them.

Too often preachers are reticent to speak of themselves and when they do it lacks any sense of grittiness.

The lack of urgency I critiqued earlier just as often stems from the flat, safe nature of the preacher’s personal witness.

What preachers offer up are innocent illustrations from their lives, tame slices of life that are no more urgent or gritty than ‘Kids Say the Darndest Things.’

The preacher, as the historic black church has understood her, is one called from among the people, as one of the people, to bring a Word on behalf of the people. This representational role of the preacher requires, I think, the preacher to give witness to the people’s own on-the-ground struggles.

For the sermon to be a Word that makes contact with the listeners, the sermon should be a testimony that emerges out of the crucible of the preacher’s own suffering and wrestling with the scripture and the faith.

Naturally, this can’t be a week-in, week-out mode of preaching nor should the preacher’s personal testimony overwhelm or contradict the meaning of the scripture text itself, but the common reluctance to preach personally betrays a kind of homiletical docetism; in that, when the preacher seems determined to appear less than real, someone who doesn’t struggle with the same issues and questions the rest of us struggle with.

The bitter fruit of such tame preaching can be the proclamation of a Messiah who also seems less than real.

We cannot authentically preach an incarnate God if our message avoids the stuff of our own fleshly lives.

After all, if ‘Israel’ itself means ‘to contend’ with God, then any faithful testimony of this God needs to bear the scars of having contended and prevailed.

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry asked me for some advice on preaching…

A while back I received (so did my SPRC Chair) a long typed letter excoriating me for my Christmas Eve sermon.

The letter was from an out-of-town relative of a church member who recoiled from the notion of my preaching from Matthew’s genealogy for a Christmas Eve service. In the sermon, I took time to walk through Jesus’ family tree and the rather checkered, soap-opera character of many of the characters: Abraham who nearly killed his son, Jacob who slept with the wrong girl by mistake, Rahab who was a prostitute,Ruth who seduced Boaz, and David who slept with another man’s wife.

In the sermon, I juxtaposed Jesus’ family with my own, drawing the implication that God takes flesh among us, among all our imperfections. The flesh Jesus assumes is a lot like ours, I said, and that’s Good News because that means Jesus accepts us just as we are.

Admittedly, it was not the Christmas Eve sermon many expected but it was faithful to the Gospel message. The sender of the letter, however, was outraged at the mention of such unsavory characters at Christmas and wrote to me that

“We don’t care what the bible says at Christmas we only want to hear about angels, sing Silent Night and leave feeling good about ourselves.”

She went on for another two pages.

The lack of self-awareness in the letter was astounding and only convinced me I’d preached, if not well, truthfully.

Therein lies the crux of the matter, the difficulty of preaching in our present context: mainline congregations who exist in a post-Christian culture but who always seem to be the last in any community to hear the news that Christendom is over.

As the Christmas Eve worshipper’s letter suggests, the difficulty of preaching in such a context is that everyone knows the stories.

Yet no one knows the stories.

The Gospel flounders because it is exceedingly familiar and yet it is exceedingly unfamiliar too.

We are all preachers to a different sort of mission field, one where our listeners aren’t so much ignorant of the Gospel as they are inoculated against it. Their assumed knowledge of scripture is their chief obstacle from being confronted by it. Instead many prefer the hazy goo of nostalgia and sentimentality to a Gospel that’s meant to challenge the powers-that-be, convert sinners and send the Church into the world in service and witness.

The unavoidable truth is that for most of our listeners the status quo of the Empire has worked quite well for them.

For us.

It’s easier and preferable to keep the Gospel leashed with sentimentality and self-help principles draped in the guise of the Word.

The term ‘missional’ was just gaining currency when I was in seminary. Today the term is ubiquitous to the point where it risks losing any meaning at all.

What does the missional context of the North American Church mean for the pulpits from which we preach?

I think it demands a sort of contrarian preaching.

I think it requires a fixed determination to upset conventional assumptions about particular passages of scripture. I think it necessitates a refusal on the part of the preacher to conform to listeners’ expectations. In many cases, for our listeners to meet this surprising, Living God requires preachers to make clear that congregations don’t know the stories they think they know.

Perhaps no where is this need more evident than when it comes to the holy days of the year, Christmas and Easter. These two days, especially, book end the Christian Gospel yet they come freighted with so much cultural and quasi-Christian baggage it’s nearly impossible to hear or preach them. How do we convey the Christmas news beyond simply ‘Jesus is born’ or ‘Jesus is born to die for our sin?’ How do upset the conventional Easter bromides about springtime renewal or life after death?

I think only by being stubbornly contrary and going against the grain of what their ears anticipate.

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry recently asked me for ‘advice’ on preaching…

A couple winters ago during the early morning worship service I listened as a lay reader dryly narrated Luke’s account of Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. The reader had no affect in his voice at all; he just read the story as given to him by St. Luke. When he got to to the height of the text, where the outraged congregation drives Jesus from the synagogue and then to the edge of town, determined to pitch him over the edge (all because of a sermon!), something unexpected happened in the congregation that morning- they laughed.

It wasn’t until that moment, about to preach a sermon much different in tone, that it occurred to me perhaps St. Luke intended us to laugh.

A couple of years ago I was conscripted into preaching a baccalaureate for local high school students. Since my audience would be young people, I decided to choose a scripture passage that featured young people only to discover that scripture doesn’t have very many young people in its cast. I chose the story in Acts 20 where Paul’s long-winded preaching puts a young person, who’s sitting in a window sill, to sleep, plunging him to his death.

When I read the passage for the service, to my surprise, the listeners laughed. Belly-laughed. And it wasn’t until then that I wondered if maybe St. Luke intended us to laugh at such a playful (ridiculous?) story.

I learned preaching from the Presbyterians where the chapel pulpit stood in the middle of a plain white room nearly tall enough to require an escalator or those air pressure masks on airplanes

For all the good lessons I learned from them, I also imbibed the prejudice that faithful preaching equals serious preaching.

And serious preaching very often meant self-serious preaching.

One of the lessons I’ve learned over the past ten years, learned from weekly exposure to scripture, is that faithful preaching is preaching that is faithful to the emotional range, cognitive diversity and narrative variety of scripture.

Only a dullard could miss the playfulness, irony and sheer storytelling on display in scripture.

The fact is Luke 4 is funny and, I’m convinced, intentionally so.

Just as the entire Luke-Acts narrative betrays great care to tell the Christian story with artistry and intricacy.  Acts 20 is a ridiculous story just as the story of Ananias and Sapphira earlier in Acts is an outrageous story meant to provoke a point other than the obvious. The story of Balaams’ ass in Numbers is overtly comic, and Matthew’s narration of the star, which obeys no natural laws but instead hangs suspended over Jerusalem and then Bethlehem, in the story of the magi has the deliberate sheen of something like a fairy tale.

Preaching that is faithful to scripture like this needs to be shot through with wonder and playfulness. Not every scripture is meant to be reducible to a rationalistic proposition or point.

Sometimes preaching that appears to be ‘biblical preaching’ in its attention to word meanings, allusions and life implications is actually anything but biblical in its tone deafness to the rhetorical style of the text.

Sometimes preachers need to convey the story as interestingly and playfully as scripture does. This is not to say that sermons should be silly nor does it mean that sermons should rely on childish object lessons, for even object lessons, by their very nature, depend on rational explication. Instead preachers should trust that the play at play in scripture can convey the Gospel all by itself.

Consider Jesus’ own preaching. Very seldom does Jesus’ teaching rely on clear, rational commands. Jesus tells us to pray a specific way. He tells us to ‘do this’ in remembrance of him. He commands us to love our enemies.

But even in those instances where Jesus’ preaching has the appearance of the cut-and-dry his ‘point’ is often less obvious and more complex.

For example, he tells us to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Okay, but what really belongs to Caesar if everything actually belongs to the Lord? Is Jesus telling us its okay to pay our taxes? Or is he implying that nothing belongs to Caesar and nothing should be given to Caesar?

Most of the time Jesus’ preaching consists of jarring imagery, stories and parables that defy easy distillation. In the same way a good novel seldom has a communicable point, Jesus’ parables mean more than can captured by 3 points and a poem. Nevertheless, when I read back through my old sermons I’m indicted by the fact that my mode of preaching so seldom mirrored Jesus’ mode of preaching. Too much of my preaching could be described as rationalistic and deductive, giving listeners’ points and lessons where the scripture seemed more determined to create an impression. Too often I spent the sermon clarifying confusion where the scripture seemed intended to leave readers unsettled.

This is my primary caution when it comes to using media and PowerPoint in sermons. While such means can be effective as a rhetorical tool, they very often only perpetuate reliance on reason-based preaching. A film clip, for example, or a shot from YouTube can have the outward appearance of playfulness when in reality its just an updated version of a canned sermon illustration, a device employed to make a ‘point.’

A homiletical adage is that the form of the sermon should match the form of the text.

Poetic passages should lead to poetic sermons.

Parables should be proclaimed with parabolic sermons.

Horatory should be met with exhortation.

Likewise, playful passages should create playful sermons.

The reasons for this are not limited to rhetorical concerns alone. As we all know from multiple intelligence theory, people have a variety of ways of learning and listening.

So why is it that the majority of our preaching, even preaching that employs visual media, relies on a lecture style format?

If play and imagination and humor are gifts of God, indeed if they’re constitutive of the imago dei, then why do we proceed into the pulpit as though our reason were the only means of receiving the Gospel?

I believe there is truth in scripture that can only be proclaimed and heard by way of the imaginative.

Of course {WARNING} To preach this way entails the risk- as it did for Jesus- that you will likely leave some of your listeners scratching their heads, wondering what the point was.

This was the case for some when I preached the first sample sermon below on the magi story.

To preach playfully, I believe, requires a willingness to fail and disappoint in service to the mystery of the text. This was the case with the second sample sermon, which attempted to evoke the sense of awe in the Annunciation.

Off By Nine Miles 

  Matthew 2.1-12

When I first sat down on the plane, I did what any of you do. 

     I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall. 

     A musak cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ played- barely audible- over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their stuff above them. 

     Across the aisle, caddy-corner to me, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out. 

     His mother had her arm around him and was saying shush but the boy was inconsolable. He stomped his feet and screamed at the top of his lungs: I don’t care how much pumpkin pie Grandma’s made I don’t want to fly.

  

     Behind me, a woman argued with her husband: All I know is that if your mother treats me like she did last Thanksgiving this year I won’t keep my mouth shut.

     On my right, on the aisle side, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know how much is too much. 

     Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his Blackberry. He had a Wall Street Journal folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap. 

     He had what sounded like some sort of Eastern accent- Boston maybe- and he smelled strongly of some kind of man-perfume. 

     He kept barking instructions into his phone until the stewardess came over and shot him a stern look and told him we were getting ready for takeoff.         

     And there I was, the happy holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Gordon Gecko and Hannah Montana. 

     While we waited for take-off I thumbed through the Christmas 2010 edition of SkyMall where, among other things, I discovered that the $90.00 Star Wars-themed Chewbacca sleeping bag actually comes in adult sizes. 

     Is there a better way to celebrate Christmas? The glossy advertisement asked rhetorically. 

 

     I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air you could see the stars. 

     The fasten seatbelt sign chimed off and the captain came on and spoke reassuringly over the intercom about our journey ahead. Not that you could hear him over the boy who was still wailing and still stomping his feet and who’d started to hyperventilate. 

     Once we were in the air, the girl to my right had moved on to read an article about eyeshadow. 

     Seriously. Eyeshadow. 

     And the woman behind me- though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal- was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d spent with her husband’s mother. I didn’t turn around but I’m sure her husband was red-faced and gritting his teeth. 

     Where you headed? The businessman on my left asked. 

     And I thought to myself: Well, it says Atlanta on my ticket but it feels like I’m already half-way to Hell. 

     I’m headed to my in-laws’ house. 

     He chuckled and said: Good luck. 

 

     Now, I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes. 

     It’s not that I’m unfriendly or shy. It’s just that I learned early on in my ministry that there are certain situations in which revealing to a stranger that I’m a minister can provoke unwanted conversations. 

     I’ve discovered the hard way that sitting on an airplane in between strangers can be just like that. 

     Ironically though I’ve learned that one of the best ways to avoid conversation with strangers on planes is by taking a bible out of my bag and simply opening it up on the tray table in front of me. 

     You don’t even have to read it necessarily. You can just leave it open like a force field of personal space. 

     Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy and non-religious people won’t say anything for fear you’re Baptist and might evangelize them. 

     And if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, you can just open it up to the Book of Revelation. 

     This past Wednesday morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my bible out and opened, not to Revelation but to Matthew 2- not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left but also I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance. 

 

     Meanwhile the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and then he dug deeply into his leather briefcase and pulled out a stack- at least 12 inches thick- a stack of catalogs: Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma etc. He pored over them like he was reading a map. Every now and then he would look up from them, marking a spot on the page with his index finger, and then he would type quickly into his laptop. 

     I watched him do this several times before I realized what he was doing. 

     He had Excel opened up on his computer and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift and then a hyperlink to the company’s website. 

     Every now and then he would click the ‘Sum’ button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2010 Christmas. 

     I watched him do this a while. Then I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall where I saw that I could get a replica Harry Potter wand for only $70.00. 

     I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake Harry Potter wand when the guy sitting next to me said: Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that. 

 

     I watched while he typed all the information into his spreadsheet. His nephew’s name was Brian. He handed SkyMall back to me and with his tiny travel-sized mouse he clicked Save. 

     After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh. And he said: It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?

     I looked over at him. You talking to me? Meanwhile I was kicking myself for not having opened my bible to the Book of Revelation. 

     You talking to me? I asked. 

     Yeah, he said. 

     Are you religious, he asked, and nodded at the bible on my tray. 

     Yeah, I guess so. 

     That’s good, he said in an absent sort of voice. I’m not, never have been. 

     I let his voice of trail off. 

     A few moments passed and he asked what I was reading, in the bible. 

     It’s the story of the magi, I said. He just blinked at me like a deer in headlights. 

     The what?

     The wise men, I said. 

     He said: Right, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in those displays in people’s yards. They have the turbans and the camels right? They’re the ones who follow the star to the manger? 

     Not exactly, I said. They go to Jerusalem first not the manger in Bethlehem. It’s close but they’re off by about nine miles. 

     Sounds like the GPS in my car, he laughed. 

 

     I thought that might be the end of it. I was about to turn to Revelation or pretend I was asleep. 

     But then he asked me: Why do they go to Jerusalem first?

     Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us: educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation. They went to Jerusalem first because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might. 

     He smiled a wise smile at me and said: In other words, they thought they could celebrate Christmas by traveling, giving a few gifts and then getting back to their normal lives. 

     And I smiled and said: Something like that. 

 

      Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise. The boy across from me was hyperventilating into a vomit bag. The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment. And the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading a Nicholas Sparks’ book, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip. 

 

     The man next to me sat up and turned towards me. 

     Can I read it? he asked. 

     He held out his hand for my bible. So I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of chapter two: It’s this part I said. 

     He took a while with it. He must’ve read it several times, searched over the words as though they contained the universe. 

     When he was done, he turned a few pages further into Matthew’s Gospel and then he turned a few pages back. 

     Then he turned it over and gazed at the back cover and then the front cover, gazing at the cheap, beat-up bible like it was a talisman or a treasure. 

     Then he held the bible out to me and he put his index finger down at the page.

     What’s this? he asked me. 

     He was pointing to the poem indented in Matthew’s Gospel text: 

 

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people.

 

     That’s from Micah, I said, from the Old Testament. 

     Can you show me? he asked. 

     And I flipped back into the Old Testament until I found Micah, the peasant prophet, and handed it back to him. 

     It’s short, I warned, only a few pages long. 

 

     I watched him read it, gazing over the constellation of words. 

     I saw him furrow his brows intensely at times and wondered what he might be reading.

I wondered if it might be: 

He will teach us his ways so that we might walk in his path. 

or

He will judge between many peoples. 

or

Nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore. 

or

He will gather the lame and assemble the exiles and all those who grieve. 

or I wondered if it might be

With what shall I come before the Lord,
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? 

(in other words, will the Lord be pleased with all my stuff)

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

 

     When he finished reading, he just sat holding it for a while. Then he handed it back to me.  

     A few minutes passed before he closed his laptop and said: That’s quite a gift you know. 

     What is? I asked. 

     For the wise men to be able to reorient everything they knew about the way the world worked. 

     For them to be able to look at a helpless baby in a poor woman’s arms in a little village, for them to believe he’s the one, the only one, they should honor, for them to believe he’s the one to make Micah’s words come true- for them to able to do that, it’s got to be a gift from God. 

     I guess I never thought about it like that, I said. 

     I travel a lot, he said. I don’t get to see my family much. Every year I try to make up for it at Christmas. I search to find just the right gifts, but lately I feel like I’m always looking in the wrong places. 

     The Good News is so were the magi, I said. 

     We started our descent. The sun was coming in through the windows. 

     I’d closed my eyes. 

     I thought that story was supposed to have shepherds and angels in it, he said. 

     That’s Luke’s Gospel, I said. Matthew says everything he wants to say about Christmas with the wise men. 

     I guess we’re more like the wise men anyway, he said. 

     How so?

     None of us have angels telling us what to do or making things easier for us. We’ve just got to search, and, when we find what we’re searching for, decide whether or not we’ll let it change us.

     You ought to be a minister, I said. 

     He laughed and said: I don’t think so. Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy? 

     I laughed and said…pretty much. 

     As we were getting off the plane, the journey over, I asked him:  Are you going back to DC after the holiday? 

     No, he said, I’ve made some commitments. I’m going home a different way.

The Visitation

Luke 1.39-45

 

     Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her. 

     She gasped and only then realized she’d been holding her breath, waiting to see if he’d reappear as suddenly as he’d intruded upon her life. His words had lodged in her mind just as something new was supposedly lodged inside her. 

     He must’ve seen how terrified she was. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he’d said to her. 

     In those moments after he departed, she just stood there, looking around her bedroom. The posters on the wall, the books on the shelf, the homework on the desk, the dirty laundry on the floor in the corner- in the aftermath of an angel’s glow, it all seemed very ordinary. 

     It was an unlikely place for a ‘visitation.’ There wasn’t anything there in her bedroom to confuse it for a holy place. It was just ordinary. 

     Looking around her room, she caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror. And so was she: ordinary, not anyone that anyone else should ever remember or notice, not someone you’d pick out like a single star in all the sky. 

     Yet, that’s just what he’d told her. 

     She’d been chosen. Somehow, in the days ahead of her or already right now, God would come to exist in her belly. 

     The thought made her shake again. 

 

     She looked out her window, up at the multitude of stars in the night sky. 

    ‘Do not be afraid,’ he’d told her. 

     Those same words, she knew, had been spoken long ago to Abraham. 

     Do not be afraid, Abraham had been told in the moments before God pointed to the stars in the sky and dared Abraham to count them, dared Abraham to imagine and believe that for as many stars as there were in the sky so his descendants would be. 

     She liked the thought, as unbelievable as it sounded, that through her and her baby the whole world would be blessed. 

     Still, she knew enough scripture to know that the angel’s words, ‘Do not be afraid,’ were auspicious words. She knew the child promised by God to Abraham and Sarah was the same child whose sacrifice God later required. 

     She knew the story- it was the sort of story you can’t forget even if you’d like to- how God one day told Abraham that the promised son would have to suffer and be sacrificed on top of a mountain. How the son obeyed and followed his father’s will all the way up the mount, carrying wood. How they built an offering place up there. How the son was spared only when it was clear how far the father would go. 

 

     She used to wonder how God could ask anyone to give up something so precious. 

     But now, looking out at the stars and rubbing her belly, she wondered about Sarah, Abraham’s wife, the boy’s mother, and what Sarah would have done if God had asked her to follow her boy to his death. 

     The wondering made her shake again. ‘Don’t be afraid’ she whispered to herself. 

 

     As the late night turned to early morning she resolved to leave home. 

     A part of her wanted to see for herself the truth of the angel’s words growing inside Elizabeth. 

     A still bigger part of her knew the angel’s news would make her a stranger now in her own home, perhaps a stranger forever. 

     Nazareth was a small town; in a town that size there’s no room to hide. 

     And she didn’t want to be at home when her body started to change, when the neighbors started whispering questions about legitimacy. 

     And she didn’t want to remain at home and face her fiance, not yet. The angel could say nothing is impossible but she knew, chances were, everyone would suspect the worst about her before they’d believe the truth. 

     With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel. 

     She folded her jeans and some blouses and wondered how long she’d fit into them. She zipped her bag shut and sadly glanced at the wedding dress hanging in her closet. Seeing it, she knew it would be too small on her wedding day, should that day ever come. 

     ‘Favored one,’ that’s what he’d called her. Favored one. But now, hurrying before anyone else in the house awoke, it seemed more burden than blessing. 

     ‘Favored one.’ 

     She hadn’t known what to make of such a greeting when she first heard it. 

    ‘Favored one.’ 

     Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadn’t let the gray in her hair or the crow’s feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child. 

     Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ‘favored one’ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer. 

     But packing the last of her things and clicking off the bedroom lights she recalled that  even for Hannah a blessing from God wasn’t so simple. Even for Hannah the blessing was also a summons. 

     Hannah had prayed holes in the rug for a child but as soon as Hannah weaned her son, God called her to give her boy to Eli, the priest. Hannah’s boy was to be consecrated. 

     Tiptoeing through the dark hallway, she wondered how Hannah had explained that to her husband. She wondered what it had been like for Hannah, who lost out on all the memories a mother counts on: his first words, learning to walk, the first day of school, homecoming and his wedding day. 

     Everything Hannah had wanted when she’d wanted a child sacrificed for the purpose God had for her boy. 

     Hannah- she’d been called ‘favored one’ too. 

     Leaving her house in the cold moonlight, she thought that God’s favor was also a kind of humiliation, that God’s call was also a call to suffer. 

     ‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d told him when she could think of nothing else to say. But if she prayed now for God to let this cup pass from her, would he? 

     ‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d said. 

     Standing out under the streetlight and looking back at the house where she’d grown up, she realized it wasn’t that simple. 

     Things would never be simple again. 

 

     Elizabeth lived in the country outside Jerusalem, several days journey from Nazareth. She’d stop in villages along the way to draw water from their wells. 

     She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows. 

     It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto. 

     Names like Rahab and Ruth leapt out, a prostitute and a foreigner. Not the sort of family you’d expect to be chosen. 

     She wondered what that said God.  

     And what her boy would one day make of it. 

     At night she camped out in the fields along the road where the only noise came from the shepherds and their flocks. 

     She got sick for the first time out there in the fields. 

     It was then she began to wonder about the stranger she would bring into the world. Who will this be? she thought. Here is something that is most profoundly me, my flesh and my blood, the sheer stuff of me, depending on me and vulnerable to me. And yet not me, strange to me, impenetrable to me. 

     She’d asked him there in the room how it would happen. She hadn’t gotten much in the way of explanation. 

     “The power of the most high will overshadow you’ is how he’d answered. 

     ‘Overshadow’ was the word he’d used. She was sure of it. 

     She still didn’t know how that worked exactly. She hadn’t felt anything. But she knew that word, ‘overshadow.’ 

     It’s what God did with the ark of the covenant when David brought the ark to Jerusalem with dancing and jubilation and not a little bit of fear. The power of the most high overshadowed the ark. 

    And before that when God delivered Israel from bondage and led them to freedom through the wilderness, in the tabernacle, the presence and power of God overshadowed

     Now, the most high had overshadowed her, and, if the angel could be believed, God was about to deliver on an even bigger scale. 

     Sleep came hard those nights on the road. 

     She’d look up at the sky and rub her nauseous stomach. It made her dizzy trying to comprehend it: how she could carry within her the covenant that had once been etched in stone, as though her womb was now an ark; how the hands and feet she’d soon feel pushing and kicking inside her were actually the promises of God.  

     Made flesh. 

     As soon as she saw Elizabeth in the distance she knew it was true. 

     All of it. 

     Seeing Elizabeth, it hit her how they were immeasurably different. 

     Elizabeth’s child will be seen by all as a blessing from God. Elizabeth will be praised, the stigma of her barrenness finally lifted. 

     But for Mary, as soon as she started to show, it would be different. 

     A young girl, engaged, suddenly pregnant, with no ring on her finger, no father in sight and her fiance none the wiser? That invited more than just a stigma. She could be stoned to death. 

     She could see from the end of the road the beautiful contradiction that was Elizabeth: the gray wiry hair, the wrinkled face and stooped back, and the 6 month pregnant belly. 

     To be sure, Elizabeth was a miracle but it was not unheard of. Sarah, Hannah…Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Elizabeth. 

     Mary knew: hers was different. 

     An unexpected, miraculous birth wasn’t the same thing as a virgin birth. 

     With Mary, it was as if the angel’s message- God’s words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb. 

     Life from nothing- that was the difference. 

     Not from Joseph or anyone else. 

     From nothing God created life.  

     Inside her. 

     From nothing. 

     The same way, she thought, God created the heavens and the earth: from nothing. 

     The same way God created the sun and the sea and the stars. 

     The same way God created Adam and Eve. 

     From nothing. 

     As though what she carried within her was creation itself. 

     The start of a new beginning. 

     To everything. 

     For everyone. 

     A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one. 

 

     As she walked up Elizabeth’s driveway, she considered the costs that might lie ahead, and with her hand on her stomach she whispered to herself: “The Lord has done great things for me.”

 

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zI 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.

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zSomeone new to the ministry recently asked me for advice- ‘things I’ve learned’- about preaching during my time in ministry…

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.