Preaching and Listening: grist for ordinary lives
Writing articles for people who spend their time/days preaching is daunting. While this is partially true of me, I found myself a bit paralysed. Who am I to tell you – people who think, breathe, live and research preaching - anything? Can I be thought-provoking enough you think it’s been worth the read? Therein lies the preachers’ dilemma. What is it that we do in weekly preaching that enables our speaking of God, about God, for God, to others, worth hearing? What is it we offer, in researching deeply, in wrestling with ideas, ancient texts, well-trodden pathways, that might give grist for ordinary lives?
I ask that because some encounters make me wonder what it is we preachers think we are doing when we preach. And, what do we think listeners are yearning to hear?
From the perspective of the listener – in whose ranks I fall on one Sunday out of four, I contend that most of us want grist. That is, we want something that matters to the depths of real life. Something to chew over, wrestle with, and plunge into. Something that reminds us of the God’s-eye-view of the world. We yearn for something that will help us understand God’s mission-ing of us. We need something that will take us deeper than we can go on our own.
I feel strongly about this. In the ordinary life of the congregant – unemployed, or working, emerging into adulthood or ancient retiree, factory-floor or university halls, budgeting for food and water, transport and time – in that life, we need grist.
The strength of my feeling comes from encounters with others.
The bio-chemical engineer imprinted as an example of a congregant needing a penitent preacher. When I asked if he’d been equipped by his church for his role in biological weaponry defence, he said no one had ever asked him about it; nor preached in a way that helped in thinking about it. But, he reassured me wryly, the congregation prayed for his wife’s Sunday school teaching weekly. As a preacher he made me think: If he were in my congregation, would he have had grist for his ordinary life? If he had faithfully carved out time and come in hungry, would the joining of the Scriptures and my voice woven together enable him to be shaped for decisions, vocation and direction?
Or, the woman facing a doctor-led late term abortion because of compound congenital conditions in her longed-for little girl – the last hope of multiple pregnancies. What sermons speak? What moment of wrestling with scriptures aloud, allow for her to sense more of God than she knew already? What might a steady diet of preaching have offered her as grist for her ordinary life – changed forever by grief and contentious personal decisions? What space between us would ensure that meaning-making would be part of her encounter with God in the community of church?
Or, recently, on our way home from church, in spite of craving God-talk as part of the worship, we discussed why we heard nothing that wasn’t immediately obvious from the reading while simultaneously hearing quite a bit that wasn’t related to it! We honestly went open-hearted – but the needed grist … well… We learned about parenting, and multiply-go-forth kind of things. Not particularly helpful to us as non-parents, never mind that in that congregation has several couples and singles who one way or another are not simply ‘childless’ but barren. The landing on those ears of quite conventional ideas of ‘fruitfulness’ and vocation was harsh. Where was the depth, grist, or stretch that would speak in compassionate, new and deep ways to every dimension of life?
I hope you hear what I’m urging: I’m not trying to be a critic for criticism’s sake; nor a sceptic, nor a bad listener. I’m not advocating for every sermon doing everything! In fact, I have two caveats that shape what I urge.
I have a high view of the role of the Spirit. At times sermons preached have little to do with what people hear! I expect we all have had the experience of preaching a sermon, thoughtfully crafted and full of sagely wisdom, only to have someone come later and say: ‘when you said this, God said this’ and thought, ‘no, no, I didn’t say that’ – but I’m glad God speaks! The sermon serves as a vehicle of space and time and God speaks in, through and around it, by the presence and power of the spirit. Thankfully.
I also have a high view of the life of the gathered community. The congregant, in a healthy relationship with others and God is shaped by much more than a 10 - 45-minute sermon, homily, or ‘preach’. This life is shaped by prayer, engagement with Scripture, conversation, liturgy, song, and gathers as body. God speaks in many voices and multiple ways. Thankfully.
I embrace the reality that the depth of our faith is formed by hundreds of moments, conversations and practices that enable ordinary Christians to go deeper with God. And I too, understand that one sermon, or even fifty a year, (allowing time off for sickness) cannot be the sole soul food offered to a congregant. We need wrap-around care, pastoring and love.
But, I am arguing for practices of preaching that mean God’s voice, God’s texts, God’s life-breathed-by-the-spirit, can be ushered in with more depth than not, with more thoughtfulness than entertainment, and with greater authority to shape a life than thought-for-the day offers to the Radio 4 listener on a weekday morning.
As someone recently listening to sermons, I want to let you in on the listener’s perspective on preaching by way of feedback, food for thought, critique, and challenge. What would I beg of preachers?
Please give us:
- Scripturally-rooted, intertextual sermons that spring from the Bible and its complexity, that don’t hide from the history of a text or the deep roots of an idea. Sermons that take seriously Jesus’ Jewishness and his place in a long story of God; that wrestle with texts of terror and genocide, of lament and rage, that hear the echo of prophets and that accept that remnant communities can represent God in prevailing cultures. Sermons that take Scriptures as the words about the WORD and allow them to speak as interpreted for these ears, in this day.
- Sermons that don’t shy away from the intersection of life and the difficult, the dense, and the deep. That is, sermons unafraid to push, raise and struggle with questions of death, fear, aging, failing, illness, disease, of life, hope, youth, dementia, success, healing, restoration out loud. Sermons that help navigate the meaning of old ideas – sin, repentance, atonement, sanctification, holiness, martyrdom, sacrifice, love – and help them live in the present. In a world of high-tech, time-bound lives – what do these ideas mean? How does heaven and hell, God’s will and justice, judgement and mercy, look, sound and play out in the present? What do we DO with these ideas?
- Sermons that hide political agendas (capital P) but allow political ideas (small p) to be wrestled with. What does God have to do with life together in community? We need sermons that help us to ask (along with our ancestors in faith) what does God say to the rulers of the day? What are the powers and principalities? What about the way of Jesus for the least of these? What shapes our faith distinctly in the light of the empires of this world? What does Jesus have to do with… pose your question here. So, the conviction of the sermon that speaks of God’s kingdom agenda drives the sermon’s agenda.
- Sermons by a preacher who believes in God, rooted and grounded in deep personal spirituality. Preachers vulnerable to their humanity but not so wedded to it that it becomes a sermon about them. The preacher’s engagement with the living Word, however doubt-laden, and their living faith, however complicated, really matters. The authenticity to believe in God who is transcendent, alive and at work matters. Integrity counts. Of course, I’m a Wesleyan, so I’m steeped in the story of Wesley being told to preach what he should believe – of a heart warmed and life transformed – until he did believe! So, the crafting of life and text, the relationship between faith and hope, belief and speaking of God, the role of truth-telling of God’s life and engagement in the world matters.
- Story-telling sermons. I like funny stories, and sad ones, I like earthed words and ‘normal.’ I’m a fan of narrative, immersive preaching, I like sermons that are grounded in story, but, if I leave a service remembering only the story of the preacher, I wonder if I’ve left having heard enough about the story of God. It is God’s story and the intersection of God-and-all -creation should be the centrifugal force of a sermon. Tell God’s story.
- Theologically sound preaching that isn’t fearful of God’s words doing something in a new way. There are hundreds, thousands of books that could frame our theology. I desperately need preachers to be acquainted with some of them! I don’t mind if it’s in audible form, or podcasts, but reflective, engaged, attentive theology matters. If the preacher’s theology is inherited from the time of their training, we’re in trouble. Theology evolves, shifts, and deepens – and its currents move the church forward.
- Sermons that preach the tradition (small t) of the church. The rooted tradition that knows the early fathers, and hears the voice of the early mothers. The tradition that understands the pastoral response to the incarnation as deeply rooted, thought-about over time. The tradition that takes us past church cultures and into church history, and helps us understand the context-laden weight of why the church has thought/acted in particular ways. I don’t, of course, mean always agreeing with that tradition – or I wouldn’t be an ordained preacher – but I do mean taking its heft seriously. So – I also mean preaching with imagination: taking traditions and continuing to develop them – evolve and renew them, to discover new ways of describing and denoting them, framing them in new ways.
- Diversity in speech, example and call and take seriously that ears shaped by a culture of oppression need sermons to be a place of honest liberation and inclusion. Gender and race matter. The present of the church is one that takes seriously the wideness of God’s mercy, the outpouring of the spirit and the uninhibited ways God loves.
- Sermons that listen to God but speak in today’s language, for today’s world. Culturally aware preachers, offering astute analysis, and deep understanding of our times is vital. The sermon showing prescience, preparing people for the time beyond our time. The preacher conveying deep consideration of the world we inhabit, mindful that the Jesus-way of counter-cultural truth and hope is to be spoken of thoughtfully and realistically. What does it mean to be alive in a time of three-person babies because of mitochondrial swopping? Or where insects are decimated? How to live in a world of wealth and starvation? What about end of life care? More knowledge and less wisdom? The gift of the sermon weaving together the now and the not yet, the deep and the hoped-for is vital in our day. So, I long for some sermons to be eschatological in scope!
Sermons, should give Grist, ‘useful material, especially to support an argument,’ which is life. As a listener I desperately want sermons to matter. As I’ve subjected myself to your voice, thoughts, preparation, God can speak through you; your lips – God’s voice. Your thoughts, God’s ideas. Your message, God’s message.
In other words, please don’t just tell me things I can read, hear, or think of for myself. Please don’t try to entertain me. Please don’t gloss over the difficult passages of Scripture, please be a vehicle of grace in the life of your congregation.
Revd Deirdre Brower Latz is Principal of Nazarene Theological College, Manchester. Her doctoral studies were completed at the University of Manchester, focussing on contextual readings of John Wesley’s theology and issues of ecclesiology, justice and urban poverty.
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