Read an Excerpt
a fresh paradigm for preaching
By Leonard I. Sweet
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Leonard I. Sweet
All rights reserved.
Under the Microscope: Preaching in a Google World
PREACHING IS A SACRIFICIAL ACT. America's greatest choral conductor, Robert Shaw (d. 1999), liked to tell his musicians that every note they sang was a drop of their blood. Singing, he claimed, is shedding blood. The one whom critics call "the greatest live performer of all time," Judy Garland, called it "giving blood."
On April 23, 1961, 3,100 people packed Carnegie Hall to be a part of what is now known as "the greatest concert ever given." Among those present for "Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall" were Carol Channing, Rock Hudson, Spencer Tracy, Hedda Hopper, Henry Fonda, and Julie Andrews. Everyone present adored Garland for her belting voice and moving performances. Everyone knew that each evening on stage Garland would sing until exhausted and depleted. Everyone knew this artist never sang the same song the same way, not even her signature songs "Stormy Weather" or "Over the Rainbow." Everyone knew "Hurricane Judy" believed she owed everything she had to her every audience.
Capitol Records captured the evening's twenty-six songs live, an album that received five Grammy awards. But just before walking out on stage, the superstitious Garland ritually repeated to herself, and anyone else within earshot, an unusual charge. It was not the time-honored "Break a leg." Rather, it was this: "Time to give blood."
Give blood she did. With every song she sang, she offered her fans a fleck of her flesh, an intimate piece of her life. Her authenticity was as transparent and fragile as Cinderella's glass slipper.
In preaching, each speech act must be a baring and bearing of the story of Jesus in what is less a performance art than a participation art. Preaching today takes place without audiences, only with participants and partners. Giving blood is not a matter of donor and recipient but of donor and participant. Of course, participation art can become performance art. When that happens, preaching moves from being a relational discipline and craft and becomes merely a solitary performance.
True participation is not just meeting another Christ follower but is becoming Christ for the other. Self-sacrificial participation vivifies the body with the blood of revelatory story and sacramental embodiment of the living Christ. Giving blood serves as a means of grace for a body in need of continuous transfusions of the Holy Spirit. A movable feast (there are no chairs at the Lord's Table: the posture of faith is not sitting but walking toward, kneeling down, standing up), a sermon that makes the body "so happy" that "I can't sit down," is both artisan bred and Christ bread. Sacrificial and sacred, incarnational and iconic, the sermon is born of death and rises resurrected to whisper "Christ in you" to a community of faith.
Sermons that point to Christ through stories and images make use of "semiotics." Semiotics is best defined as the ability to read and convey "signs," where a "sign" (be it an image, gesture, sound, object, or word) is something that stands for something else. Semiotics is about pointers, not points. You can't point to Jesus if you're trying to make Jesus fit your point. Semiotics is important because it's the language of the human body. When asleep, and your body needs to tell you it's time for a bio break, how does it communicate that to you? You dream of water. Even in your state of sleep, you "read the signs" and interpret the "sign" of water, wake up, and head for the bathroom.
A semiotic sermon reads the signs of what God is up to in the world, connects those signs in people's lives with the Jesus story, and then communicates the gospel by connecting people in relationship to Jesus through stories, images, and gestures. A semiotic sermon is a search for that holy grail receptacle that conveys Christ's incarnational presence from giver to receiver. And every preacher knows how often that semiotic receptacle can feel just as elusive and unobtainable as the Holy Grail itself.
Before we can offer a sermon that bleeds, we need to prepare our blood in the lab. This book invites you into a homiletics lab where you can experiment with a new paradigm for preaching called "semiotic preaching." The semiotic method connects biblical narratives to indigenous cultural landscapes and their native languages of signs and symbols. Semiotic preaching differs from traditional sermon building in its insistence on seeing the sermon itself as an incarnational medium. Traditional textual exegesis is based on mining the ore of words to excavate the gems of "biblical principles," a biblical panning for nuggets of wisdom in one massive stream of words. Biblical semiotics, by contrast, is a form of spelunking the Scriptures while surfing the Spirit for resonant images and stories by which to live and for which to die in Christ. Semiotic preaching is as much liturgical as it is exegetical. Are words the best conveyers of the divine? Or are experiences, intuitions, emotions, images, and stories more reliable and memorable? For Jesus, parables were the most trustworthy purveyors of truth. Semiotic preaching, really a new form of expository preaching, seeks to reconnect us with the stories, images, relationality, and resonance of the Scriptures as they were told, written, and intended to be received. In semiotic preaching, we return to the roots of our faith and to a method of conveying truth favored by Jesus himself.
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"The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over."
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In the creative space of the "lab," this book serves to heighten and hone the preacher's semiotic skills and then to show how to use those skills to build identity from narrative and metaphor and to cultivate what I like to call an EPIC style—an experiential medium (E) that allows for participatory engagement (P) with biblical images and stories (I) that connect the congregation with what Christ is already doing in their midst (C). In the course of our lab time, I will also introduce you to what I call the transductive or transincarnational method of preaching truth, a missional mode of preaching that acts as a "means of grace," connecting people relationally to Christ on a level that encourages not just passive reception but active incarnation of the heart and spirit of Christ. Transincarnational (transductive) preaching is preaching that mediates the revelatory power of the Holy Spirit; it points to God in the midst of the congregation, in the midst of lives. Semiotic exegesis, EPIC delivery, and a transincarnational theology of relational "knowing" create a kind of preaching that engages and changes lives.
Lifeway Research conducted a study of seven thousand churches under the supervision of Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer. One of the most surprising findings? Passivity reigns. The majority of people in the majority of churches are not engaged in any significant ministry or mission. Chris tians have become passive spectators in worship rather than active participants. By and large, we come to church to "watch the show" rather than to engage and participate. We consume a ser vice rather than serve Jesus in his mission in the world. If we want to engage Christians as participants in worship, sermons fit for the twenty-first century must offer more meat on their bones and blood in their veins than higher criticism's word-based exegesis has allowed for.
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"Do you rest each moment in the Crucified? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?"
—Elisha A. Hoffman
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Why "Giving Blood"? The metaphor of blood is not politically correct, even though we live in a world where some of the great diseases of the day are blood disorders and the most dangerous animals on the planet are bloodsucking insects. Indeed, blood is a fluid that makes us shudder. When was the last time you sang "Washed in the Blood of Jesus" or "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood," or "There Is Power in the Blood" in one of your ser vices? Whenever someone protests my use of blood language, I can't help but think of Heinrich Himmler, the officer in charge of the Nazi death camps, who fainted dead away at the sight of real blood.
Yet to be squeamish about blood is to develop an aversion to our own life source. Even more, blood symbolism is central to the Christian faith. In our banning of the blood, we've lost the theological power that allows us to revel, awestruck, in the salvific mystery of Christ's blood shed on the cross, the remaking and restoration of the "human" in baptism, and the sacramental presence of Christ's body and blood.
Christianity is a revolutionary faith, but it's not a bloodless revolution. The church's century-long experiment in a bloodless Christianity has left the body of Christ plasticized and ossified, a fossil of its former self. A living faith requires a healthy circulation of the blood of God's creating, redeeming, and sustaining covenant for the world. The mystery of life in Christ is both corporeal and corporal. From trough to cross, the blood of the covenant is the life source that ensures our resurrection hope.
The ecclesial organism called "church" is a body with blood coursing through its veins—a dynamic and holistic life force that flows with multiple coordinated interrelationships. What gives the body life is the constant nourishment of the Word of God, the Spirit of life that breathes dynamically through its mind and members, imparted through the blood of Christ.
The church's failure to tell stories in a culture that talks in stories is a story in and of itself. But stories and images are more than just tools and techniques for communicating in today's TGIF (Twitter, Google, Instagram, Facebook) culture. They have become the very essence of communication itself. Stories are the lifeblood of the body, and the blood of Jesus is the Life of all life, the Story of all stories. To be "washed in the blood" is to be bathed in the stories of Jesus' missional beauty, relational truth, and incarnational goodness. If you cut preachers, they bleed the Scriptures, and their bloodletting is healing, a balsam of the body, a balm of the soul.
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"Love is that liquor sweet and most divine, Which my God feels as Blood; but I, as Wine."
—George Herbert (1593–1633), Welsh poet and Anglican priest
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I can think of no better definition of preaching than "giving blood." Of the three traditional ways of making a living—mud, blood, and grease—preaching involves all three: the mud pies of creativity, the blood bank of living in the Word, and the grease pit of hard work and dirty hands. But of the three, giving blood is the defining metaphor. The blood of Christ is the prime bearer of the gospel's message and meaning. Or to adapt for the preacher what Red Smith, the premier sportswriter of the twentieth century, used to say about writing: "[It's easy:] all you do is sit down and open a vein and bleed it out drop by drop."
If blood is the liquid bearer of incarnational life, preachers are homiletic hemophiliacs, hereditary bleeders of the Word. If you've never bled, you have no material for preaching. If when you're finished preaching you're not finished, spent, wiped out—if you haven't "given blood"—you haven't really preached.
George Bernard Shaw was a critic of the church all of his life. Perhaps his most insightful criticism was about preaching: "Some is like coffee, stimulates but does not nourish; some is like wine, has sparkle but no lasting value; some is like seltzer water, a big fuss over nothing; some is like spring water—good but hard to get." I would say preaching is like giving blood, the transfusion of Christ's resurrection power into the body of the Church. Without the giving-blood preaching that brings together body and spirit, the body is only "dem dry bones."
Preaching is both discipline and craft. Semiotic preaching seeks to revive the art and craft of the potter. Creativity and practice must play together in the mud, sometimes for many hours, before an image or metaphor (or the combined form of image and story that I will define later in the book as a "narraphor") emerges from the clay to reveal the incarnational Word of Christ. In the craft of pottery making, often colored dyes, sands, or stains are added to the clay. When the pottery is baked or glazed, the colors will "bleed" or ooze out of the clay to form beautiful and unique designs. Each pot becomes a unique piece. The better the bleeding, the more dynamic the experience of the pottery medium. In similar fashion, a semiotic sermon does more than hold water: it bleeds Jesus.
Yet pottery is not designed merely to sit on a shelf or to be admired from afar. A Jesus vessel is an everyday, down-to-earth, meant-to-be-used-by-all kind of vessel—for nourishment as well as for beauty. Each clay piece baked in the lab is only as powerful as the participants who hold it in their hands, feel its character, recognize its defects, celebrate its color, mete out its message.
Artists say that art delivers an experience in multiple dimensions to its receiver in a way that no mere words can do. The semiotic sermon, as potter's clay, hands over the body and blood of Christ for others to partake of. Preaching is an imaginative and participatory medium—only powerful when dynamically and tactually experienced. A gifted pianist doesn't practice hours per day only to play music for herself. She presents the fruit of her prodigy as a gift to her listeners. Hours and hours of preparation and play yield a brilliant, revelatory, uplifting experience that touches the soul. Semiotic preaching must also be EPIC preaching—each sermon an experience of God that is image rich, participatory, and connectional. Each moment, a life-giving, Christ-infusing beat of the heart of God in the body that is the church.
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"We are standing on the brink of a mind makeover more cataclysmic than anything in our history."
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Preaching today takes place while driving the sharp bends of history. It is an exhilarating experience but not one for status-quo steering or faint-of-heart turning. Anyone who isn't confused doesn't understand what's going on. Social media has replaced print as the dominant communication choice. The nature of the presumed contract between preacher and people has changed. Even at concerts, people expect participation, not mere performance. Metallica starts out its concerts with a mantra: "There are four of us up here. The fifth member of Metallica is out there. You know that." Television shows revolve around "real-life" nonprofessionals and invite audience interaction.
Cultural critic Seth Godin says that the average person is exposed to three thousand ad messages a day. Each of these ads is a sermon in disguise. Messages bombard us in more channels and frequencies than Girl Scouts have cookies. White noise emits everywhere. In such a noisy world, preachers need to preach a sermon that can talk, walk, shake hands, and invite someone to dance.
Semiotic preachers in our current culture need EPIC blood to surge in their veins, not printer's ink. While traditional preaching still echoes a "smash the icons" Gutenberg mentality that privileges words, points, and principles over images and stories, images are the bread and butter of semiotic preaching. Part of creating an EPIC sermon is dynamically and relationally to introduce metaphors, images, and stories (narraphors) that "make the familiar strange," that catapult the participant into a realm of the unexpected, unusual, and mysterious. A great metaphor takes a familiar image and gives it a twist in order to introduce an unfamiliar vision. Great metaphors or narraphors (extended metaphors) made EPIC take a semiotic sermon and make it accessible and powerful.
Excerpted from Giving Blood by Leonard I. Sweet. Copyright © 2014 Leonard I. Sweet. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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