posted by Amy on Apr 28
Preaching is part of the “work of the people,” the liturgy. It is an event in time. The sermon event is not simply what the preacher says, but how he or she speaks, looks, sounds, moves, pauses, and modulates his or her voice. Technique matters, but it can’t make up for insufficient preparation, or superficial thinking. The preacher’s attention to sermon preparation and sermon delivery serves the whole congregation. The sermon is particular to the specific congregation—that part of the body of Christ that congregates in that specific place, and what is said and how it is said must relate to the situation at hand. But it must also speak to and for all God’s people and advance the missio Dei.
I think sermons have to be biblical. They have to be about God. And they have to achieve St. Augustine’s objectives of teaching, delighting and persuading. But what should they teach, and how should they delight and persuade? They should teach about the Bible and the Gospel. They should model how one wrestles with the text, interrogates the modern situation, and names God’s action in the world and in human lives. The sermon articulates the Word in concert with, and as part of, the worship service. Christian worship forms Christian consciousness, faith, language and worldview.
Sermons should teach that, unlike some kinds of scripture, the Christian Bible is unabashedly human-handled, ambiguous, troubling, challenging and layered; that it is inspired by God and tells how God keeps inviting humans to be in a loving, covenant relationship with God and with one another. That God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, even on our best days, but that God wants us to understand the message and to believe that the law is for our good, not harm. That the Bible is worth studying, contemplating, discussing, and arguing about. It’s even worth memorizing. But that it originated in an ancient, patriarchal Bronze-age culture whose languages, customs, worldview, scientific understanding and politics were radically different from ours. There’s no such thing as biblical literalism, because language does not exist apart from culture and experience. The preacher has to translate and interpret, and must do that prayerfully and responsibly.
All communication is translation to some extent. I make assumptions when I speak and when I listen. My hearer or conversation partner does too. The roots of human communication are preverbal, prehistoric, precognitive. We constantly scan our environment and interpret, categorize, respond, or tune out. Learning is a communal activity. So is delight. So is persuasion. Narrative is how we think and communicate. The only question is whether we’ll do it with integrity or do it lazily, sloppily, thoughtlessly and superficially.
The sermon should preach Jesus, the best example we have of what God is like, and that if we listen to what he said, and pay attention to what he did, it all only makes sense if he was the Son of God, as his friends thought. Jesus told us God loves us and wants us to love each other, even our enemies. This is a God we did not make up, because we’re not like that. God wants us to release the captives, forgive debts, consider the lilies of the field, and pray in private. We don’t do any of that. But Advent keeps coming and we keep being reminded that evil, greed, sickness, death, hunger, poverty and inhumanity will not have the last word. Christmas will come, and unto us is born this day a savior. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This is either true, or we are idiots to keep saying it. But if it isn’t true then there’s no reason to hope, and we can’t live without hope. Besides, everywhere we look we see hope blooming if we look closely enough. We see life asserting itself. We see love winning. God is making all things new.
When we climb up into the pulpit and pray, “Holy Spirit come,” we’d better be ready to experience the presence of God. People come to church for a lot of reasons, but ultimately that’s the only one that makes sense. Otherwise they’d just go to the mall, or to a self-help seminar. The preacher’s job is to prepare the way for divine encounter, for herself and her congregation.