I’ve listened to quite a few sermons in my lifetime, and have crafted and preached a dozen or so myself, too. They’re usually the part of worship that I most look forward to: they’re the heart and intellectual meat of the service, the part that provides theological concepts and ethical challenges to ponder, the part that both informs and inspires. But precisely because I have such high hopes for the sermon, there’s been more than one occasion when I’ve been deeply disappointed because the sermon wasn’t really a sermon. It was actually just a speech – and there is a difference! Here are a few general examples:
The Museum Visit (a.k.a., the Archeological Dig): These types of preachers have usually taken one or more biblical studies courses, and are clearly entranced with what they have learned. There’s nothing wrong with that – except that the sermons sound like they copied out an entire biblical commentary, or else that they’re trying to fit everything they learned in class into 15 minutes! This sort of sermon contains way too much historical detail from its particular era, obsesses over who might have written and/or edited the story and how it compares to “what actually happened,” and recounts all the evidence (either supporting or negating the biblical account) which archeologists have unearthed in what is surmised to be the original location of the event. While it’s a good idea to consult a biblical commentary or two when preparing a sermon, and to provide some historical background, if there’s too much, it can feel like you’re at a museum or a history lecture instead of in church! Most worryingly, for me, it can feel like instead of hearing the Word of God, you’re just leafing through ancient documents that are irrelevant for the life of the community of faith today. With too much historical focus, the Bible becomes ancient history, and we miss out on a sense that it’s a living word, with narratives and images in which we participate, and which thereby shape our lives. This isn’t to say that the Bible is timeless and has no context, or that its meaning is fixed and unchanging. It speaks to us in our context and from its context, and yet, somehow, also transcends both.
The Pitch: This one is common among guest preachers. They go up to the front of the sanctuary under the pretense of giving a sermon, but it turns out to really be a thinly-veiled fundraising pitch for their particular organization or cause. I’ve actually heard a “sermon” in which the budget of a particular organization was discussed! I’m not saying that it’s not important to hear about church organizations and the work they’re doing, either locally or elsewhere in the world. This would be perfectly appropriate as the application part of a sermon, with strong ties to Scripture passages. But the problem is, these sermons usually have a few isolated verses loosely tied to the work of the organization (i.e., proof-texting), and that’s it. Plus, the advertising tactics are usually pretty obvious: the work of the organization is not only declared flawless, it’s also enormously successful and is saving the entire world – but it can only continue this vital work if you donate today, etc., etc. While sharing resources and supporting such work is one aspect of church and worship, that doesn’t mean that the sermon can be co-opted into an advertising pitch (or a boardroom meeting, for that matter). Didn’t Jesus have a thing or two to say against making the Temple into a marketplace?
The Agenda: This one has some things in common with “The Pitch,” in that its use of Scripture is pretty clumsy. In this type of sermon, the preacher has already made up his or her mind as to what the message will be, before approaching the Scripture passages. As a result, the sermon ends up being, not so much what the passages are saying to the church, but what the preacher wants them to say, and has forced them to say, without carefully reading and listening to the texts themselves (sometimes called “eisegesis”, reading into the text, instead of “exegesis,” the interpretation of what the text has to say). A variation on this is that the preacher doesn’t refer to the text much at all, but simply uses the sermon as an opportunity to rant about a given issue, using his or her own opinion or perhaps, random non-theological resources (which, of course, means that it usually goes overtime). The truth is, they’re, well, preachy, in the pejorative sense, and they usually haven’t spent much time preparing. Of course, it’s possible to preach on contemporary issues, and of course, to be creative in one’s scriptural interpretation. But there should still be a balanced and profound point made, as well as some biblical and theological content to the sermon. Isn’t that, after all, why it’s called a sermon, and why it’s given in a church?
So what exactly is it that makes a sermon more than just a speech, as these three examples are? It’s not terribly complicated, as I see it. I’ve already hinted at what I see as the components of a good sermon, namely:
Sound biblical exegesis and intertextual connections: By all means, preachers should look at one or more biblical commentaries and theology books, and include particulars of the original contexts of the passages and their interpretation throughout history. But the Bible is more than history – it’s literature and story and poetry too! We usually tend to read the Bible looking for what was “left out,” what’s “behind” the text – in other words, what’s not there (see “The Museum Visit”). But it’s so much more interesting to look at what is there, and the deliberate and intentional way the Bible was written and put together. I especially love learning about the interconnections between the lectionary passages for the week, since they aren’t just chosen at random, like in a lottery, but are grouped according to common themes and the connections between them. I think good preachers draw out some of these interconnections, and touch on both Old and New Testament passages, without making one “better” than the other!
A sense of the Bible as a sacred, living text: Preparation for a sermon also involves reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the text, listening to its voice. This isn’t a book like any other, just to be studied and picked apart – and that’s coming from someone who loves to study! In the life of the church, the Bible is a sacred, living text (as the light in the painting above depicts – found here). I think sermons should reflect this, and in that sense recognize that the sermon has traditionally been understood in the church to be the time when the Word of God is preached, meaning that it's one of the ways in which God speaks to us. So, it’s not a task to be taken lightly, nor is it something (and feel free to disagree with me here) that just anyone can do.
Inspiration and challenge: Because I understand faith to be something that doesn’t just comfort us but also challenges or even unsettles us, I think that sermons are one important way in which we are challenged – challenged to change our way of thinking about something, challenged to change our way of relating to other people, challenged to change our very way of life. They also give us hope to make these changes. I’ve been taught that a sermon is always supposed to end with a challenge to the congregation, a way in which the people can make the Word heard that day into flesh in their daily lives. Sermons which end on a falsely optimistic note that everything is right with the world (that is, they’re inspirational instead of inspiring), or which end without conviction, hope, or a way to apply the Scripture to one of the many and complex problems of contemporary life in our society and world miss out on this valuable function of the sermon in the life of the church.
So, this is what I’m hoping for, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask: I’d like to hear a sermon, not a speech, during worship.