Perhaps nowhere is the use of words more publicly on display nor more consequential that in the preaching moment. Preaching is really a remarkable event and almost unparalleled in human society. Think about it. Week after week preachers open an ancient text and, through it, seek to help people make meaning of their lives and their purpose, have their deepest hopes and fears acknowledged and addressed, and understand current realities in light of God’s reality.
Which is to say, preachers uniquely stand in the public arena and give people an opportunity to glimpse and savor God and God’s ways. In our nation and world where ecological disasters are already on the rise in the face of climate change, where race is pitted against race in subtle and overt ways, were the income gap threatens to bring us all down, a good word, an alternative word, a gospel word, is desperately needed. The preacher speaks words that change, not only individual hearts and minds, but words that have the power to change the world itself. Little wonder then that Fred Craddock would say, “If you are not nervous before stepping into the pulpit, you simply don’t understand what you are doing.” And why Gardner Taylor, the famed Baptist preacher of the previous century would refer to it as “The Sweet Torture of Sunday Morning.” (I think he was talking about this from preacher’s point of view, not the listener’s, by the way.)
I don’t preach every week as I did for many years as a parish pastor. Which means that now I listen to a LOT of sermons! These are my observations:
It really shows if you’re not prepared. If you, the preacher, have not wrung a meaningful word from the text and figured out a way to communicate that word to the people God has uniquely gathered before you, it’s abundantly apparent and, frankly, if the text, doesn’t move you, and inspire you to some action, it will probably not move nor inspire us.
Preaching is an oral event. I know you’ve written a great manuscript full of wonderful words of life, but please don’t read them to me. Part of the power of TED talks is that they are spoken, not read. I can read good stuff anytime. Preaching is speaking with words, eyes, body. It is full-bodied engagement!
There are so many hard and hurtful things in our public and private lives which we long to hear some good and healing words about. If you fail us there, you have failed us. Please don’t shirk from the from the counter-cultural worldview of the Bible as it applies to our present conditions. It is our only source of hope.
Hope. The crusty old Pastor Emeritus and Founder of the one of the churches I later pastored, Dave Sholin, would come into my office early every Sunday morning and ask two questions: “In one sentence, what is your point?” (Gardner Taylor was once asked, “How many points should a sermon have?” to which he replied wryly, “At least one.”) and “What is the final word of hope?” Elizabeth Johnston once commented that “No language about God will ever be fully adequate to the burning mystery it signifies,” and I agree. But the astonishment of the gospel which enlivens and compels us is that it rings with the hope of the One who has gone to the lowest places – our places – and prevailed.