Preachers Should Expect Surprise

In The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized William Willimon talks about how God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises. He says “We ought to preach as if we were opening a package that could be packed with dynamite.”

The people God chooses to love are certainly surprises. I like Willimon’s conversation held in an empty church building. “I’d sit down in my office, pour God a cup of coffee, and ask, ‘Now let’s go over this again. Why did you think it was a good idea to build a church here… Okay. But why these people?’” He goes on “And then God would reply, saying something to the effect that ‘these are my people… (this) is my idea of a good time.’”

While Willimon may not be preaching as he writes this, he is a preacher so it is no surprise he turns to a text. He claims no one preaches Genesis 38. In this text we meet Tamar who goes through husbands and funerals and is eventually sent away. Tamar the unmarried childless widow becomes the savvy deceptive harlot. Willimon describes her expected situation like this “End of story. Tragic. Dead End.” Instead “Because this is the Bible, where nearly anything can happen and often does… Tamar becomes the lead character.”

Just when we are wondering why Genesis gives an entire chapter to Tamar, we are surprised to find her again. Only this time we find her in the Gospel of Matthew. The childless widow harlot who seduced her father in law becomes the great great grandmother of Jesus. Have we mentioned that God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises?

Our history is full of ancestors we do not often talk about. We belong to a peculiar family. And we will continually be surprised by a God who would write a person like Tamar into the gospel. For “If Tamar could slip into the beginning of the gospel, so might you.”

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.”

Exploring Our Story

David Kelsey says that for Karl Barth, the Bible is “one vast loosely-structured non-fictional novel.” He is quoted by William Willimon in Conversations With Karl Barth on Preaching. This becomes important for Willimon because he believes that we do not make up our stories as much as our stories make up us. (For the record, I am in hearty agreement with that thought).

Willimon says that “the novel has become so important in the modern world because we are desperate for some means of order and experience, now that we no longer believe in an Orderer of experience. The novel becomes our means of attempting to make up a story in order to make up a life.” Perhaps Barth would say that this is unnecessary because we already have a story. We can be sure that he would say that “the object of this loosely structured historical novel is none other than Christ himself.”

Barth’s approach to scripture as a history-like narrative promotes an imaginative reading. He speaks of the biblical narratives as “legendary witnesses.” Willimon says that Barth “throws himself into his interpretations, identifies with the characters, treats biblical personalities as contemporaries, delights in discovering some detail of the text that has eluded others, focuses on one word of a text as potentially pregnant with meaning, and, in general, brings a wonderfully naïve, childlike approach to his reading.” Barth says in Homiletics, “the true exegete will face the text like an astonished child in a wonderful garden, not like an advocate of God who has seen all his files.”

Is Barth suggesting that we find ourselves in the text excitedly anticipating what we might find next? Rolling over a stone to see what lies underneath? Digging in up to our elbows? Wading into the deeper parts? Discovering new spaces? Admiring beauty? Appreciating even the thorny parts? Rushing over there to see around the corner? Moving slowly through another space out of reverence? Frequently stopping in awe of what is being said? Continually going back to explore again and again? What will we find over there? What is under here? Behind that? Going in a little further each time? Walking in from a different angle next time to see if it looks different from there?

Time in the text will remind us that we aren’t the first to look at beauty and pronounce it good. We aren’t the first to find ourselves up to our elbows in a creative moment. We aren’t the first to roll away a stone to reveal what is behind it. It may be safe to say that Barth sees himself, as well as the rest of us, in the narrative. And he wants us to come out wide eyed, muddy, bloody, and elbow deep in our story. Excited to tell others where we have been and what we have discovered.

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.

A Conversation for Karl, William and You

William Willimon credits Thomas Long as saying that preaching’s turn to the listener is the most significant homiletical trend of the twentieth century. Willimon then agrees with that assessment and suggests that our homiletical thought has become more interested with rhetorical, rather than theological concerns. He goes onto add that this “accounts in great part for the impoverishment of contemporary preaching.”

It is no secret that Willimon is enamored with Karl Barth. If there are doubts, then read Conversations With Barth on Preaching. So it comes as no surprise that Willimon brings Barth into this conversation. In the discussion “How to Say What God Says” he concludes that Barth has convinced him that listening to God is so much more interesting than listening to listeners.

Barth has been referred to as a “theological poet” and Willimon himself says that he wrote “theology with style.” While Willimon thinks of Barth as a master rhetorician, he is doubtful that Barth would take that as a compliment. Instead, he credits Barth with the development of a new way of speaking about God, as if he invented a new genre.

His preaching took on an explosive manner. I am reminded that someone once said that his Romans fell like “a bomb on the playground of the theologians.” His concern was not for the hearer but for the subject matter – God. At the very least, we can agree that this move is counter to the way many contemporary preachers think about preaching. In Conversations, Barth comes across as thinking either that preaching is theological or “a trivial endeavor hardly worth the effort.”

Willimon also invites Aristotle into the conversation who believes that “speaking is a politically significant power play that ought to be used with care.” He goes on to say that most preachers “do not think of themselves as powerful people.” He goes on, “yet anyone who has the gift of words has the potential to alter the world.” Then he adds that “Anyone who stands up and utters, ‘Thus saith the Lord…,’ is thrust into a situation where issues of power and language become primary.”

I do not suspect that Willimon cares whether you agree with him on these things. Or that you are in agreement with Barth. I do suspect that he hopes that such conversations with Karl Barth spur contemporary preachers to “a recovery of nerve, of gospel-induced boldness.”

Preaching as Invasion

There is a book on my shelf titled Invading Secular Space.  Something about that title always grabs my attention.  William Willimon writes about similar ideas in The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized.  While I am not convinced that Willimon would be willing to concede space as secular, he does make it clear how he feels about the way that God enters one’s life.  He might prefer that God interupts or invades or intrudes into one’s life.  He talks about the preacher’s role in this process.  He talks about a recovering cocaine addict named Velma who reminded him of these things.

People like Velma remind us that evangelism is not about getting new members for the church or finding deeper meaning in our lives as much as it is “a gracious, unmanageable, messy by-product of the intrusions of God.”  Evangelism may change the life of an outsider, but it will also change the church.    This is what I think Willimon is after.  He wants to see “the transformation of God’s people from an enclave of the culturally content into a beachhead for divine invasion.”  In the end, I am not sure that he writes about preaching to the unbaptized in any different way than preaching to the baptized (which by the way is another volume by Willimon).

He discards things that others may find helpful to communicate truth.  So preaching is no time for apologetics or worldly wisdom or marketing.  These things, despite their good intentions, may instead get in the way of the gospel.  Any starting point other than God and the Gospel of God carries some implication that those things are more important than God.

Willimon warns preachers not to promise what the gospel does not promise.  He might say that preaching that becomes too pragmatic borders on atheism.  After all, such pragmatism may not require God at all.  He might say that preaching that promises our lives to become easier is a move that sounds more like a salesman than a preacher.  Such promises are the wishes of the current regime and not of the gospel.

In contrast to excessive promises and practicality, Willimon calls on Jonathan Edwards as an illustration of preaching to the unbaptized.  While Edwards writes of “surprising conversions” Willimon suspects that Edwards was “genuinely surprised when anyone heard, really heard and responded to his preaching.  We ought also to be surprised.”  Willimon suspects this because of his belief that the gospel is so different from any other words that it is a miracle when it is really heard.

He calls on Easter as the miracle that drives our preaching.  Willimon states that “it is only because Jesus has been raised from the dead that I have confidence in preaching.”  And only because of his return to “disheartened followers after Easter that I presume that he has made me an agent of gospel subversion through preaching.”  While others may have different reasons or motives, Willimon concludes that “preaching in the service of anything less than a living, intrusive God is not worth the effort.”  I respond in agreement.

Preaching does not attempt to relax the tension between the way we are doing things and the way that God says to do them differently.  Preaching does not aim for agreement, but conversion.  Preaching communicates that we do not know what is really going on around us or to us until we are encountered by the reality of the gospel.

Willimon rightly challenges us with the reality that preaching is an assault, an invasion, an intrusion into a complacent, rational, and conventional world.  Preaching should not aim to improve lives.  Preaching should not encourage you to find deeper meaning in the things you already do.  Instead, preaching should come more like a collision in the intersection that causes you to stop because you were going the wrong way at the wrong speed at the wrong time.  Preaching grabs the map from your dashboard and tosses it out the window as a reminder that you do not have your journey figured out.  Preaching should remind us that we have been listening to the wrong channel and need to tune into a different voice in order to learn where we are to go next.  In short, Willimon desires that our contentment with the way things are is not ok.  He calls for an invasion by an intrusive word.