Saturday, April 24, 2010

Preaching Imagination, Acts 2

My sermon in eleven days (gasp) is finding a certain form, some momentum of its own. It has begun to write itself. Things are coming together. Images are overlapping. Focus is emerging.

This state of affairs is one reason I resist those notions of preaching that begin with guiding statements. The focus of this sermon is... The function of this sermon is... In my experience, those things come with the process, somewhere in the middle or toward the end. Sometimes, alas, not at all.

I'm beginning to like this sermon. That doesn't always happen. My liking it doesn't guarantee a good sermon, but it certainly influences my energy and sense of anticipation.

This sermon will consist in four "moves." I know what each of them consists of. I don't have yet the exact language, but I know what each of the moves is doing and how they fit together. The third move is huge and I sketched it today. The inspiration hit me in the middle of a conference I am attending. I scribbled it on a scratch pad in the middle of someone's powerpoint presentation. Hopefully, they thought I was taking furious notes.

My wife, Nancy, has lovingly cautioned me about putting too much of my sermon on my blog. Like that would ruin it for both people who read my blog. And with this move, she is right. It needs to come out of the blue, be a little bit surprising.

I'm writing today only to leave some hint of an instinct I have, an issue that I have to negotiate often in preaching. And this issue has several layers. It has to do with the listener's proximity to the text and to the sermon. The first two moves that I have written about previously allow the listener some emotional distance. I am talking about someone else. Simeon, Anna, the community in Jerusalem, God. They have a certain space or distance from the sermon. I hope that they will begin to see themselves through empathy with Simeon and Anna. But I don't press that identification in the opening move. I allow them the distance of empathy without too much identification. I want them to sense longing without asking them directly to touch their own (that will come in the final move).

This third move, however, I need them to see themselves in the sermon, to place themselves in the text. And I want them to do that in a way that runs contrary to their typical ways of identifying with the story. In other words, I want them to see themselves not standing with Peter and the eleven, but with the crowd who says, "brothers, what shall we do."

This is tricky. I can't do this baldly or in a heavy-handed or moralistic kind of way. If I say it directly, they will easily wriggle away. I still need them to have the distance of observation--to talk about someone else--in such a way that they recognize themselves. And that needs to be obvious enough that they don't miss the implication. It needs to be simultaneously indirect and implicating.

One way to do this, the way I have chosen in this sermon, is to narrate the experience of the "devout Jews" in terms that are both ancient and contemporary. I will be talking about the devout Jews of the text, but my use of anachronisms will make it clear I am also talking about us. I am figuring them, but I am aimed at us. The occasion of pilgrimage, both to Passover and Pentecost, and to the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, provides the necessary overlap of figures. I hope, in ways that are both playful and poignant, to have them experience the "uh-oh" of the text.

This is hard. It requires a certain pace, a patience with the implications. It requires a parallel structuring so that the images can be interpreted easily, but not obviously. If I do this move well, everything I say in the final move has a chance. If I don't, if I'm careless or clumsy or korny or too obvious, the final move of the sermon may be clear but lack poignance.

I love this. This is one of the things about preaching that makes it challenging, rewarding, and fulfilling.


Lisa Gonzales-Barnes said...

Oh to be in Pepperdine to hear it in person.

adam hill said...

One of the parts of this text that really leaves me wanting more or desiring more may be right here in 2:37 where upon the proclamation that my own denial of God resulted not in his rejection of me, but in his forceful self-sacrifice to possess me. And that Jesus that I rejected God made both Lord and Savior not abandoning me but extending my only hope to me.

It is the realization that when I am unfaithful, God is still faithful. When I am exclusive, God is inclusive. When I am contrary, God is not impotent. When I neglect him, God is more present. When I run, God cannot be outrun.

In this sense, the gospel is never in my hands, per se. It is always the gospel of God in Christ. It is always the power of God to raise and move. It is always the presence of God to draw and secure. And what must I do to stop fighting aimlessly? How do I submit and come to the one who will not leave me alone no matter how many times I ask him to, and especially when I think I am "righter" than he is.

Kevin said...

The thing I have found difficult is helping people find themselves in the story. I often find people see themselves as the helper not the broken questioning one. I think I am too obvious with this move, and as you say they slip out from under the obvious. I find this post helpful, and I look forward to hearing you in at the lectures.

Thanks for sharing a bit of your sermon imagination; It is helpful.

Ray said...

Nancy's wisdom notwithstanding (YES!!! It's been ages since I got to use notwithstanding in a sentence!), you could publish your whole sermon here and by the time I got to Pepperdine... I'd have forgotten the whole thing anyway.

Thanks for sharing Mark! Looking forward to it.

Cheryl Russell said...

Looking forward to it!