One of the most useful exercises I have come across through spiritual direction involves imagining the advice your older self might give to you as you are now. Clearly, my older self is slim, with twinkly eyes, silver hair and masses of silver jewellery. And she is wise…very wise. How she attained this wisdom and physique belong to the swirling reaches of my endlessly optimistic imagination. Nevertheless… if my older self wrote a note to the self I am now, on the subject of preaching, what would she say? I am imagining a woman of say 77, addressing her younger self of 44.
“So, you want my thoughts and advice on preaching? That’s a flattering invitation! I’ll do my best and let’s see what comes into view.”
In the years ahead of you, never lose that sense you have that the sermon is so much more than a lesson in biblical knowledge. Explore this sense of preaching as sacrament. Don’t fear the naysayers, but listen to their perspectives. An opponent often makes an excellent teacher.
Reflect often on that sense of wonder that in the grace of God, we humans are able to speak, however falteringly of God. Delight that the God who conceals also reveals, and the sermon is one such place of revealing. And before you free fall into despair over the impossibility of this in your own preaching, don’t despise your own brokenness, flaws and failures. Trust me, these are wells to draw from as you explore the mystery and wonder of grace found in darkness. Also, a working knowledge of how spiritually forgetful and wilfully stubborn you can be will keep you far away from the pitfalls of arrogance, and the thought that you can preach from your own wisdom. Seek the wisdom of God in your preaching, that strange and foolish wisdom that enables the weak to point to the source of all strength, to Jesus Christ. Remind yourself often of the hope of ultimate wholeness that comes through his willing embrace of brokenness. Mangled on a cross, he carries the weight of sin in its cosmic proportions. In the garden, in the early morning light he walks ahead of us into the perfect wholeness of resurrection.
Meditate often on the love of God and ask yourself how that love is made manifest in the words, images and ideas you weave together in the sermon. Think of the creation of the sermon as the carving out of space, a potential meeting point between God and the hearer – never forgetting that you too are a hearer of your sermon. Ask yourself, is this space large enough to accommodate all comers, or have you made it too small, too neat, too perfectly ordered? Neat and tidy sermon spaces might be aesthetically satisfying, but they will be theologically denuded, lacking the homely chaos of a welcoming space. Love insists that there is a chair for everyone in the preaching space. The arrogant, confident winners and the washed up, wiped out losers. All are invited into their dialogue with God. Your task, in God’s grace, is to set up the space, to lay the altar for the sacrament of the preached word, which is always so much more than the words with come from your mouth. When you are gripped by fear, or possessed by pride, this is the antidote! The sermon is more than you. You attend to laying the table, and leave the rest to God.
Let me change my metaphor from laying the table, to painting the sermon. Delight in words, paint with language, fine detailed touches and bold broad brushstrokes. Love this creative process. Nuance language with light and shade. Revel in the tensive mystery of the apt metaphor. Enjoy the process of exploring the scripture, seeking the resonances, discerning the rub points,and crafting the sermon. Make time for this. Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent rob you of this journey. If you truncate the process, you lose that special encounter with God which shapes you in the process of shaping the sermon.
Beware of preaching to please. The need to be liked is an Achilles’ heel for the preacher. You need to ask yourself some hard questions here. Sometimes to love people calls for the utterance of the uncomfortable word. The prophetic imagination calls you to ask questions about how self interest and political complicity lead to a church which excludes. In what ways are we silently treading the wide, easy road of self indulgence and comfort, deluding ourselves that this strolling boulevard has anything to do with Christ’s narrow way. Don’t expect that faithful preaching will win you many friends. And remember too, you are the first hearer of any prophetic word. Listen to yourself, attend in thought and action, or keep your mouth shut!
In your preaching, stay open to new approaches, be flexible to the changing needs of your context. Don’t be afraid of failure. Often your ‘failures’ are your most effective sermons. Remember too, that you belong to the company of preachers, all who are part of the preaching event, speakers and hearers. Listen to others, learn from hearers and preachers, offer time and support to new preachers and those seeking new development in the craft. Read, reflect, talk to preachers from other contexts and cultures, never think you have nothing new to learn (social media can allow greater and wider connections than before).
Finally, the most important point – your preaching must be rooted in, predicated upon, flowing out of the truth of the love of God for all creation. Love for all peoples, love for the cultures of the world, love for the environment, and, perhaps most difficult for you to fully grasp, love for you.
Oh, and by the way… I got this physique by cutting down on the chocolate and red wine and running more, and as for the silver hair…time did that all by itself. The silver jewellery is a sign of improved taste over the years, and the twinkly eyes are a figment of your saccharine imagination. I wear glasses. Look forward to that…
“Love your older self
77 and 3/4
and still preaching.”