Yesterday, I preached a bad sermon. I quoted and misquoted Mark Twain, King, and Ghandi without attribution. I cruelly mocked my child by telling stories of his misdeeds. I violated the privacy of a parishioner with health issues to highlight my prowess in pastoral care. And I managed to talk far more about myself than I ever did about God.
It was hard work to be that bad.
Fortunately, it was a video exercise I was doing for the Ethics Committee of our Board of Ordained Ministry. I was asked to do an intentionally bad sermon that illustrated some perpetual bugaboos in preaching – plagiarism, inappropriate use of family, and making the sermon entirely self-referential (the sermon title was “It’s not you. It’s me.”). Those tendencies may not be a bar to the presidency (O no, I didn’t), but they can be the marks of lazy preaching.
So what makes for good preaching? Dick Murray, my professor of Christian Education at Perkins School of Theology and a creator of the Disciple Bible Study, used to say that every good sermon, like every good Bible lesson, ought to have a mixture of ‘about-ness’ and ‘so what-ness.’ You need to spend some time exploring what the Bible passage is about and you also need to answer the question, “OK, so what?”
If a sermon spends all its time mining the depths of Scripture, adorned with word study and historical context, and never makes the leap to lived experience, its going to be deadly. Though to be truthful, I wish more preachers erred on this side since a lot of sermons I hear don’t seem to have been cooked sufficiently in the oven of the pastor’s study.
On the other hand, a sermon that sounds like it is simply a variation on “4 Ways to Boost Productivity and Happiness,” (and there are far more of these), usually fails to grapple with what the Bible really has to say about who God is and who we are.
Good preaching is visceral. It gets beneath our surface concerns and the superficial fidgeting we do in response to the latest headlines. It strives for encounter with the God who is revealed in Scripture and in our dreams, in those unguarded places where our vulnerable self casts about for a firm foundation. It strips the veneer off of our lives and says, to quote Will Willimon, that most of us don’t have needs worth having. Something bigger is at stake.
The writer Annie Dillard is relentless in pointing to this dynamic. In her deep observations about nature she refuses to paper over the raw beauty and terror of encounter. She sees angels in barren fields and transcendence in a shriveled up frog carcass. In ‘A Writer in the World,” Dillard says:
“We still and always want waking. We should amass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at one another, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”
Good preaching should have a little gourd-shaking. That’s what I say. It should find, in our holy text, not only an opportunity for intellectual exploration, but the sublime experience of awe in the face of the living God. When we are ‘woke’ (O no, I didn’t), we are trembling on the edge, drawn out from our quiet desperation, and open to transformations – glorious and painful.
“Good preaching should have a little gourd-shaking. That’s what I say.”
A good preacher has to go there herself. He has to find an authenticity and honesty to offer himself to the task of being vulnerable before the text. And if that preacher is thus alive, petty, heartwarming stories or overworn quotes will not be a temptation.
Come to think of it, it’s hard work to preach a good sermon, too.