(As published by ProgressiveChristianity.org on September 24, 2014)
Preaching is a holistic enterprise. When I was recently installed as the pastor of a United Church of Christ Congregation on Cape Cod, the words of the liturgy proclaimed that I was to be Pastor and Teacher for South Congregational Church in Centerville, Massachusetts. I was to celebrate the rituals and sacraments of the church, pray, visit the sick, reach out to the community, inspire mission to the larger community, seek justice, and provide counsel and spiritual direction; I was also called to preach and teach. I do both as pastor. I preached forty eight Sundays in my first year, and I teach adult faith formation classes each week, focusing of themes in scripture, theology, and spiritual formation. I believe that in both seminary and church, the question “does it preach?” applies both to teaching and preaching. Although I will focus today on the practice of preaching, preaching is an endeavor that teaches, edifies, and inspires. A good preacher is a rabbi as well as healer, motivator, and encourager.
Preaching is typically for most senior or solo pastors and their congregants the most sustained intellectual and spiritual activity in the course of a week and over a year’s time. Active congregants hear over twelve hours of preaching each year, and pastors typically write over 200 pages of text each year, easily a small book! Preachers are intellectually and spiritually formed by their weekly encounters with scripture and commentaries on the lectionary texts. Each sermon is a process of creative synthesis inviting the preacher to be an artist of the spirit and voice for the holy in her or his congregational setting.
After years of hearing their pastor’s sermons, congregants begin to invoke her or his theological positions and language of faith. A preacher’s message is one of the primary spiritual and theological influences on congregant’s lives. Accordingly, over time, what a preacher affirms and neglects, sometimes intentionally, shapes a congregation’s way of looking at the world. For example, I once served as interim minister of a Maryland rural congregation whose long-term pastor became enamored of the Second Coming of Jesus, regularly suggesting that the time was short in his sermons. In contrast, during my eighteen months as interim I never explicitly mentioned the Second Coming or the end-times in any sermon I preached. Without directly criticizing my predecessor, I emphasized our long term responsibilities to care for one another, to improve the lives of our neighbors, and care for the Earth. I spoke of God’s universal love and care for persons beyond Christianity. Despite my indirection, several conversations with congregants revealed that they noticed the difference and felt an affinity with my more inclusive, open-ended, and creation-affirming theology.
Recently a congregant noted her six year old son’s happiness when I mentioned that the earth was nearly fourteen billion years old in the course of a sermon. He had been watching Neil deGrasse Tysons’ “Cosmos” and was delighted that his pastor was interested in science, too. Even if a preacher’s congregation is populated by seminary professors, he or she is still the theologian of the congregation, and it is important that our sermons reflect this vocation and that our messages have theological gravitas and reveal a insightful understanding of scripture, theology, human experience, and spiritual formation. Whether we speak of the preacher’s preparation and presentation or the congregation’s response, preaching is a whole person activity, addressed to persons in terms of their whole of their lives.
Preaching is, first of all, an act of the heart. In the biblical tradition, the heart is center of experience and decision-making. It embraces the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. It is embodied and incarnational as well as intellectual. Good preaching moves the preacher and congregation alike. The pastor dances with the text through his or her bodily movements as well as lively ideas. The goal of the sermon is not to provide a final destination, but as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead says, to invite congregants to be part of an “adventure of the spirit.”
Preaching at its best presents contrasting, inspiring, and provocative possibilities, and these possibilities shape our cells as well as our souls. Preaching is about phrases such as “I wonder…” or “What if?” or “How would you feel if…God came to you in a dream or the angel Gabriel visited you or you encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus?” Spiritually moved by the sermon and worship service, congregants may come to see the world from new and broader perspectives. They may get up on their feet and find ways to reach out to refugee children, homeless families, and struggling veterans of our nation’s recent wars. They may see the relationship of faith and science more constructively or alter their attitudes toward sexual, ethnic, and religious diversity. This process comes more from the preacher’s invitation and imagination than abstract and unilateral declarations. As the Puritan pastor John Robinson asserted, there is always more light to be shed on the scriptures, and this includes the preacher as well as congregants.
Preaching is an adventure of ideas. It is a holistic intellectual and theological enterprise. Life-changing preaching presents us with a collection of spiritual and theological affirmations to embody in our daily lives. Unlike creeds, frozen in time often employed to test persons’ orthodoxy or promote unquestioned visions of faith, affirmations are fluid and flexible; they are inspirational in nature. Similar to the Eight Points of progressive Christianity, affirmations provide a lens through which to experience reality. They are the “living, open-ended, and dynamic” visions by which we live. Always incomplete and subject to change, they lead us toward the horizons of God’s great frontier. Accordingly, I believe that scripture is a book of spiritual adventures and life-changing affirmations. As I prepare to write a sermon, I look for the affirmations in the lectionary readings. I look for what speaks to me personally and provides a pathway toward healthy and creative spirituality and daily life among the congregants. I often build my sermon around these affirmations, stating them throughout the sermon, and then printing them on the Sunday bulletin as possible spiritual practices for congregants in the week ahead.
Preaching is also an adventure of the spirit, connecting us with the holy in ourselves and in our midst. Spirituality involves a dynamic relationship with a dynamic God. Our prayers and contemplative activities are intended to make contact with the One in whom we live and move and have our being. This One Reality is lively and interdependent; God’s faithfulness is everlasting, and God’s mercies and inspirations are new every morning. The spiritual quest is to experience our resonance with the movements of God in our lives and shape our own creative movements in relationship with God. Preaching invites us to move forward with a dynamic divinity, whose fidelity is found on the journey as well as the resting places. Accordingly, in the course of the sermon or in notes in the bulletin, I typically suggest spiritual practices – meditation, intercessory prayer, prayer with your hands and eyes open – to make the sermon come alive during worship and throughout the week.
The practice and process of preaching shapes preachers as well as congregants. It is soul food; it nourishes, teaches, challenges, and inspires. It guides our steps toward horizons of the spirit and invites us to trust God’s ever-evolving and emerging vision. It challenges congregants to think deeply, claiming their own inner theologian; feel fully the presence of God in this holy here and now; and reach out in grace and care to the world around us, faithful to the way of Jesus and open to new understandings of God’s way in the world and our lives.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, Massachusetts and the author of over thirty books, including Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel; and A Center in the Cyclone: 21st Century Ministerial Self-care. His most recent book is on preaching in the postmodern pluralistic age, A Postmodern Preaching Pilgrimage with Philippians. He can be reached at email@example.com