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Out of the question: Sermons and texts

by
14 June 2011

Your answers

Perhaps we have all been put off the tradition by that wonderful spoof in Beyond the Fringe by Alan Bennett. He started in the effete accent of the then typical cathedral precentor: “My text for today is, ‘Behold, my brother Esau is an hairy man, and I am a smooth.’” He extracted every ounce of comedy from a meticulous examination of the symbolism of each word. Yet, in my early years as a churchgoer, I and many others sat spellbound as Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones progressed verse by verse, Sun­day by Sunday, at 40 minutes a sermon, through Ephesians.

Sixty years later, the Church and its position in the world are differ­ent. A detailed exposition of a single verse is not appropriate when the context of that verse cannot be as­sumed to be known to the average churchgoer. We can no longer take one verse from a supposedly infal­lible Bible and assume that it, too, must be infallible. Anglican minis­ters are supposed to preach relevant sermons based on a lectionary that includes three Bible readings and probably a psalm.

I try to start a sermon with some lateral thinking about everyday life which develops into the theme of at least one of the readings, and sug­gest an application at the end. At least some of the congregation com­ment favourably.

Christopher Haffner (Reader)
East Molesey, Surrey

“Of the making of books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12.12). Many of these are on preaching. In these, and in training days organised by the College of Preachers, we who are called to preach are often chal-lenged to think how best to open a sermon.

On Christmas Day, after hearing John 1.1 read, repeating “In the be­ginning was the Word” will often be the right way to open. But the simple restatement of something less majes­tic on (say) Trinity 3 could easily be a signal to the congrega­tion to switch off. When you are relating something in the news to the Gospel, start­ing with the news item will probably be best. When you treat the sermon as a story, the Gospel reference is more often the first punchline than the opening gambit. When you preach a dramatic sermon, tem­porarily becoming someone in the Gospel story, the text is only im­plied. If your selec­tion of hymns is related to the read­ings, then to start or finish with a verse from a hymn can point up the text.

Starting with a text can suggest that what is coming will be more a lecture than anything of use in the hearers’ lives. But, if you are using the text as a Leitmotiv, bringing it back more than once, start with it.

Ian Wells (Reader, Holy Trinity, Tarleton)

Some think that, rather than begin “My text this morning comes from the First Book of Kings, chapter seven, verse 22,” it is better to avoid any suggestion of churchiness, be bright and cheerful, and, if possible, start with a joke. This catches the congregation’s attention. I recall Kenneth Carey, when he was Prin­cipal of Westcott House, saying that people may forget all you say, but the one thing that they will carry away with them is the text.

Of three sermons I remember from my young days, it is only the texts that remain in my memory: “On the top of the pillars there was lily work”; “Whereas once I was blind, now I can see”; and, on Good Friday, “Make it as secure as you can.” I can recall the circumstances and the extraordinary excitement evoked. Had there been no text and no reiteration of it, I would have no memory left of anything.

A further possible reason why texts are out of fashion is that they have been misused. I have done this. A text is announced, but what follows is unrelated. It is a useless lead-in. A text can in a mysterious way be related to the Word of God. Certainly, it is the one truly scrip­tural part of the sermon.

(The Revd) Nicholas Dixon
Penrith

(The Revd) Nicholas Dixon
Penrith

Your questions

How do you rebuild the choral tradition of a parish where it has been abandoned? J. M.

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