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New Every Sunday: Keeping Sermons Fresh

By Stephen Wright.

It was reported in March 2002 that the rector of a prominent church in a wealthy town near Detroit had been suspended for ninety days while his diocese investigated accusations that some of his sermons and newsletter articles were copied from the Web. For preachers around the world who recognize that ‘plagiarism’ of a sort is fundamental to the very business of preaching, this is a sobering story which raises some interesting issues.

There is an unspoken compact between congregation and preacher which allows, indeed encourages, the preacher not to be completely original Without speculating about the facts of this particular case, it appears that there is a line somewhere between drawing on a range of sources and absorbing them into one’s own material, and becoming so dependent upon them that the sermon ends up essentially a secondhand product. Transgressing this line entails abusing the congregation’s trust in the preacher. There is an unspoken compact between congregation and preacher which allows, indeed encourages, the preacher not to be completely original, but to be, rather, the channel of insights into God’s truth which come from all kinds of quarters, past and present. The preacher is not expected to footnote the sermon with detailed references to every source! But, it seems, this compact depends upon an essential element being in place, namely that what is said must centre on the preacher’s own witness to truth. If this element is missing, the trust is broken.

What if the preacher openly states that he or she is using the material of others? Congregations who heard homilies being read from the Book of Homilies in postReformation times presumably knew what was going on. Certainly, the bond of trust is not broken if, occasionally, the preacher simply conveys the thoughts of others, while honestly purveying them as such. There is no shame attached to the public reading of a printed sermon or meditation where there is no one equipped to preach. The church certainly misses out when this is the situation; but for the hungry, prepackaged fare is better than no fare at all. But in the case of the regular passingoff of others’ creative work as one’s own, the congregation will soon know instinctively that something is amiss.

Why is it that the personal element is so crucial to preaching, when, after all, we stand in a great tradition as proclaimers of an ancient gospel? Why can we not simply hide ourselves behind the glorious truths revealed in Christ? Surely novelty is no virtue when it comes to preaching? Surely, as Christian preachers, we don’t wish to clamp copyright on all our insights into truth?

Fundamentally, we are brought back here to the inevitable tension in all true preaching between the new and the old: between that which arises from the setting of the sermon, its time, its preacher, and that which arises from the gospel of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, attested in Scripture. It is a tension found in the heart of God himself:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:22f)

In other words, preachers are called to reflect both the freshness of God’s neweverymorning mercy and the faithfulness of his eternal nature.

This is reflected in a theology of preaching which sees it as a moment of encounter between God and his people, an encounter into which others too are invited to enter as they observe and overhear it. Far more than an offloading of information from pastor to congregation, preaching is a time in which we meet the God of today, and find him also to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Scriptures and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Preacher and congregation should find this a moment of freshness, for the time of this sermon is a new time, a new day for the Lord to show his mercies. Equally, preacher and congregation should find this a moment of anchoring in the faithfulness of God, for he is the same one who has been faithful to his people through all the generations.

But this is easier said than done! Sermons readily fall into predictable words and patterns or descend into triviality and gimmickry. For many of us, I suspect, it is more of a challenge to stay fresh than it is to stay faithful. We will remain faithful as we remain anchored in a faithful God. We have learned the faith in forms of words which are tried and familiar, in which it is relatively easy to continue to express it. To be sure, we do not break the compact which appears to have been broken in the ‘plagiarism’ case: there is enough evidence of personal preparation in our sermons to assure the congregation that, though rooted in the great tradition, the sermon does give voice to the preacher’s own witness to truth. But the tendency is to staleness. So for the remainder of this article, I want to reflect on some dimensions of preaching which, when in place, should help to ensure that preaching remains, at the very least, ‘new every Sunday’.

Living theology

Authentic Christian preaching is, I believe, a theological task.1 Indeed, one might argue that it is the theological task - not so as to confine theology to the pulpit in a narrow sense, but so as to emphasise that it is in the live expression and communication of faith that theology is most truly itself. The task of theology is to make sense of God’s extraordinary gifts to us in Christ and in creation, and to do so continually, keeping pace with the continued bestowal of those gifts and our discovery of them.

Preaching conceived of simply as static explanation of an ancient book, or rehearsal of the doctrinal formulations of an earlier century, is not living theology. Living theology is not mere modishness, the following of the latest avant garde in the community of Christian scholarship. It is the genuine attempt to relate the heritage of Scripture and tradition to God’s world, and his activity in it, today. One consequence of this, I believe, is that we are called to move beyond the concepts of ‘illustrations’ as mere colouring to make our preaching comprehensible, and ‘applications’ as mere appendices to make it relevant. The very heart of the sermon - whatever structure we use - should reveal a vital connection between an old revelation and a new situation. The pictures we use, the contemporary issues to which we refer, are themselves caught up into the living theology we are doing. This is a part of the risk of preaching (the heretic Arius, we are told, was a fine preacher who wanted to make the faith comprehensible!). It is also, I suggest, a part of its necessary dynamic.

Lively language

A corollary of preaching’s being living theology is that it uses lively language. R E C Browne wrote this (in the masculine language of his own time):

If a minister of the word learns his theology in the language of a generation not his own, he must relearn it by thinking it and speaking it in the language of his own generation. The language of a generation grows out of its faith, its disbeliefs, its preoccupations, its anxieties, its achievements, its amusements, its hopes and its fears. Great ministers of the word have always preached in a language that is peculiar both to themselves and to the times in which they preached.2

We should note Browne’s emphasis here, which is not that language should be new in itself: at the extreme, such language could detach preaching from its anchor in Scripture, or prevent any communication with the congregation, or both! Rather, it is on language which is contemporary, which resonates with the mood of the moment. And this not, once more, in the sense of mere gimmickry or playing to the gallery, but for the purpose of living theology which connects historic revelation to today’s world.

Freshness through lively language does not mean being florid, fanciful or eccentric. It depends upon discernment of the way that the deep patterns of biblical truth keep surfacing in our own times. In an Easter service this year I encountered a brilliant use of the famous catchphrase from football commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme at the 1966 world cup final: “They think it’s all over ... it is now!” The words had been ‘in the air’ again following Wolstenholme’s recent death and were used - with visuals and full of new meaning - to point afresh to Christ, risen from the dead and confounding the expectations of friends and enemies alike.3

The sights and sounds brought to us all the time, courtesy of information technology, make up a common forum of discourse in which the vast majority of people share to a greater or lesser extent. This discourse of television, radio, the internet chatroom and the text message now surely has immeasurably greater influence on most of our hearers than the language of Shakespeare, Milton or Wordsworth. The implications of this for the preacher are challenging. On the one hand, preaching which is in touch with today’s concerns will speak today’s language. On the other hand, many would see a banality and superficiality in much of today’s culture which is reflected in its language, but which we would not want to sink into in our preaching.

So lively language cannot entail dispensing with the language which spoke for nobler moments in history - least of all with the language of Scripture. But then, this has always been the case. The language of preaching, like language itself, is in a state of perpetual and dynamic flux, new and old jostling together, the truth glimpsed in one age seeking the wings of fresh words to fly to the heart of another.4

Genuine humanity

The humanness of the preacher is another key to the freshness of the message - intimately linked, of course, to those of theology and language. Where the preacher hides his or her humanity behind a screen of apparently impeccable doctrine, or scholarship, or rhetoric, freshness is lost. The newness of God’s mercy is hard to trace behind the timeless impersonality of the presentation. Yet the art of appropriate disclosure of humanity is difficult.

Keeping one’s own humanity and personality visible in preaching does not require much telling of personal anecdotes, still less much unveiling of personal foibles. Nor should it mean embarrassing one’s family or friends. Fundamentally, it seems to happen by the more indirect means of a preacher’s clearly taking responsibility for what they say. I have hinted at the antithesis of this above, in suggesting the danger of hiding behind a ‘screen’. But this screen may not only be one of ‘correctness’ in theology or exposition or homiletic skill. It may also sometimes be one of diffidence or disengagement or illpreparedness. Where the preacher gives every appearance of not wanting to be standing there, not only do we not see them at their best, we actually do not see that element crucial to true humanity, the bearing of the weight of responsibility for our words and actions.

The power and freshness of the message then often owes much to the conjunction between what the congregation knows of the preacher’s personality, background and experiences, and the way in which they have chosen to express the word of God on that occasion, rather than to the direct expression of those aspects of the preacher’s humanity. This is why visiting preachers, especially ones who are given little introduction, have an uphill struggle. It is harder for the congregation to feel the fertile conjunction, even tension, between what they know of the preacher and how the preacher has chosen to preach. Yet it is not impossible. The following example can hardly be called typical, yet it illustrates well what I mean, and points to the way things can work in more mundane circumstances.

As a seventeenyear old, I was privileged to hear Archbishop Donald Coggan preach in my boarding school chapel. It must have made a considerable impression upon me, because, nearly twentyseven years later, I still remember the sermon quite vividly. Memorability is not everything in preaching, just as daily meals can be nourishing without being memorable, but it is surely one indicator of an original freshness. Recently the memorability of this particular sermon has become more remarkable the more I have reflected on it.

It has become clear to me that the reason it struck me with such freshness was not to do with the position, eminence, holiness, charisma or clarity of the preacher in themselves, though I was conscious of these things at the time and have since grown to appreciate them still more. It was to do precisely with the way that this preacher chose to express the word of God on that occasion. It was a major anniversary in the life of the school, but it was also the feast of Pentecost. And I think what made the deepest impression - though I would probably not have been able to articulate this immediately - was the fact that this Christian leader of known ecclesiastical distinction and apparent personal authority chose to speak not in the hearty, moralistic, institutionbuilding terms to which we were so accustomed, but about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the wind of God. Simple without being patronizing, using images of camp fires and sailing boats familiar from our outdoor pursuits, he left us with the prayer: “Spirit of God, fill my sail, and lead me where you will”. Nothing gimmicky, complex or gauche, but living theology, lively language, and a genuine humanity revealed in the preacher’s evident bearing of full responsibility for the delivery of God’s word on that occasion.

In that conjunction between what is known of us and the deliberateness of our words, our humanity, God’s chosen vehicle of truth, can be revealed, and our preaching remain fresh.

A creative process

All of the above assumes, and leads up to, the final element crucial to a conception of preaching which will allow it to stay fresh. Preaching must be seen as a creative process.

It is a fallacy that faithfulness to Scripture and orthodox faith preclude creativity in preaching. I believe that, on the contrary, they require it. Perhaps our greatest model here is the Old Testament prophets who, under God’s inspiration, summoned people back to faithfulness through the most startlingly creative language, both verbal and nonverbal.

It is not given to human beings to create ex nihilo. What we call human ‘creation’ is always, in reality, a reshaping of something that is already there. But in practice ‘creativity’ remains the best word to describe what we mean. Like an artist, the preacher consciously works on a fresh configuration of words to express a living theology, revealing in the process both his or her own humanity, and God’s nature.

Most preaching is, in fact, creative to a greater or lesser degree. But I wish to argue that thinking about our preaching as being a creative act will heighten its freshness and liberate us in new ways. There will be the excited sense of something newly fashioned. There will also be the serious sense of an interpretation of God and the world that is still provisional, imperfect: in other words, a sense that the creative work of both preacher and congregation must go on. Creative preaching will open up doors, not close them down.

The creative dimension of preaching lays a particular kind of burden upon us, but lifts others off. The burden was well described by, once again, R E C Browne:

Creative work always brings creative workers to the edge of an abyss. It is there that the most creative work is done and it is there that conditions exist which may be the undoing of the worker: passionate faith gives rise to profound doubt; love of truth dreads error, bringing one to the verge of falsehood; depth of love increases ability to hate in the name of love; zeal drives the zealous towards fanaticism ... Great preaching, like great art, cannot be the work of those who know no chaos within them and it cannot be the work of those who are unable to master the chaos within them.5

The picture will surely be recognized by many who have wrestled over sermons. I believe it is helpful to see this wrestling as an aspect of the peculiar kind of creativity to which we are called.

To see preaching as a creative act, however, also lifts burdens, above all the burden of thinking that faithful and fresh preaching is somehow quantifiable in terms of hours spent in preparation. As with all creative work, of course, there is a fine balance to be struck between hard labour and the moments of inspiration. But we all know that hours spent staring at a blank computer screen are not likely to be the best seedbed for creative thoughts! The creative calling, rather, beckons us to get in touch with those places inside and outside ourselves, those sights and sounds and memories and imaginings, indeed those people, where we sense the hand of a creating saving God upon our lives and the world. In this way the labours of textual study and theological thought can come to life, for ourselves and for our listeners.

And the Holy Spirit? Yes, of course, he is our Muse, the true author of all our creative work; he can use our words in the most remarkable and unforeseen ways. He can, furthermore, use and bless the most heavily plagiarized of sermons, the dullest theology, the deadest language, the most hidden humanity, to bring life to the hearers. But that only means that, if preaching lacks freshness, it is not on account of his absence!

The Revd Dr Stephen I Wright is Director of the College of Preachers

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You are reading New Every Sunday: Keeping Sermons Fresh by Stephen Wright, part of Issue 27 of Ministry Today, published in February 2003.

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