WHAT is a sermon? How does this particular proclamation of the gospel, at a particular time and place, perform as a theological moment — a moment when God communicates? It can look and sound very different. It might be short, blunt, or challenging.
The theology of preaching begins in encounter. When Saul travelled the road to Damascus, was blinded by light, fell to the ground, and heard a voice, he asked “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus.” Saul, at that point, was called anew into being, and gave himself to the Lord, his subjectivity, and his name, changed for ever. He encountered the living Christ, and was transformed.
At the heart of every sermon is this encounter; a movement between Christ and the human subject, a movement of grace given and received.
A rapport of love makes a sermon sacramental; it equips the Christian disciple to go into the world in peace to love and serve the Lord. No one should come to church and expect anything less than to know Jesus Christ anew in word and sacrament. This is theology performed: each sermon should be an Ecce Homo moment, whatever the theological theme.
Whatever the theological theme, however more or less explicit that theme might be, the preacher is called to develop certain principles that are theological at heart. For me, preaching is a duty and a joy that is always to be taken seriously, reverently, with proper preparation and time. I try to be prayerful of the congregation and its needs (though this is not always possible, and there are dangers in imagining the intended listener) — prayerful, more than anything, of the scripture readings of the lectionary, with a discipline that takes us to commentaries, and to cultural texts that shed new light on familiar words.
The sermon need not be long. It should not be rambling. Some people preach easily without notes or a text; others prefer a script. It matters not. What does matter is that the sermon is well crafted, thoughtful, an offering worthy of the congregation, worthy of God. It is a serious call to holiness, offered to lives that are distracted by too much hassle, too much stuff.
It matters that it captures the attention without being gimmicky, without trivialising itself by inappropriate jokiness. Which isn’t to say it can’t be playful. Gravity can be leavened by hilarity, duty by joy; solemnity and spontaneity played in turn, like a musician, or an artist, or a cook; bringing colour, lightness of touch, variation of tone and pitch; warmth and reverence in joyful play.
A confident preacher knows when the congregation is listening, following each word, hungry for more. A confident preacher knows, with humility, that the congregation is not hungry for more of his or her personality, but for an encounter with the living Lord. It takes a bold humility to preach with confidence, with an authority that does not belong with the person, but comes with grace given by the Word that is preached. It shows faith, which is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace.
IT HELPS to consider the genre. Will this sermon be an exposition of the texts (and, more than the preacher often thinks, congregations enjoy the straightforward teaching that this involves)? As such, it might take the Pauline understanding of justification by faith in Romans or Galatians, and explain its importance through history, drawing out the work of God’s grace. I would turn to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy for illustration.
Or perhaps the genre is poetic — circling an image, or a state of being, inspiring the imagination. I remember preaching on the moment of silence at Remembrance, and how much it contained of humanity and loss, as I shared Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Last Post. A narrative sermon will tell a relevant story as a parable, perhaps as an invitation to enter as a biblical character — like the child who is placed in the middle of the disciples. What of her perspective, as she encounters this so-human Jesus Christ?
Or sometimes the sermon juxtaposes material that requires listeners to wonder their own way towards the meaning. G. K. Chesterton said somewhere that the riddles of God are infinitely more satisfying than the solutions of mankind. Whatever the genre, the preacher should seek to bring listeners to encounter Jesus Christ, the living Word that transforms with the gift of grace.
To preach well is to prepare well, and to attend not just to what will be said, but to how. I always read out aloud a sermon before it is preached, and draft and redraft until it’s ready. Familiarity helps — even memorising the sermon — so as to enable the delivery to be a delight for all concerned.
The drama should not be downplayed, but held. Gesture, tone, change of pace and voice: all enable the living Word to come, to inspire his Church. It can be dangerous to become sentimental; and it doesn’t work when people feel manipulated. Or patronised. Or when the desire to be relevant and accessible trivialises the holiness, the seriousness of God’s grace, present in that sacramental moment.
To hold the occasion with its due and appropriate emotion — on Good Friday, or Easter Day, or Remembrance Sunday, for instance — is when the preacher knows, with confidence and boldness, how to bring a theological imagination to bear. The best preparation is to keep up a constant diet of good, broad, demanding theological and cultural reading; feeding, feasting, on the Word that dwells within us richly.
A good memory helps, or keeping notes, or a journal of ideas squirrelled away. Having a stock of striking thoughts, and especially images or insights, means that when a reading bears upon a particular topic, one can bring out the treasure, old or new.
A theological sermon is an anthropological moment: the hearer is changed by a new knowledge of Jesus Christ, and thereby knows himself or herself differently. No longer do they know themselves as the atomised individuals of today’s world. Whatever the diversity and variety of person present, each is addressed and collected by the Word of Christ; each comes to belong to the Body as the sermon is heard. The many become one body, ready to receive the sacrament of bread and wine; to be fed in that way, too. Word and sacrament belong together; each a serious call to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, to know God’s grace as the living Lord Jesus Christ is encountered, a Trinity who transforms us from glory to glory.
The Very Revd Dr Frances Ward is Dean of St Edmundsbury, a member of General Synod. She is the author of Why Rousseau Was Wrong: Christianity and the secular soul, and is currently writing on wisdom, character, and education.