William Willimon in The Intrusive Word writes that “We ought to preach as if we were opening a package that could be packed with dynamite.” By that he means that we should expect dislocation, surprises, and jolts. Too often we package our sermons in a neatly finished package where we know all the answers and God always acts the way we expect. We create a world in the sermon that is much unlike our own world.
Over my life I have seen many old Westerns. These were shows that dramatized our mythology of the conquest of the Western United States in the mid to late 19th century. These stories were interesting in that the Good guy always won. Right always came out on top. In short, the bad guy didn’t always get away with the money. That was comfortable for us to see, we want to believe that down here good will always win. We want to believe that I will not lose my job and if I do a better one is around the corner. We want to believe that we will qualify for that house. We want to believe that if we pay our tithe or plant our seed there we will live a life of luxury.
What kind of world do your people see in your sermons? Is it the imaginary world where money is no problem, or is it the real world that your people live in, where layoffs are coming even though the church record books show the financial giving was not at issue? Will we preach the imaginary world where you will always get a better job when you lose the one you have now, or will we preach in the real world where our people actually have to take job that are beneath their training? Will we preach the imaginary world where a cure for our ailments is guaranteed by God, or will we preach in the real world where faithful people die of ailments while some unfaithful people live on?
Too many of us are preaching that “old West” theology. Good always wins, Bad always loses. The people may shout about it, the people may sleep on it, but in either case, the people will not be equipped to live in the real world. I encourage you as preachers to struggle with the reality of real suffering before constructing this mythological world that belongs on late night television.
One of the greatest temptations preachers face is not to teach hell fire and obedience. Neither is it necessarily to preach a grace that does not lead to and is devoid of obedience. Some might argue that it is to preach an individualistic gospel without any repurcutions for our corporate living. Others might say that it is to totally ignore individual piety as an important category for theological reflection.
However, I think that our greatest temptation as preachers is to simply preach that which the people want to hear. Please do not misunderstand. Many of us find ourselves in churches and contexts that believe in railing against certain sins. These certain sins may be different depedening on the context. For example, in some churches the preacher has not preached until he or she has railed against smoking and drinking. In those contexts the preacher may have the misconception that she or he is preaching the straight testimony when preaching against these habits. The people, in these churches, love this. Part of the reason they loves this, however, is that they have no such issue with these particular vices. So the preacher is “hard-core” even though she or he has not addressed the congregation.
Some of us find ourselves in congregations where paradoxically it is easy to talk against “hypocrites” in the church. It is funny that sometimes the folks shouting the loudest are the ones who are guilty of this particular sin. Here the preacher is playing his or her role and the people love it. The message is separate from them and never made to touch them.
Some of us find ourselves in congregations that the only thing that is desired is things that prop up our “assurance of salvation.” Sometimes preachers in this context will preach about how “you may not wanna hear it, but God has given you this assurance.” Certainly there is a time for such a message, but when it is preached to those who expect it and who are in desparate need for ethical training for the saved, such preaching is easy and leaves people without the next step.
It is easy to preach what the people want to hear, whatever that is. But the prophetic gospel confronts us with Grace when we wanted to hear law so desperately. It prods us with law when we want an indulgent Santa-Clause for God. It teaches us of our corporate responsibilities when we just want to hear about a “personal relationship with Jesus.” It shocks us with personal piety, when we only want the preacher to tell us about relieving social pain in the world. In short, the message that God has given us to preach is about change and transformation. Not just about changing the other guy, or even changing us, but about changing our own desires about what the Gospel will do.
If the implications of the message that you are preaching does not surprise you every so often, if it does not shock you at times, if it does not wake you up out of your sleeping, then you need to go back to the text and find out what God is really saying rather than what the Status-Quo in your church is saying. Stop giving the people warmed over pablum and calling it meat. Start preaching the transforming message of a coming kingdom. The people may get mad, but “when we’ve been there 10,000 years, they will be happy somebody told them the truth.
How should a sermon progress? We all have heard sermons that just seemed to progress at the perfect rate. Then we have heard others that climaxed too soon or not at all. We have spoken on the progress of the sermon by making use of the Whooping Curve which graphs sermonic intensity. Interestingly enough at least two more preaching theorists have spoken on this particular issue. In this post we will look at Eugene Lowry’s Homiletical Plot and in the next article we will discuss The Hum from Evans Crawford.
Eugene L. Lowry believes that the sermon should take on the “narrative form.” He is not speaking of simply preaching narratives, but that the sermon itself should work like narratives work. And how do narratives work? Lowry believes that good narratives should begin by “Upsetting the Equilibrium.” The beginning of sermons, according to Lowry, should work like other narratives by pushing us to see that our way of looking at things needs some modification. Note how the story of Job begins by upsetting our belief that if you live right, good things will happen to you. Another way of saying this is “What is the Problem?”
After “Upsetting the Equilibrium” the sermon should move to a phase of “Analyzing the Discrepancy.” Here we need to look closely at the difference between how we think things aught to work and how things work in the narrative we are telling. We want to ask simply why does this problem exists? Here we analyze the problem. We will propose and reject different components and thoughts.
The next phase is “Disclosing the Clue to Resolution.” Here we hear the Gospel’s resolution. And often it will be in a reversal of what we initially thought or believed. Then we “Experience the Gospel.” We understand and feel the implications of the gospel and internalize its truth. Finally we “Anticipate the Consequences.” Here we seek to understand the implications of the truths we have discovered in our living.
Interestingly, the phase of Lowry that seems to correspond to the “celebration” seems to be in the next to last phase. This would seem to short circuit celebration. However, it need not do this. Your celebrative close need not be devoid of ethical content or implications. In fact, I would argue that the strongest closes are when we celebrate not just the gospel, but our own plans for a new life in light of the Gospel. To put it more bluntly, you can move from celebration of the gospel, to celebration of our response to the gospel presented in the sermon. Such a move would be important, in my estimation, because it is through the celebration that folks will interpret the rest of the sermon.
The important point is that the sermon is moving through particular phases. I think preachers should think about the steps that their sermons go through. If you do not like Lowry’s form, think about a form that is helpful to you. As noted, we will look at Evans Crawford’s form next.
The pastor was unusually eloquent. He preached with power and the people sensed a special move of God. While the Pastor usually preaches well, this time he really brought it home. Imagine my surprise when I was reading a book of Sermons from the divinity library and found that that Pastor had stolen a sermon word for word. After that I paid more attention and on another occasion saw another of that Pastor’s sermons on the internet.
I have been told that stealing sermons is almost at epidemic proportions and some pastors even defend it. Michael Duduit has written of this in his blog. He notes that some of the pastors of the largest churches in American
admitted, curiously, the same thing. They get approximately 70 percent of their messages each week from other people word for word according to them. They fill in their own personal illustrations and stories, of course. Two of the guys that I am thinking of as I write this have churches of more than 10,000 in attendance each weekend.
Then these guys go on and actually put down the idea of creating your own sermon. Duduit reminds us as preachers that first of all stealing sermons is plagiarism and palming them off as your own is unethical. Duduit also says that regularly preaching someone elses sermon is actually taking from you the struggle with the text to determine what God is saying.
Finally Duduit gives a very interesting quote: “If you are too busy to prepare sermons, then you are too busy to preach.” I agree…If God has called you to give a message to a particular congregation then God has called YOU to find and deliver the word of God to the people. If you can’t do that due to time constratints then you must cut back on something.
In Homiletic Theory, Dr. McClure has given each of the students a few terms that we are to define. By the luck of the draw (or lack thereof) I was among the first students that had to define a word in homiletics. Interestingly enough the word that I was given is one that I knew nothing about originally. the word is Nommo which is an Afrocentric term that refers to the creative power of the word. If anyone wishes to read the full document you can get it below.
In each of these definitions we are supposed to give 3 or more points that preachers should learn from the term. Here is the definition from the document as well as these points.
Nommo is an Afrocentric term employed by Molefi Asante that refers to the powers of the word to generate and create reality. Asante further sees it as a communal that event that moves towards the creation and maintenance of the community. Melbourne S. Cummings and Abhik Roy quote Asante as also seeing Nommo as the power of the word to create harmony and balance in disharmony.