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Praying and Preaching

27 May 2020

‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and redeemer’

Megan is Chaplain of Jesus College, Oxford. She also assists in parish ministry as a priest in the diocese of Oxford and lectures in Old Testament at Oxford University. Her Songs of the Spirit: A Psalm a Day for Lent and Easter was published by SPCK in 2017.

Praying and Preaching

‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and redeemer’

How many sermons have we heard or preached that begin with these words? Most sermons are prefaced with a prayer. That could be a dedication to God, ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’; or a prayer like the final verse of Ps 19; or a prayer which is improvised by the preacher, perhaps a different favourite text. One of my husband’s colleagues at Coventry Cathedral always started his sermons something like this: ‘May all that I say and all that you hear, all that we think and all that we resolve, be in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’ This beguiling combination of both a prayer and a dedication to God made a great impression on both my husband and me, and we both use a version of it before we preach.

 

Beginning with Prayer

Preachers start with prayer; and how appropriate that we begin with something that is a Psalm verse, or a traditional text, or something developed from such a starting point. We have to start somewhere, and as we preach the inherited Word of God, as adopted children of our heavenly Father, it makes sense to root ourselves in Scripture that has been handed down to us through the generations and millennia. Not only that, but we’re starting from a standpoint of prayer taken from or influenced by the prayer book that Jesus himself used. As we look to unfold both the Scriptures and the Word of God in all their richness, it seems right to root ourselves in prayer that echoes our model Pray-er, Jesus Christ himself.

Hopefully that goes not just for our sermons but our whole lives. Saying the Daily Office is not just an obligation for clergy, it is something that can sustain us and ensure that we regularly dig deep for our spiritual nourishment in the Psalms. Whatever our daily, weekly, monthly disciplines, the Psalms are part of Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline, whether we do that in apps or livestreams or from our favourite prayer book. Read slowly and meditatively they can reveal truths for us for the tasks that lie ahead of us in coming days – including our sermon preparation. And when we immerse ourselves in our Psalms in the Daily Office, as members of the wider Church, we know that we are praying the same texts along with our brothers and sisters in Christ in a huge range of different settings and contexts.

 

Something for Everyone

Some scholars over the last century or so have concerned themselves with thinking about the ‘original settings’ of the Psalms, in what kinds of ancient liturgies or rituals they might once have been sung or prayed. When we take the Psalter as a whole, we can indeed quickly see they are a varied set of texts, of prayer, praise, petition, lament, hymn, thanksgiving, and witness to God, that resonate with a huge range of different people in a broad spectrum of contexts. Reminding ourselves that there is something for everyone in every different situation in life in the Psalms helps us to remember as well that there is something for everyone, wherever, however, whoever they are, in our Scriptures as a whole. This confidence can spur us on to thinking imaginatively about the people we are trying to reach in our preaching, the connections that we are invited to make between our Scriptures and the people we are helping to hear them.

 

Differing Styles

Just as there are a range of different styles of psalms, in language, content, form, length, tone, and so on, so we preach a huge variety of different kinds of sermons. That’s not just about comparing the brief homily of a daily mass with a talk in an All-Age Service or the lengthy Bible exposition at the centre of a Service of the Word. It’s also in the language we use, the ways we try and get the message of the lectionary texts across in any act of worship, where we stand or sit to preach, whether we use notes or a full text, how we use humour or rhetoric or poetry or drama, what kinds of illustrations we might use, what stories we tell … There is a rich variety of homiletic tools we can use, and it can be too easy to slip into to our preferred methods. Perhaps we might have heard it said dismissively, ‘Ministers/ordinands/clergy only really have one sermon that they preach…’; how important it is to challenge that for other people and in ourselves! Delving into the Psalms, we can be reminded to inhabit the broad spectrum of human connections, to bring to bear a wide range of styles in our speaking the Gospel to our congregations today.

 

Audience and Context

Thinking about our audiences and the contexts in which preaching and teaching happens today also resonates with the Psalms. How we speak about God and to God – how we preach and pray – are two sides of the same coin. Many psalms are addressed to God, many are addressed to a congregation, and quite a lot switch between the two. The well-known Psalm 22 starts ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, then later commands, ‘You who fear the LORD, praise him!’, and at the end declares, ‘The next generation shall serve him, and all about the Lord will be told to the generation after.’ Our worship as a whole is both for the glory of God and for the building up of God’s people – so talking to God and talking about God go hand in hand, prayer and preaching are intertwined. Although we would always want to avoid the person leading the prayers ending up giving a sermon, the intercessions implicitly and the sermon explicitly both teach different ways of talking to God and about God. We might today describe the Psalms as the most natural and authentic fusion of praying and preaching.

Like Ps 25. ‘To you O Lord I lift up my soul’ it begins; then there’s a change of gear in verse 8 to ‘Good, and right, is the LORD, and so he directs wrong-doers on the journey’. The whole Psalm weaves together language to God and about God. So, Ps 25 doesn’t just teach how to pray, how to talk to God, it teaches quite a lot about God as well. More than that, it looks like it was designed to be memorable, because each verse starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostics like this are mnemonic tools, like having rhythm to words, or songs to help us remember texts. Many of the Psalms seem to have been written as songs, and so there’s lots of material in the Psalter as a whole that suggests these texts were designed not only to be used, but also remembered and passed on.

 

Memorable

How do we make our sermons rightly memorable? I don’t mean that our congregations take away a good story or dramatic action and then can’t remember why it was used, because that just makes us or the occasion memorable, rather than the message. Rather, how can we help our congregations to remember God, aspects of our faith, in ways that will sustain God’s people after the sermon has finished? In today’s world we probably need ways of remembering the faithfulness of God outside our church contexts more than we’ve ever known before in our lifetimes. Perhaps we can learn from the memory techniques of the Psalms. There are easily-held structures, like the acrostic psalms – not just Ps 25, but also Pss 9-10, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145 – the number of psalms like this show it was a popular feature. There are metaphors -- like ‘The Lord is my Shepherd (Ps 23) or ‘The LORD is my light and my salvation’ (Ps 27). There are repeated phrases, like ‘for his love endures for ever’ throughout Ps 136. There are refrains, like in Ps 107, as ‘they cried out to the LORD in their distress, and he delivered them from all their troubles’ alternates with ‘let them praise the LORD for his loving-kindness, and for his awesome works for humanity’s generations!’ That’s just a few ways that the beauty of the Psalms can lodge in our souls.

 

For the Preacher Too

And looking after our own souls is crucial for the preacher. Ps 103 opens ‘Bless the LORD, O my soul!’ and this self-exhortation then sets the speaker within the context not only of the congregation but by the end of the psalm the entirety of God’s creation. The final verse culminates in the connectedness of our spiritual lives with our society and our world: ‘Bless the LORD, all his works, from every place in his realm! O my soul, bless the LORD!’ The Psalms help us to be better preachers because they help us to be better creatures of God’s Creation.

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