Thursday, August 30, 2012

It tugs at the heartstrings... it feeds the mind... it moves the soul... preaching the Gospel

I remember well when I was new to the ministry and serving in my first call.  I had substituted the word homily for sermon in the bulletin.  I liked it better.  At least I thought I did.  One Sunday an older member came up to me and said she did not know what that word meant and so she looked it up in her dictionary (this was long before the Google era).  She said one of the definitions was "a long, boring moral address."  She then told me that she thought I had gotten the word just right.  Ouch!

There was a time in American Christianity when sermons were emotional roller coasters.  It was said that the preachers of the Great Awakening had well honed tools in their word craft to elicit a heart felt response to the sermon.  It was long but exciting and in the end, if the preacher had done his job well, there was not a dry eye left in the house.  Then it seemed that sermons had given way to lectures designed to impart information, devoid of emotional appeal.  They were academic exercises in which the preacher demonstrated his intellect, showed forth his education and training, modeled his erudition and knowledge, and proved his points with enough passages from Scripture to make it impossible to refute him.  They were meant for the mind and not for the heart, confident that if the mind were convinced, the heart might follow (and just maybe the wallet as well).

When I was in seminary (too long ago to be relevant except to me), the best sermon was expository -- it followed the text, explained the text, used the text to inspire as well as inform.  It was less about an idea or a topic than it was a sermonic Bible study.  I still have many of those outline crafted for homiletic's classes (hence my affection for homily in place of sermon).  Once, when I was short of time, I submitted one of these outlines to a preaching seminar class taught by a Pastor not long from parish service.  He looked at the manuscript and said that there was nothing really wrong with it but he made me promise not to preach that way.  I think it got me a B minus.  He was saying to me that it is possible for the words of the sermon to be perfectly orthodox and the form acceptable and yet it was not preachable (or best left unpreached).  I still think about that.

We preachers need to preach the text but the sermon is not Bible study.  We preachers need to preach sermons that people can understand but the primary goal of the sermon is not mental assent to the ideas or propositions put forth.  We preachers need to preach to inspire, encourage, and comfort and these all involve reaching the heart but we dare not preach emotion.  We preachers need to preach faithfully and not for effect -- the light is focused on the Gospel and not the mouth of the moment speaking it but we cannot hide our own identity, experience, and personality or we end up with something more sanitized theory than personal word.  We preachers preach not for a goal but that the Law might be spoken with full force to convict and the Gospel might be felt with full comfort to relieve -- if we get that right, the goal will be achieved in God's own design and timing. 

I do not recall Walter A. Maier as preacher of The Lutheran Hour.  I have heard a couple recordings of his preaching.  I grew up hearing Oswald Hoffmann.  We were bidden to silence in the car as the radio brought his unique voice to us week after week.  I did listen to Dale Meyer though not as regularly.  I have not listened that much to Ken Klaus or now to Greg Seltz.  But of all the various styles these men exhibited, I find myself still hearkening to Ozzie.  His commanding voice and the cadence of his words... his knowledge of the text and of the hearers who were tuning in... his mastery of the phrase and his timing...  They continue to resonate in my mind and heart.  I have not (consciously, at least) tried to emulate him but I would be lying to say his preaching has not taught me much about preaching or helped me find my own voice in the pulpit.  I guess that what I am trying to say is that when we speak the text faithfully, when we are passionate in our speaking of that Biblical word, when we rightly distinguish Law and Gospel, and when remember that the pulpit is a borrowed place and the sermon borrowed time too valuable to be squandered on fluff, just maybe we have it about right.  Aiming for mind and touching the heart with the only thing that transforms both -- the preaching of Jesus Christ and Him crucified (as Paul ever reminds us).

No comments: