Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Preaching Imagination

Most of the time, I don't miss preaching every Sunday. Until I do it. Then I think, "Oh yeah, that's pretty great." And it is. Everything about it. The time in preparation. The routine of the week. The discipline of Sunday. The high wire of the sermon itself.

I'll admit that the time right after the sermon is the pits. I am so spent, I want to do anything rather than be with people. But the pastoral demands of ministry insist otherwise. No retreating into a dark room and some quiet music. Not just yet. And Sunday evenings nearly always bring some sort of post-partum depression. I never shave on Mondays. But this is part of the ride that makes it great.

I have changed my perceptions of the sermon a lot in over 30 years of preaching (I preached for a little church in West Texas when I was 18). I think of it less as public speaking and more as theater. I know this would give some of my old preaching teachers a stroke. Anything that smacks of performance is to be disdained as showing off, as an improper display of the personality of the preacher. It is the text, after all, that is important, not the preacher.

And I agree with that last statement, mostly. It is God that is important in the sermon--the gospel, not just the text. But the point is taken that the sermon is not about the preacher. So, let me explain what I mean by performance.

I like to think about the entire process of the sermon as form-ation. The initial moves in preparation are all about con-form-ity. This is more than boiling the text down to an essential point that becomes the focus of the sermon, dressed with illustrations and stories. This is, instead, to know the voice of the text, its warp and woof, the way it moves. A text is a world all its own, full of movement and echoes and allusions to other texts and other worlds. It is a thickly construed reality that cannot be distilled into a point.

I was taught to prepare for a sermon with a Greek NT, a concordance, lexicon, and historical-critical commentary. And these things are still a part of my routine. But they are no longer the first, either in temporality or in imaginative priority. The first thing I do now is read the text aloud, standing. There is something about standing and saying, something physical and auditory, that begins a conformity with the text.

I encourage my students to read poetry aloud to develop preaching capacity. You can read the Michigan Driver's handbook aloud without any act of interpretation or conformity. But not poetry. And many preachers I hear simply cannot read a text aloud. I am convinced that the most engaging part of the sermon can and should be the "reading" of the text. But in most sermons, its the place where the sermon drags, where attention is placed on hold until the interesting stuff starts again.

I memorize my texts now for every sermon. I started this because my hands tremble so that I can no longer hold anything as I preach. But the discipline has transformed the sermon for me. Often, I see listeners sit forward with wonder in their eyes as if they are hearing a text for the very first time. The best way to memorize a text is to have some sense of the force and flow of it. You interpret as you memorize. It is an act of deep conformity.

Prayer, lectio divina, silence, thinking of those who will receive the word. These are all acts of conformity--ways of letting the text work on me before I set my shoulder to more active processes of interpretation (Greek NT, concordance, etc). Increasingly, I want to think of sermon preparation as a being mastered as opposed to a mastering of the text.

As I begin to move from text to sermon, I am always asking what in this text wants to perform? What is carrying the rhetorical weight of the text? This is my script. I am not an improvisational actor. In Psalm 51 for instance, there is a piling on of images. Every word for sin is used. And there are multiple verbs used for how God overcomes sin. The verbs want to perform. They want to overcome the overwhelming, heavy, "my sin is ever before me. Surely I was a sinner in my mother's womb." I want more than for the word "transgression" to be explained. I want it to perform. And I want "create in me a clean heart, O God" to sing. And in the limits of one sermon, I want as many of these actors to appear as possible.

And then I think, "how can I best perform this, given where conformity to this text has delivered me, and how can I invite others into that same kind of conformity?" I used to think of sermon strategies--deductive, inductive, narrative plot, and the like. But I don't anymore. I'm after a seamlessness between con-form and per-form, let the chips fall where they may.

In all of this personality is subsumed under the initial acts of conformity. But it is not rubbed out. There is no escaping the fact that I am delivering this sermon, that my person is both the opportunity and limitation of the word taking on flesh. Older views of preaching focused only on limitation. But the incarnation suggests that God does not reveal himself through general principles in universal situations. God's word is not some abstract idea, but a word become flesh, requiring further demonstrations in the flesh. This is still God's work, but it doesn't come apart from actual lives in space and time, including the preacher's. The task is not to rub out the preacher's personality, but to bring it into fullsome conformity.

If the processes of conformity have been attended to, then the performance should be as big as possible, as creative as possible. Conformity should kick the stuffing out of any grandstanding, uses of humor that serve only the interests of the speaker, any gratuitous stories designed to manipulate the hearer. The preacher is free to let loose.

Truth is, preaching this way requires very few devices apart from the text. I don't keep illustration files. Very few of the "moves" in my sermons involve elaborate stories or illustrations. I use humor, but I never tell a joke. There are enough actors in every text to keep the preacher plenty busy.

I know that some might think that this kind of preaching lacks a certain relevance, a word for today, stuck only in Bible times. Perhaps. But I don't think so. I have ways of thinking about that as well. Next post.


RDC said...

Yup. That's the kind of sermon prep I like too. I also miss preaching every Sunday. But it's not just the preaching act, but all the mental, spiritual, and emotional work in the week leading up to the preaching.

Brad East said...

This is wonderful. If I were teaching a class on preaching, this would be the intro text.

Anonymous said...

You have both given me further points for development and reignited my homiletical imagination. In a world where so many people want to reduce the sermon to a few surface level points that they can carry around in their pocket for the week. We need to be reminded of the possibilities of a well preached text -- points that are far greater than 3 points that all begin with "P."

happytheman said...

I love this "There are enough actors in every text to keep the preacher plenty busy." I keep thinking of passages like "Be still and know that I Am God" enough in that to get you through a few weeks.