A Chorus of Witnesses

According to Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga Jr., students of preaching should “study great sermons, learn their moves, and master some of their aims and forms.” This is not unlike the reason “aspiring composers study Haydn symphonies and Bartok string quartets” and “serious chess players learn the great games of Tanasch and Capablanca” and “army generals master the battle plans of strategic and tactical experts from Alexander the Great to Douglas MacArthur.”

This is good reason for A Chorus of Witnesses, a collection of sermons that the reader may “ponder, inspect, disassemble, praise, criticize, and generally, learn from…” It is true that all sermons are not equal and not everyone will agree on what a good sermon is.  Yet with sermons from the likes of Buechner, Brown Taylor, Craddock, Achtemeier, Barth, Lewis, Willimon, Peterson, and Buttrick to name a few, a volume like this one is an excellent starter for us to “tune our ears” and “untether our imaginations.”

“A written sermon is not a preached sermon. Reading a sermon is an importantly different experience from hearing one, and both differ from actually seeing a preacher aim and fire.” Reading a sermon is more like “reading the score of some musical masterpiece. Whether reading a piece is better or worse than hearing it depends in part on the quality of the performance.”

Reading excellent sermons can be helpful on a variety of levels. Even when we reject the theology in a sermon we may admire the form. Even when we think the sermon strayed too far from the text we may still feel that we have been strangely warmed. I will not guarantee that you will enjoy this particular collection of sermons but am in agreement that reading the sermons of others is a good practice. “Perhaps homiletic discernment, like general spiritual discernment, is a gift of the Spirit. In any case, serious study of widely varying sermons is likely to sharpen it.”

Reading for Preaching

Not long ago, Layne introduced me to a little book by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. called Reading for Preaching.  I find the idea excellent and am glad that Plantinga puts words to the idea.  It is an interesting book that may change the way we read (and preach).  This is not reading in order to gather content for sermons.  The author is interested in joining a discussion about language and style.  He is interested in putting preachers in conversation with others who are skilled at communication.  The subtitle says it well, the preacher in conversation with storytellers, biographers, poets, and journalists.

While God does gift some with natural skills of putting words together, most of us require outside help.  Plantinga suggests that reading good storytellers is one way to sharpen these skills.  He acknowledges that “some of the things that make sermons work cannot be gotten directly from written prose and poetry, but some can.”  Skilled writers can help us gain a feel for sentence rhythm, word selection, clarity and word economy.  Skilled writers demonstrate for us what it is like to make the listener want to keep up with the movement and become curious about the story.  I, for one, need all the help I can get to evoke wonder and get the listener to become curious.

Plantinga directs us to Barbara Brown Taylor as a preacher who knows how to evoke wonder.  I have had opportunity to hear her preach and have witnessed her ability to make a sermon move.  In a sermon titled “Home by Another Way” she tells us that Matthew’s Magi were “glad for a reason to get out of town – because that was clearly where the star was calling them, out.”  Plantinga notes that she is neither stuffy nor slangy.  He calls her style “upscale colloquial” and adds that this is a style that appeals to most listeners.  It is “formal enough to be serious and casual enough to be comfortable to wear.”

Brown Taylor does not use more words than necessary, does not give us “empty calories in a sermon.”  Instead, she uses her words to make the sermon move.  The Magi are headed out and we know this because she tells us.  They are “glad to get out.”  The “star was calling them out.”  “Out from under the reputations they had built for themselves.”  “And so they set out.”  We have no doubts that the Magi are headed out and we are going with them.

Plantinga wants to try to tune the preacher’s ear.  But he also warns that preachers should not try too hard to cast a spell on listeners with the power of words.  Not try too hard to flood the room with their brilliance.  Like trying too hard to make a friend or to go to sleep or to make a good impression – trying too hard to woo the congregation with words may be unsuccessful.  Perhaps the reason I like Plantinga’s book best is because he knows that as important as working on a sermon is, as many skills as we develop along the way, a good sermon remains more gift and discovery than achievement.

Preaching and a Changing Future

For the past three years I have had the good fortune to attend the Festival of Homiletics. There is great value in listening to excellent preachers handle the texts of scripture. Since this conference is geared toward mainline churches, some of the discussion is directed toward the mainline church. The mainline churches admit to significant decline in recent years, but the fact that so many respond to this trend in the church by focusing on the preached word leaves me with great hope for the church universal.

An interesting discussion that emerges at the festival is the attempt to address the changing culture. Culture is on the move. For a while, we have been talking about a shift from something we have come to know as modernity to something new that we have come to know as postmodernity. Lecturers attempt to address these changes and discuss what this means for the church in the future. Especially on what it means for preaching in the future.

There have been moments that it seemed the focus shifted outside the suggested emphasis. For example, there have been times that the conference sounded more like a platform for an assembly other than the church. More often, I have been challenged by the emphasis that God speaks through the preached word. Again, while I may not agree with all the discussion, I find great hope for the church. It is important for us to communicate Good News in whatever culture we find ourselves in.

Mostly, the Festival is a strong reminder that we must take the act of preaching seriously. That interpreting scripture is serious business. That the ways we choose to put words together should not be taken lightly. As Craig Barnes said this year, “do not waste words.” In the act of preaching, we offer a prophetic retelling of words given to us by God. Preachers like Walter Brueggemann and William Willimon demonstrated this effectively. Barbara Brown Taylor was described as a theological poet (and I can’t argue).

I love the emphasis on preaching and the attempt to place preaching into bigger categories. Yet, I am left with a lot of questions. While we cannot predict what changes the future will bring, what will preaching look like when we get there? Another presenter, Phyllis Tickle, talking about cultural trends, suggests that every five hundred years or so the church is forced into a rummage sale and decides what it will discard and what it will take into the future. This makes me wonder, what parts of preaching will remain with us?

This discussion will be ongoing. For the present, it appears that our task remains clear. We are the ones called to keep opening the book and retelling the story. And each time the book opens, it must be taken very seriously.

An Interest in Reality

In The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor is interested in reality – all of it.  You get the feeling she doesn’t want to miss anything.  So she becomes a tourist hoping to see something that she has only previously read about.  She becomes a child listening to a pastor’s sermon.  She becomes a “detective of divinity” looking for signs of God everywhere.  She becomes a student of Hebrew and Greek feeling like she is the first reader in the world to discover the meaning of words in scripture.

She seems to approach preaching as the woman in Luke approaches the lost coin.  She is looking under everything, moving things out of the room, lifting up heavy objects, all in the hope to find what she is looking for.  If she doesn’t find it the first time, she makes it a practice to look twice.  So at first glance she looks at Luke and sees a doctor with a bag full of medicines and bandages.  But after another look, a bag full of gospel stories with the power to heal.

Brown Taylor desires “To look inside every sentence and underneath every phrase for the layers of meaning that has accumulated there.”  She is like a gold miner, panning for precious metal.  She is like Cyrano de Bergerac passing love poems between God and congregation.  She is an imaginative realist.  Always attempting to see what is there but not obvious at first glance.

Fred Craddock says about Barbara Brown Taylor that “she talks about what she does and then does what she talks about.”  He also claims to be reminded of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.  I like the comparison and think that often when Dillard is writing one could often substitute “preach” for “write.”  For instance, how would it affect preaching if we made that substitution in the following quote?  “Preach as if you were dying.  At the same time, assume you preach for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients.  That is, after all, the case.”

A repeated theme in The Preaching Life is that preaching is not solitary.  “It is to examine my own life and the life of the congregation with the same care, hunting the connections between the word on the page and the word at work in the world.”  Preaching is something the whole community participates in.  Week after week listeners are invited to see the world as the realm of God’s activity.  Preaching is “a way of approaching the world, and of gleaning God’s presence there.”

She acknowledges how unusual preaching appears in our culture.  People are used to props and sound effects.  People are accustomed to texts and Facebook and television.  The odds are against a preacher.  “If the topic is not appealing, there are no other channels to be tried.  If a phrase is missed, there is not a replay button.”  Preaching is risky business.  It is “an act of creation with real risk in it as one foolhardy human being presumes to address both God and humankind, speaking to each on the other’s behalf and praying to get out of the pulpit alive.”

Brown Taylor does not want to hand out sacks of wisdom for listeners to take home and consume during the week.  She prefers to discover something and then “haul it into the pulpit and show others what God has shown me, while I am still shaking with excitement and delight.”