Monday, January 10, 2011

Preaching as Holding a Precious Stone

My greatest preaching mentor is as always, Rick Lischer. He wrote, "The preacher holds the text like a precious stone and turns it against the light until its greatest brillance is revealed." (Theology of Preaching, 1992, Preface). What an image. I remember when he spoke such a word in a 2004 class and I have never forgotten it. That means that preaching the same texts over an over will be plenty until the end of the age, and certainly the end of my life. I hope to be preaching for no less than another half century and this image makes certain that I will not run out of material because the stones can be turned and turned and turned again.

I like to think of preaching as holding the text up as something valuable when it may not seem worthy to most upon first glance. The text may not seem too amazing upon a first reading. It may seem archaic, lodged in the dirt or inside a lump of coal for many years. The text may seem outdated, the last thing that might shape us in 2011.
But that's not true.
The text from which we preach comes in the context of Christian worship and from the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation we receive a magnificent lens for preaching that can and does show us the nature of the very lives we live.
As I go to prepare for this week's sermon, I am brought into the language of stones in the opening verses of Matthew's 24th chapter:
Jesus then left the Temple. As he walked away, his disciples pointed out how very impressive the Temple architecture was. Jesus said, "You're not impressed by all this sheer size, are you? The truth of the matter is that there's not a stone in that building that is not going to end up in a pile of rubble."
How many ways can this be turned?
Is it simply about the structure of the Jerusalem Temple?
Christ's own body?
The Pharisees's inside the Temple?
The Eschaton?
All of these are possibilities and homiletical choices must be made. The danger in any sermon is to try to answer all the questions posed. This tactic is both superficial and too much the attempt to be God. Neither are a good idea.

What to do. What to do.
Certainly the revelation will come through prayer and fasting.
Lischer writes in the same preface that "the genius of preaching lies in the discovery of [the witness of the text] which occurs amidst prayer, struggle, and exegesis, in a moment of theological insight." It is quite a lot to expect this to occur each week, but it does or it does not and even in the moments of homiletical failure God can be witnessed as we preachers humbly fall short. This is not a safety net to be repeatedly caught by, but one will need the net more often when the greatest effort has been put forth. We can be so assured that our careful and dilligent preparation means we will hit a grand slam from the pulpit, and instead we hear crickets. Who knows what will be heard and what will be no more useful than chaff.
If the text shapes the sermon then all will be well, at least more often than not.
We chanted yesterday:
All the time, God is Good
God is Good, All the time.

This will protect homiletics in spite of our human failings. Stay faithful, stay the course. Do keep the audience in mind, just as Christ did. He spoke a word for a particular people. The audience always matters. Getting it right means having it heard and therefore the speaker must know his people. One of my best friends from seminary is Julien and when I went to preach at his church, he was so gracious with the words, "I know my people." That set me free to get it wrong. What I mean is that I trusted that his people needed to hear me because Julian had invited me, but I might not know them well enough to speak an intelligible word. That set me free to take chances. If I got it wrong then that would be the witness for the day.

I've been at the practice of preaching now for eight years and I enjoy it more now than ever. I worry about it less and have confidence not that I am good at it, but that with good habits it will happen week after week, year after year. I try to remember that I work for God before working for God's gathered people. That's a tricky one to negotiate, but an order of priorties that may just keep this pastor from dangerously becoming a quivering mass of availability. If the Gospel is not always satisfying and seems less helpful rather than a great problem solver, well, then that's probably a good thing. I doubt the fisherman who gathered as the first hearers of the word got an inkling of what they expected or wanted. Yet, they were still intrigued enough to stay the course, and continually follow. Being the Church means being patient, sometimes painfully patient. The first hearers of Dr. King's sermons seem to indicate that he wasn't all that good at first. I love that from his father's grumblings behind the pulpit in Montgomery, under his breath, "Martin, make it plain," we later have speeches, sermons, and letters that changed the face of the church in America. I live 300 yards off MLK Blvd in Durham and try to remember daily as I leave and return to my home that King started wordy and heady as a preacher and then became a prophet for a generation. The preacher with good habits, staying the course, just might find himself in a prophetic season where The Beloved Community truly has ears to hear.
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