On Preaching

Write as if you were dying. At the same time assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients…What would you be writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality? {annie dillard}

Words matter to me, very much. Ideas matter. Images matter. This trio of convictions probably explains a bit of why my vocation dances around two acts that have much to do with words, ideas and images: writing and preaching. I usually chat about writing here. Lately, I’ve been thinking about preaching.

I don’t think of myself as “a preacher,” at least not in the Huck Finn South sort of way. But I do gladly embrace the old and honorable pastoral practice of immersing myself in the Biblical text in hopes of glimpsing God – and then offering what I see (or what I think I see) to my community of faith. I believe – bet all my marbles on it, in fact – that God’s story is the narrative that is trustworthy and that gives meaning and dignity to my story, yours too.

For me, then, preaching is not about giving a lecture or merely passing along religious information. Nor is it an attempt to whip people up into some devoted fervor. A sermon is far more personal, more engaged, more treacherous and alive and messy than that.

A sermon, a good one anyways, tends first to God – and to us second. We get a whiff of what God has in mind, what kindness or justice or grace God intends – and then we ask ourselves if we have the courage (the faith, you might say) to believe, to obey, to spurn fear or control and dive into the mercy. I continually return to Karl Barth’s reflection on what happened whenever he stood behind the pulpit: “When I look out at the congregation, I realize they are here with one question: Is it true? Can it be true that there is a God who is loving and wise and powerful? Answer that question.”

Here’s a way to discern if we’ve told God’s story well: does it simply sound too good to be true? does it touch a hope so deep that it causes us to tremble at the possibility? do we wonder if it could possibly be true – and is there a certain sense of fear – of doubt – that it might not be? If we encounter that kind of fear and trembling, chances are we’ve gotten somewhere close to the God of the Bible.

Soon, I’ll post a list of other questions I bring to the text, in hopes that my sermons will not “enrage by [their] triviality.”

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