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Reflections on the Craft of Preaching
By Paul Scott Wilson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2004 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Sermons in Four Pages
In a dramatic rendering of the Last Supper by German artist Sieger Köder, the viewer looks upon an intimate gathering of disciples around a table covered with white linen. The painting is a puzzle. In the immediate foreground, where one might expect to see the back of one of those gathered, is an overlarge chalice filled with wine. To the right of the chalice is whom at first glance seems to be Jesus—a man in red who is praying over bread; yet one counts only eleven people at table. In the background shadows a barely distinguishable Judas is leaving the room, and on the table littered with broken pieces of bread the shadow looms of the cross. Since the man in red makes a total of twelve not thirteen, he must be Peter. Where is Jesus? Examination reveals one pair of hands on each side of the chalice: These seem to be the hands of the two disciples seated left and right of the chalice. The hands do not correspond, however: the pair to the right of the chalice is two right hands holding the bread and the pair to the left of the chalice has the right and left hands reversed. In other words, we see only one hand of each disciple; the other two hands belong to a third person cupping the chalice. One of these hands bears the mark of a nail, thus we are viewing the scene from Jesus' perspective. We stand where he is. Moreover, as we gaze down into the chalice we glimpse a reflection in the wine and we cannot be sure whether the reflection is our own, or Christ's, or both.
The painting inadvertently makes a profound statement about biblical preaching: As much as the Bible is a historical witness, it is also about us, and we are meant to find our own reflection there. Preaching is at its best when it allows this interaction to happen. In classical understanding the Bible is liber et speculum, both a book and a mirror. The artist also captures a biblical truth about communion: He is "made known ... in the breaking of the bread" (Luke 24:35), and we too may find him as we administer the elements to one another. His face and our faces are reflected in the wine, just as his life and our lives are both reflected in the church. Further, we find Christ in the breaking of the bread because we have first found him in the breaking of the Word, as was the experience of the disciples on the road leading to the meal at Emmaus.
This book is written to help preachers be more creative and artistic, in order that the gospel of Jesus Christ may be better heard. Sixteen sermons are presented here and introduced by companion essays that focus on particular creative and innovative homiletical practices that the sermons demonstrate. The essays are not commentaries on the sermons, they are more like reflections in a homiletical classroom or workshop. For example, when I was a student in seminary I was struck at how much better Jesus seemed to be at using contemporary rural imagery in his sermons than we are at using images from our surrounding culture, which is highly mechanized and postmodern. Some attempt in this direction is necessary if we are to address contemporary people effectively, and the sermons here in part represent my own ongoing attempts to discover what is creatively possible.
Putting these two words—creative and gospel-—together may seem contradictory. To a large degree the gospel is fixed, and creativity on the part of the preacher always carries the danger of obscuring the good news. Many preachers understand that the gospel is a truth plainly laid out in the Scriptures—a truth that needs to be proclaimed in simplicity to each successive generation. It does not need to be made more attractive, entertaining, or relevant, for the Holy Spirit enlivens the preached word and makes it gospel, disclosing its saving relevance with transformative power in the lives of individual hearers.
Still, the preacher is not a reader who just mouths the biblical words over and over in the hope that explanation will not be needed. Preachers are explainers and proclaimers. They carefully choose words to add to the biblical text in order to preach, words that situate the text in its historical, cultural, and religious setting. Preachers make thoughtful choices concerning how the text relates to theological tradition, contemporary circumstance, and pastoral need. Creativity in preaching means making the best possible choices for the sake of the gospel. Preaching and cre-ativity belong together, and preaching is only authentically creative when illumined by the Spirit.
Knowing available choices is part of the delight of preaching. Since the Enlightenment enormous scholarly endeavor has been devoted to answering one question: What can be said with truth about biblical texts? The exegetical process now includes various literary and historical-critical perspectives that help preachers know what a biblical text does and does not say. Hermeneutical options allow the text to be read from various contemporary perspectives. Rhetorical options help preachers do something akin to what texts did in their original settings. Homiletical options open a wide variety of sermon forms and subforms as well as methods to accomplish specific sermon goals like developing the biblical text in lifelike ways, discerning a theme, determining a theme sentence, devising moves, using narrative, employing propositions, bridging then and now, developing effective analogies to the text, transitioning from one focus to another, treating doctrine as real life, ensuring sermon unity, addressing the senses, and using oral rather than written language.
An artistic preacher can be faithful in all of the above choices and still produce a weak or ineffective sermon, for there is nothing in the above choices that necessarily mandates that sermons arise from and address the faith of the church. A sermon from the Bible does not automatically address faith. In a book entitled The Four Pages of the Sermon (Abingdon Press, 1999), I argue the need for a basic theological grammar in biblical preaching. Such a grammar encourages theological focus for the sermon and a theological structure that enables the gospel to be heard.
As an example of this grammar, preachers primarily have two choices with regard to theological significance: place the burden upon humanity to act, which constitutes trouble, or place the burden upon God to save in the sense of proclaiming God's grace. Trouble has to do with human sin and God's condemnation. Grace has to do with God supplying what we lack. While from a theological perspective the word that condemns may well be the word that frees, rarely from a homiletical perspective can a sermon accomplish trouble and grace in the same moment because each must be experienced. Each element of death and resurrection, or condemnation and salvation, or loneliness and community, or homeless-ness and homecoming needs its own moment. Other things of value may be said in a sermon concerning history, geography, social and economic analysis, and so forth, but for any of them to perform theologically, they need to be put in the harness of trouble or grace. However, both are necessary: trouble on its own is not gospel, and grace that does not overcome sin, oppression, and death means nothing.
Trouble and grace do not cancel each other as in the two sides of a weigh scale commonly used to depict justice. Rather they are like two wires of a hand-cranked telephone generator, positive and negative, between which a spark jumps when they are brought close together without touching. A tension or charged atmosphere exists between them. In the spark between trouble and grace is the dialogue between "I am a sinner" and "I am saved," or between "We are lost" and "We are found." In this tension faith is possible as we "work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). According to this grammar, grace and glory have the final and stronger say, for the simple reason that the resurrection, ascension, and glory offer the eschatological promise of the faith.
Another principle of this grammar is that sermons look either in the direction of the Bible or to our own situation; when a sermon is not rendering Scripture, it is appropriately rendering our lives before Scripture. When this principle is combined with trouble and grace, four structural possibilities emerge for sermons: trouble in the biblical text, trouble in our world, grace in the biblical text, or grace in our world. It is possible for sermons to be theologically neutral: they may speak of matters of the church and faith—they may deal with a theological doctrine of the church—yet do so in ways that either fail to place a burden on the people to change, or fail to communicate God's grace to those who are gathered. If it is helpful to make a general distinction, such teaching may be considered as normative for systematic or constructive theology and non-normative for proclamation. Preaching that is primarily instruction is acceptable in any sermon and is an important option in a preacher's overall repertoire; it simply falls somewhat short of a norm for proclamation of the gospel, especially given that teaching can take a dominant role in and through trouble and grace.
Preaching has a performative dimension to its language beyond the sense implied by J. L. Austin when he spoke of "a performative sentence or a performative utterance.... The term 'performative' ... indicates that the issuing of utterance is the performance of an action." Commanding a door to be shut is performative. Ideally in preaching, language is performative in the sense that God is performing an action through it, disrupting the status quo and ushering in a new era marked by God's salvation promise. Preaching that is theologically neutral reports information but makes no attempt to establish a relationship with the living God; it makes no divine command for change (trouble), nor does it celebrate what God enables through Jesus Christ (grace). Along with theological neutrality, trouble and grace are the only possibilities: These grammatical tools can be used with any sermon to determine theological likelihood of being effective.
Preachers can improve their sermons by many means, yet among the best is this: Be intentional concerning the four theological grammar components. A sermon that is weak in any one of them is more likely to fail. They may be conceived of as four ways to ensure theological focus, four ways to harness creativity, four ways to economize a preacher's preparation time, or four ways to maximize excellence. All of the creativity in the world will not make a sermon strong if it is not doing what it needs to do in relationship to God. True sermon artistry serves the gospel. The most creative preachers may well be those for whom these four grammatical components become automatic, in the same way that knowledge of sentence structure informs our speaking though we may rarely think knowingly about grammar.
For the sake of homiletical imaging and practicality, these four grammatical options can be considered as four pages or quarters of a sermon. They have something of a natural order that (1) honors the movement of revelation from the Bible to our world and (2) echoes the biblical movement from the exodus to the promised land or from the crucifixion to the resurrection. Thus Page 1 is trouble in the biblical text, Page 2 is trouble in our world, Page 3 is grace in the biblical text, and Page 4 is grace in our world. No separate page is designated for material that merely teaches and makes no attempt to convict or liberate. Again, from a strictly homiletical perspective, trouble puts the burden on humanity to act and grace puts the burden on God.
Sermons may proceed in any order. The metaphor of pages nonetheless stands as a way to conceive of theological competence at a grammatical level beneath the surface of the preacher's words and similarly beneath the level of a listener's consciousness. Some sermons repeat pages. Some use only a couple of pages. Some never apply the scripture to today's world. Without preachers even being aware of it, they compose sermons using these so-called pages, yet because this is often by accident, it is often without control, sustained focus, or effectiveness. When sermons function theologically, one of these pages is present.
The most effective presentation of the gospel is generally achieved when all four pages are adequately represented in the sermon for a sustained length of time, which allows the congregation time both to understand and experience what is being said in its theological depth. Each page (however long it might actually be) normally might represent one quarter of the sermon, though this may vary. While a sermon might normally move consecutively from Page 1 to 4, the pages may be placed in any sequential pattern, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
The four pages belong to what I call the trouble-grace school of homiletics. I have claimed elsewhere that this is one of the largest and least commonly recognized schools in contemporary homiletics, and it reaches far beyond its origins in Paul and Augustine into Lutheran, Methodist, and African American preaching. Most recently, homileti-cians with backgrounds that are evangelical, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic have also contributed to the school. It is the only school of contemporary homiletics that seeks its roots in preaching as a theological act: Other schools are primarily, though not exclusively, rooted in form (narrative, point form, exegetical, inductive, deductive, conversational); content (topical, doctrinal, expository, kerygmatic); rhetoric; teaching; or theatre; plus various combinations. The trouble-grace school is not separate from these and may at times employ them all, but it gives priority to theology in conceiving of sermonic purpose, form, content, and effect. When trouble-grace is recognized it is often incorrectly characterized and summarily dismissed as only Lutheran, or else as a problem-solution method. The latter method no doubt exists, but trouble-grace has little in common with an approach that takes the event of salvation and reduces it to a bandage, or that takes an encounter with the living God and reduces it to an answer to a dilemma or a solution to a problem. Answers do come as a result of a relationship with God that exists by grace through faith, but the relationship is primary.
In the chapters that follow, sermons are important instruments to teach about creativity and preaching. My own sermons normally move consecutively from Page 1 to 4, yet I have deliberately chosen sermons, particularly later in the book, that vary that pattern. They help demonstrate that the four pages may be more important as a grammar for preaching than as a model (a subject to which we will return in chapter 14 when we have some sermon examples before us). Each sermon is paired with a short companion essay that highlights creative ideas and practices.
The sermons are grouped in three sections: Old Testament, Gospels and Acts, and Epistles and Revelation. The sermons represent a variety of biblical forms and may be read in any order, yet some effort has been made to develop a progression of thought in the essays with later ones building on earlier ones. The basic theological grammar of each sermon is indicated to assist the reader since the page orders vary. In addition I identify six other elements that I use to contribute to sermon unity: one text, one theme (or what I call the major concern of the text, MCT), one doctrine (a traditional teaching arising out of the theme), one need (a longing in the congregation that this sermon meets), one image (a dominant, unifying metaphor), and one mission (a possible action the sermon invites).
Excerpted from Broken Words by Paul Scott Wilson. Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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