A few weeks ago, a friend from Arizona wrote and asked me if I’d come up with some do’s and don’ts of preaching for a seminarian. “Something short, off the top of your head,” he urged.
My friend is a wonderful person, but I have never not had multiple opinions on anything. So coming up with a Buzzfeed-worthy listsicle on preaching wasn’t in the cards.
What I tried to do, instead, was to think about what made sermons compelling to me, and what I’ve learned in the short time I’ve been preaching.
Here’s what I came up with.
It is long, so this will be broken up into three posts, over three days.
I have lots of thoughts about preaching, because I have lots of thoughts about pretty much everything. But I’ll do my hardest to contain myself, and put them into some sort of understandable format.
1. The pulpit is powerful.
This isn’t a do or don’t, so much as a rule that undergirds the rest.
When you step up to preach, you assume a lot of authority—whether ordained or not—by virtue of the fact that you are speaking within the liturgy, and as Episcopalians, it would take no less than the return of Jesus Himself for a congregant to stand up and contradict you openly. (And even then, I’m pretty sure the Altar Guild would consider it very bad form.) You have so many minutes to speak to your people about your common life and what God is up to and those people aren’t going anywhere. It’s the very definition of a captive audience (You are quite literally preaching to the choir) and what’s more, the vast majority of that audience will put, at least, some stock in what you’re saying.
It’s both a golden opportunity to say something important and life-affirming, and a huge risk to say something hurtful and alienating if you aren’t careful. So never underestimate the power of the pulpit, for good or for ill.
That being said…
2. Don’t lie from the pulpit.
Don’t EVER lie from the pulpit.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how often I hear people do it, and mostly unintentionally. Things like saying “When Matthew wrote this story…” (anyone who’s taken EFM knows that’s not how it went down), or glossing over textual contradictions. (I about walked out of church once in college when I heard a lay reader declare that this was “a lesson from Deuteronomy, which was written by Moses.” Gah.)
But there’s another layer to this, too—don’t feel the need to ‘prettify’ the Bible. Don’t smooth away the parts of the parables that make no sense, don’t try to pretend that the Johannine Jesus is more comprehensible than he is, don’t ignore the violence and the awful gender politics and the excuses for slavery that runs through the Bible.
Don’t lie by omission.
If you don’t directly address the ugly parts of the Bible, and the parts that don’t make sense, then people are left to either adopt whatever interpretation they hear, or just continue in a vague fog of Biblical misunderstanding left over from the 1930s. Neither one have served us well. You’re the preacher. It’s your job to expound and confront that text. Sometimes your job will be hard, but that doesn’t mean you get to avoid it. If there are no good answers, say that. If it’s a hard story, say that.
The more you can confront and name the discomfort in the safety of the liturgy, the more your people can confront and name the discomfort in the wider world.