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Can Words Express Our Wonder? Preaching in the Church Today – Rosalind Brown

September 29, 2018

She emphasises the spiritual formation of preachers by the Bible, by life experience and by the Christian tradition and the development of wonder and discusses the many resources available for this before going on to examine the significance of the liturgical and pastoral contexts in which preaching takes place.

An overview of past approaches to preaching includes an examination of various strands in the transformation of preaching over the last forty years and consideration of theologies of preaching. From these wide resources, various methodologies are explored culminating in a worked example of the practicalities of preparing and giving a sermon, from first engagement with the Scripture readings to voice control.

The claim that “the Reformation shifted the context of preaching from adversarial scholastic assemblies to lively gatherings of ordinary people” does raise some questions.

What of the mendicant preaching of pre-Reformation friars in whose wake the Lollards came? What of the homiletic content of the Mystery plays that made a deep impression on the ordinary people who watched and took part in them? Does not some con­temp­orary homiletic use of the imagina­tion and our equivalent of the magic-lantern show have roots in this rich history? Nor ought a complete history to overlook the impact of the Counter-Reformation preaching of new orders such as the Jesuits, Oratorians, and Vincentians.

Brown quotes approvingly some words from the great 19th-century American preacher Bishop Phillips Brooks on Saturday-night sermon-writing: “That . . . I count as the crowning disgrace of a man’s min­istry.” The hard-pressed parish priest reading this will be tempted to dis­miss much that follows in Brown’s survey as out of touch with the reality of parish life.

This might be a harsh judgement, and a person making it would miss out on some useful tips. But I did wonder how realistic some of Brown’s aspirations were. “Three weeks in advance — preparatory work”; “Ten days in advance — begin­ning to explore the text” — these would be a real challenge for the person with seven parishes who is preaching every Sunday to a different congregation.

She cross-references to Durham Cathedral’s website but its ‘search’ the sermon archive doesn’t go far enough back  – you can fund the sermons footnoted if you d as google search, though.


Preaching affects all our life, it is not just writing the text of a sermon. In the ordination service the Church of England states that priests — to whom most of the preaching responsibility falls — are ‘to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watch­: men and stewards of the Lord.’1 These biblical roles yield rich imagery for the preacher. Watchmen were charged with atten­tive observation on behalf of others in order to ensure their well-being. They inhabited two places — their vantage point for the behind-the-scenes work of studying, observing, interpreting what they saw; and the city itself, where they explained what they had seen so that people could respond, essentially helping them to catch the same vision. Likewise, preachers inhabit two places, our studies and the world, and have the same respon­sibilities. Messengers were responsible for getting the message straight and speaking it plainly,2 but no attention was needed for crafting the presentation of the message or taking account of the needs of hearers. A more fruitful biblical image for preachers is that of a steward who is responsible to his or her master for the management of what has been entrusted by the owner. This brings a duty of personal integrity and reliability, as well as care, entrepreneurship, management and appropri­ate use of what is entrusted in line with the owner’s purposes. The steward normally has considerable delegated power, but remains accountable to the master; similarly with preachers.

We may preach only to those who gather in church, but they will take the gospel into the rest of the world.

Put simply, rhetoric says a preacher should aim to attract (appeal to the mind), convert or turn (appeal to the will) and move or delight (appeal to the emotions) the hearers. This involves, more than the words we say, the way we say them

Cicero systema­tized Aristotle’s ideas into five principles: essentially a speaker discovers what should be said (invention), arranges the speech in a particular order based on purposeful intention (arrange­ment), clothes the thoughts with language (style), secures the speech (memory) and delivers the speech effectively.

Thomas Waleys, of the Univer­sity of Oxford, to give practical advise to fourteenth-century preachers not to weary hearers by prolixity but to stop before they become restive.’

The text from Scripture is supposed to be the preacher’s theme, it is in fact merely the peg on which he hangs an academic exercise.’

George Herbert thought Donne ‘crumbled the text’ and treated it as a dictionary. He preferred to take longer portions of Scripture in sermons (of no longer than an hour — a limit enforced in the 1630s, along with a ban on controver­sial topics

It should not tell all the preacher knew but what the people could receive

He (Sangster) noted the dangers of abdicating the choice of themes to the caprice of public taste rather than the Holy Spirit and of merely making moral com­ment on contemporary events so that the pulpit ceased to be the throne of the word of God. The preacher should make topi­cal references in order to be relevant but should not be driven by what was in the press.”

Like all his predecessors, he followed the traditional rhetorical approach to preaching and identified five main forms of the sermon: exposition, argument, faceting, categorizing, analogy, saying that preachers should vary their approach to keep congregations on their toes. He warned against undue complexity or forcing sermon divisions to be alliterative — I remember one preacher who had clearly never read that advice and regularly had six or seven alliterative subdivisions!

However, preaching is an oral form of communication and in the 197os the Church began to recover that foundation.

The essential transformation was from deductive preaching to inductive preaching, the term ‘inductive’ being used, as in scientific enquiry, to describe the movement from particular experience to general conclusion, in contrast to the deductive move from the general to the specific. The sermon becomes not a tightly structured thesis presented to a passive congregation, but a shared journey led by the preacher with the congregation participants who develop their own insights as the progresses. Theologically the locus of authority shifts the preacher to the whole church, as preacher and congregation ­interact together with the biblical text. To avoid the text g secondary to the experience of the hearers, leading to ‘dualism in interpretation, the preacher has a responsibil­ity to inhabit and interpret the larger theological tradition for with the congregation.

The brief temptation to re-create in the pulpit his own process of discovering is warded off by the clear recollection of seminary warnings that the minister does not take his desk into the pulpit.

Craddock’s answer is to turn the traditional approach on its head and, instead of announcing his conclusion first and then proving it, he takes his hearers on a journey towards a previously unrevealed conclusion. The sermon becomes an event, a voyage of discovery or pilgrimage, where preacher and congregation explore together and the preacher is the catalyst for everyone’s participation. The sermon the preacher has on paper is not the last word that people will take away because the congregation’s responsibility is to work at listening to and engaging with the sermon, bringing their own thoughts and interpretations to what is said. It becomes liturgy, the work of the people, in the truest sense of the word.

in Jesus’ hands, parables don’t have a point; they are a point

Lowry dislikes choosing a theme for the sermon, arguing that most preachers promptly lapse into deductive mode, whereas having an aim keeps atten­tion on the question rather than the answer.

I once asked an artist how long it took to do a particular e of work and the answer was ‘a lifetime’. It is the same with preaching: every sermon is the product of a lifetime.

There are few vocations in which the character and inner life of the persons are as important as they are in the min­istry. To preach well Sunday after Sunday preachers must be in touch with the deepest resources of their beings. Their spirits must be whole and alert, sensitive to inner feelings and to the needs of others. They must be relaxed enough to draw upon all their wit and knowledge, yet excited enough to leap beyond the given sum total of their powers and pro­duce sermons that are obviously ‘given by God’. There is no profession in which performance depends so much upon the accumulation of insight and information. Good preaching is a matter of overflow — of having one’s mood and spirit so primed with reading and experience that they simply rise up in weekly rhythm to produce a Nilotic blessing of the environment.’

It is almost time to leave. It’s been a successful trip: you combined business as a treasury official with pleasure. Now there’s just time for a quick dash to buy last-minute souvenirs and something to read on the way home. Better still, a local religious best-seller which can remind you of the visit. Then it’s time to take your seat so the long journey can start.

Once you have watched the city disappear into the dis­tance, it is time to settle down and read. There is nothing to watch in the way of scenery so you can give your undivided attention to reading. Good thing you thought to get a book.

But there’s a problem. Not with the travel arrangements: no one can complain about personal transport provided by your royal employer. The problem is with the book you grabbed off the shelves. It’s a local classic — a few hundred years old to be sure, but everyone still talks about it and it made some sense when you heard it read in their place of worship. But now . . . It’s tough to admit that you, who can do all the financial wheeler-dealing necessary to keep the queen happy and have never been defeated by the logic necessary to keep the books of a whole country straight, can’t make sense of what this poet is on about. Not only is there no one to ask about it, but there won’t be for a long time because all the people who know about it are back in the city, and you are going in the opposite direction through the middle of nowhere. And worse still, you haven’t got any­thing else to read: for the next few days it’s this or nothing. Nothing but boredom . . .

There are moments in the Bible stories that I wish were explained in more detail. I would love to know just how

Phillip knew that he had to get up and take a quick trip down the desert road to Gaza. It was not exactly an everyday sort of thing to do, like nipping out to the shops or to fill up the car: the sort of thing you can do and nobody takes any notice. This involved a deliberate journey into the wilder­ness for no apparent purpose. What would he say to people he met on the way? ‘Where are you off to Philip?”0, just a quick trip to the wilderness. City life is getting a bit crowded these days. Suddenly felt like seeing if there was anyone there or if any trees had grown since last time I was there.’ Are you mad . . .?’

How could he be sure that this was not some wild figment of his imagination? Did he know why he was going? — the Bible suggests he did not. What was the chance of meeting anyone to travel with? — pretty low, and you didn’t just enter the wilderness alone.

We don’t know the answers to these questions, but we can be certain that Philip must have pinched himself to see if this was for real. Was he really just getting up and setting off, leaving his four daughters without explanation except that God had called him. Who was Philip, anyway? Someone given to wild ideas and crazy action? No, anything but: the early Christians chose him to serve widows at the daily dis­tribution of food. So he was reliable and good with people, not given to flights of independent fancy. He was of good standing in the community, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, full of faith and the Holy Spirit. He was the last person we would expect to do anything impetuous or to let the widows down by taking off at short notice into the desert. He would not be one to listen to voices in his head, but would apply his God-given wisdom and act accordingly. But, when God called, this steady, reliable pillar of the local church went off to the wilderness road not knowing why, only convinced that God would make it clear sooner or later.

But, think about it: was it so out of character for someone who was full of faith and who could trust that God was not leading him down the garden path. There must be a reason for this odd command to set out on the wilderness road, and he could trust God to make it clear.

And we know the reason. There was an Ethiopian gov­ernment official who had just set out on the road too in his chariot, his time in Jerusalem over. He had been worship­ping God and was studying a scroll of the Scriptures on the way home. He needed to have this explained, and Philip was the one to do it. With hindsight, and kriowing the end of the story, we can see that this all makes perfect sense — but we don’t live our lives with the benefit of hindsight. For us, as for Philip, the challenge is what do we do in the middle of daily life when there is no hindsight to affirm our action and it seems we are being called to do something either unusual or too demanding. Where, then, is our faith in God? How can we be sure we are hearing God correctly, and not our own ideas?

The wide adoption of the lectionary facilitates a different pattern of engagement with Scripture.” Congregations hear two or three readings, including a course reading of a Gospel, giving scope for more holistic understanding of the Bible as it is in dialogue with itself. A clever observation reminds us of the challenge this may present the preacher, ‘The law of Moses and the Book of Proverbs say that if we are good workers, help the poor, and keep away from strange women, God will bless us and prosper us. Job and the Psalms say, we are, and we did, and we have, and he hasn’t!’

This interaction with all the read­ings and with the contemporary life of the congregation and world makes for exciting sermon preparation since never again will these particular elements combine in this way — next time the readings are set, daily life will be different and a different sermon will emerge.

If we become experienced in beginning from Scripture in this way, we will find that when a crisis occurs which we cannot ignore when preaching (9/I 1) and the death of the Princess of Wales being two examples), we do not have to look for other Scriptures but know how to begin from the lectionary read­ings and let them shape a sermon which remains rooted in the stability of the weekly liturgy and keeps the focus on God while doing justice to the crisis. That stability is, in itself, a pastoral support in a time of disorientation.

The prayers of intercession should sit comfortably with the rest of the service including the sermon, since they are part of the congre­gation’s response to the worship thus far, which includes the sermon. Liaison between preacher and intercessor is therefore advisable before­hand unless the intercessor is very adept at reshaping prepared prayers in the light of the preaching.

The psalm begins with Israel weeping in Babylon, a foreign land, and ends with a desire that Babylon be forced to weep in a foreign land (a rocky environment, in contrast to Babylon’s flat riverbanks); remembering or forgetting begins each of the NRSV’s strophes, and each ends with a pleasant emotion (mirth, joy, happiness), although the first and last are ironic.

Geographically, Babylon was totally unlike Judah.

Jerusalem surrounded by rocky mountains, depended on wells and tunnels for water.

Babylon on the flat, low-lying sand of the Euphrates river plain, subject to flooding with rivers and irriga­tion canals everywhere.

Psalm 137 in this context

Too vivid for post-exilic writing so probably written in Babylon, perhaps when the Persian conquest was anticipated (accounts for vv. 8-9: hope of Babylon’s punishment)?

In the Psalter it follows two psalms celebrating the gift of the land to the people of Israel and God’s defeat of the nations. The contrast through this juxtaposition is stark and inescapable.

Who are ‘we’?

Given the generally humane treatment of the exiles as a whole in Babylon, the torment of v. 3 suggests a specific situation, perhaps temple musicians forced to play in the Babylonian court.

This is more than playing Strauss waltzes at the entrance to Auschwitz, it is intentional humiliation (NB: Nazis forced Jews to burn their Talmud scrolls in public and to dance and sing, ‘We rejoice that the shit is burning’).”

Demand that they sing to entertain a pagan public was experienced as torment: too private and personal for such exposure. Secular music, maybe; the songs of Zion, never.

Temple singers had carried their harps from Jerusalem: had hoped to sing the Lord’s song (NB Etty Hillesum, ‘We entered the camp (Auschwitz) singing’).

But now they have hung up their harps — expression of fidel­ity to Jerusalem or devastating loss of hope? People set aside in Jerusalem to lead others in worship, to keep the memory of the temple songs alive, can no longer bring themselves to do it. Others will suffer — it takes the joyful remembrance of Jerusalem out of collective memory. A weighty load to bear — to be so paralysed by grief that others are denied their heritage of song. (NB when preaching to church musi­cians: the responsibility they bear for keeping faithful song alive).

Everything the people saw reminded them that this was not home.

Location in verse I: not just geographic but carries the weight of alienation, homelessness and yearning: ‘We are surrounded by rivers and open, flat lands; yet our home is in the enclosed, rugged mountains.’

A psalm from exile, exile that hurts in every way. Waters of Babylon reinforce the thirst of the soul and its refusal to be comforted, in contrast to the still waters of Psalm 2.3.2 where the Lord leads and restores the soul.

Remembering Zion (v. 1) is painful, but amnesia is not an option for these exiles.

Psalm 79 and Lamentations spell out the horror of what has happened to Zion.

Sitting — the posture of mourning (Job 2.8, i3 ).

Silence, except for weeping, is the sound of the first two verses. Rhythmic repetition of ‘there we’ (v. 1) echoes the rocking motion of grief.

Addresses Jerusalem directly, a feature of some songs of Zion (Psalms 87.3; 122.2, 6-9) — is this a new song of Zion from exile, an attempt to answer their own question?

To let the right hand wither (v. 5) was devastating for a musician who played a musical instrument.

Invoked ritual impurity: according to cultic laws being cod­ified at the time, a blemished body prevented priests from leading worship (Leviticus 21.18, zi).

Not uncommon for victorious armies to kill children, espe­cially boys; with babies and young children this was often by dashing them against rocks ( z Kings-8.rz; Hosea 10.14; 13.16; Nahum 3.10).

Parallel petitions in Psalms 69.24; 83.10; 109.9-1 o and 140.10 plead with God for devastating horrors to befall the enemy — treated as dung for the ground, orphaned and widowed, children forced to beg, driven out of the ruins of their homes, to have burning coals flung on them.

Not noble sentiments or ones we easily admit to (maybe we need memories of Jerusalem burning to understand?) — What is the ethical response in the face of such horror already done?

In the previous psalm, killing of the firstborn was cited as an example of the steadfast love of God (Psalm 136.10).

Dashing children on the rock is born of passion and faith that God will somehow bring an end to this terrible situa­tion: hope is not yet dead and ‘It is an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously’ (Brueggemann).

One style that is best avoided at all costs is the first-person dramatic monologue. Many a Good Friday has been ruined by amateur attempts to get under the skin of people at the cruci­fixion. However hard we try, we cannot convey what people were thinking or feeling at the time: the Bible doesn’t tell us, speculation inevitably sounds hollow and the dramatized result lacks authenticity. If we avoid the first person we can keep some distance between us (the preacher) and the biblical character, thus opening up a broader canvas to explore. Dramatic monologue is best in the third person because this distance allows the congregation to imagine the person and allows what authors call ‘the omnipotent voice’ to provide insights beyond those of people in using the second person we can address the person in the story, perhaps asking them questions.

Every organisation has its funny stories which it retells over the years, and I suspect we heard one from the early church today. I hope Rhoda had a good sense of humour because I expect she got fed up hearing, “do you remember when Peter got out of prison but was left hammering on the door because Rhoda forgot to open it?” I can also imagine Charlie Chaplin acting this entire episode in one of his silent films – sleeping in prison between the soldiers, being tapped on the side by an angel (what an evocative phrase that I, it is not the usual form of greeting from an angel in the bible), waking up and fumbling to get his clothes on, looking behind him to see the soldiers still sleeping, being abandoned in the street, knocking on the door of the house and being unable to get the church to open it. It was easier for Peter to escape from prison than to get into church. There is something gloriously humorous about the whole thing.

But there is also something very serious

Twice in today’s readings things happen suddenly to Jesus: suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in; suddenly a woman came up behind him. Matthew doesn’t use “suddenly” very often in his gospel, it’s more a word you’d expect to find in Mark and where Matthew does use it, it is in the context of heaven and earth colliding in some way – angels have a habit of suddenly appearing: to the wise men after they had been to see the infant Jesus, to Jesus in the wilderness after his temptations; or God acts suddenly and decisively: at the transfiguration, in an earthquake when the women went to the tomb and soon after when Jesus suddenly appeared to them; or demons react suddenly in the events just before today’s gospel reading when Jesus heals two demoniacs. The two occurrences of the word “suddenly” in the stories we heard today are unusual because, on the face of it, there is nothing untoward about the events, Jesus is doing one thing – talking to John’s disciples or walking with people – when someone else appears. That happens often enough in everyday life, so why does Matthew use the word “suddenly” to describe the encounters?

Hold that question for a while.

A few weeks ago, I represented this Cathedral at the funeral of the Bishop Kevin Dunn, Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle at St Mary’s Cathedral in Newcastle. Bishop Kevin died at the age of 57, having been bishop for only a few years; it was a poignant and moving occasion. But I was particularly struck by the conclusion to the sermon preached by Archbishop Vincent Nicholls of Birmingham, the diocese from which Bishop Kevin had come to Newcastle. The Gospel at the funeral Mass was the account of the raising of Lazarus from St John’s Gospel. Archbishop Nicholls talked of having visited Kevin Dunn and seeing all the tubes, lines and appliances that were sustaining him up to the end of his life. So the conclusion to the Gospel reading had special poignancy, ‘Unbind him, and let him go free’.

‘Unbind him and let him go free.’ For to all of us who share an Easter faith, death is not the disaster that it seems to be to so many people in our generation. It is not hopeless. And hopeless death is growing in our society.

My favourite moment in the film, The Life of Brian, is where Brian is trying to get rid of the crowd and so he tells them that they are all individuals. ‘Yes’, they chorus back, ‘we are all individuals.’ ‘You are all different’ Brian calls back.  ‘Yes, we are all different,’ they reply.

Unlike the members of this crowd, Thomas was an individual, Thomas was different. He was not in the upper room on the first occasion. We do not know why but it made him a bit different, the odd one out. And earlier in the gospel after the raising of Lazarus it was Thomas who said, ‘let us go with Jesus so that we might die with him’.  He was unique in saying this.  As I heard someone once say when he stumbled across this line for the first time:  ‘it tells you a different story about Thomas’. Indeed it does.

Thomas the individual, then.  But that’s an odd thing to say because John tells us that Thomas is a twin.

Sometimes we hear of children who simply refuse to speak and it takes the skill of counsellors and psychiatrists to get them talking again. Those services were not available to the singers we heard about in the psalm who, when things got too much to bear, simply stopped singing. They hung up their harps and wanted their tongues to stick to the roofs of their mouths because there was no way they could go on singing when their captors taunted and mocked them, demanding to be entertained by songs about their holy God. They could not cope with what was happening so chose silence for their safety net. We, who have no idea of what trauma they faced, can’t blame them.

These were the people who had sung in the temple, lead­ing people in worship. The faith of others would suffer as a result of their actions because they carried the tradition and passed it on to the next generations. What would we do if our choir suddenly said that they can no longer sing, not because they don’t want to but because it is just too painful to be mocked as they sing words of faith? Centuries of tradi­tion would die.

What can we do when we feel we have no alternative but to give up, when tradition is extinguished in an instant.

Like Mozart, Mark laid down his pen to the sombre tones of his own `Lacrimosa’. But this is not any lack of faith on his part. For the Easter story is always unfinished, always open-ended; resurrection is the beginning not the end, the dawn of a new day whose course is beyond our imagin­ing, though not our hoping. Our lives now are suspended between grave and Galilee, between tearful farewells and joyous reunions, between the emptiness of death and the fullness of life and peace. We come here afraid yet hopeful, discomfited yet believing. ‘He goes before you: there you will see him.’ The `Lacrimosa’, in the key of D minor, ends on a major chord – Mozart’s last. Out of the agonized depths of `Lacrimosa’ comes the text of peace: ‘Sweet Lord Jesus, grant them rest. Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem’. It isn’t yet the happy ending where death is swallowed up in victory. But it foreshadows it. And because of it, we pray for all whom we remember tonight, and know that we are heard.

If we look at our congregations, each week there are people — often looking fine on the outside ­who face unemployment, the loss of life savings, divorce, drug addiction in their- families, domestic violence from someone they trusted, failed exams. These are all foreign countries into which they are exiled, and their presence in church is a tacit plea that we help them to sing the Lord’s song in this particular unknown territory.

Our task is to help them find the first note, to catch the melody, to remember the words. We cannot sing their song for them but we can hum enough for them to join in and then to create their own melodies, harmonies and descants; to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.

Quotations in sermons need care. We are preaching with our own authority and should have the courage of our convictions, but a quotation may say things better. However, it will not be in our speech pattern and therefore will jar, so, if the quotation can’t be rephrased in our own words, keep it very short (even two sentences may be too much) and use it early on in the sermon. Only attribute a quotation when speaking if the per­son is very well known, otherwise say ‘someone has said . . .’, because citing an unknown name will sound like a footnote in an academic book. There is, though, a fine line between that and plagiarism, so if the sermon appears in written form (on the web, for example), add a footnote citing the source. The same applies if we lift content from someone else’s sermon on the web.

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