Getting People Into the Story
On Not Getting Anything Out of Sermons
By Joseph Mangina (reposted from generousorthodoxy.org)
THIS PAST SUMMER I had an interesting email exchange with a theologian friend at another institution, someone I’ve known since our days together in graduate school. We got to talking about the state of contemporary preaching. My friend asked the arresting question: “How do we get preachers to get people into the story rather than trying to get something out of it?” How, in other words, do we convince seminarians, priests, and pastors that the Bible is not a resource to be accessed but a world to be entered into? That to ask the question of the Bible’s “relevance” is to commit a terrific category error, since the Bible does not want to be relevant to our concerns, but to make us relevant to its concerns?
My friend went on to say:
Hans Frei [of Yale] once told me that you can always tell which direction of interpretation is operative in any sermon you hear. And I would add (what he was too tactful to say) that the wrong direction of interpretation is unutterably boring. And further, in my experience, pastors (like everyone else) either “get” this or they don’t. So the pedagogy to instill this is going to have to aim at a kind of intellectual/theological conversion, a moment when people just “get it,” after which they have no interest in looking back.
He could not have been more right, first, about the “unutterably boring” character of much preaching. It is sad but true that a lot of contemporary preaching manages to be neither orthodox nor heretical, but simply mind-numbingly dull. The reason this is so, I think, is that our culture is already awash in self-help programs, so that when the preacher stands up and offers more of the same it is just not that interesting. What the pastor has to tell us we have already heard many times on Oprah.
Second, however, my friend was right that people either tend to grasp this point … or they do not. The pragmatic (and unutterably boring) approach to preaching has the character of a “paradigm,” in the sense popularized by philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. We cannot just think our way out of it, because it provides the very framework of our thinking. Preaching should be experiential, pragmatic, and purpose-driven. This thought is so deeply woven into the fabric of North American Christianity that we can hardly imagine it should be otherwise. The sermon must always have something useful in it, some moral or lesson that people can “take home with them.” What else would it be good for?
But now let us suppose that all this is deeply misguided. Imagine that we have caught a glimpse of another reality, another world. Suddenly we grasp that the Bible is not about human doings and human problems. It is not really about us at all, but about God. And because it is about God it has its own weird logic, expressed in a strange, wonderful vocabulary — words like election, creation, flesh, spirit, grace, law, apocalypse. Instead of just another self-help manual, the Bible offers us something far more interesting — an account of life, the only life indeed that is worth having; life that comes from God and leads to God. Hearing of such a life, who would not be willing to surrender everything in exchange?
This is, to be sure, a theologian’s way of expressing the matter. To which the working priest or pastor may be forgiven for replying, “Yes, but does it preach?” True, the sermon is ultimately — is essentially — about God. But it is also spoken to the assembly and to the particular people within it. The preacher cannot simply dwell in the lectionary text, but must take the risk of interpreting the text for “Mrs. Murphy,” as the great Benedictine scholar Aidan Kavanaugh liked to put it. Kavanaugh was speaking of liturgy, but his counsel applies equally well to the sermon. If the sermon does not address the needs of Mrs. Murphy, it is hard to see why we should even bother.
I will bend on this point, but I will not break. Yes, of course the text must be interpreted for the hearers. Yes, of course the preacher must venture into the world in front of the text, the world of our hopes, fears, desires, longings, and secret guilts. This is harder work than it sounds. There is a certain kind of “biblical preaching” that rests content with an easy, obvious paraphrase of Scripture; that takes no risks, and that therefore reaps few rewards. It is not simply that such a preacher has expounded the text but ignored the world, but has not even expounded the text. “Truth” in preaching is not just fidelity to the Bible, it is the two-edged sword of the Word disclosing how things really stand with us. To use technical language, there is no real explicatio or meditatio without applicatio.
All this is perfectly true. Awareness of context, knowledge of one’s hearers, a certain political and cultural sensitivity — all these are essential items in the preacher’s toolkit. Yet they are not the main thing. God is the main thing. God is what your congregation expects to hear from you, not your jokes or political commentary or stories about your children. I will even call Mrs. Murphy as my witness here. Aidan Kavanagh’s point about Mrs. Murphy was not, as we might think, that we should revise the liturgy to make her feel more at home. Quite the opposite: Mrs. Murphy knows what the liturgy is about — mystery, sacrifice, grace, God — far better than many a learned liturgist. The scholar wants the liturgy to be more user-friendly while Mrs. Murphy wants to adore the Trinity. We had better not, then, condescend to Mrs. Murphy.
The same thing applies to preaching. If we step into the pulpit worried about what the congregation or we ourselves can “get out of it,” the battle is already lost. As my friend put it, our primary task is to get into the story — the story of the God who creates from nothing and who justifies the ungodly. One contemporary preacher has laid down the homiletical rule that God needs to be the subject of the verbs. The worry this evokes — that there will be nothing left for us to “do” — betrays a deep misunderstanding, for among the chief things God creates from nothing are empowered human agents. If we begin with God’s agency, then human agency will inevitably follow, whereas the opposite is not the case. This is the very logic of divine election.
One easy way to make God disappear from a sermon is to focus on the gospel text for the day. I know this sounds strange, even blasphemous. Is not preaching about Jesus preaching about God? In principle, yes; in practice, often no. The problem is the use we make of the reading. Because the gospel comes in narrative form — generally some story concerning Jesus and his disciples — it is perilously easy to turn it into a moral or religious object lesson. Poor old Peter, wanting to build those booths for Elijah and Moses and Jesus! Doesn’t he know that eventually you have to come down off the mountaintop? The lesson here is “incarnate your faith in everyday life.” Dear misguided James and John, jostling for the best seats in the kingdom! Don’t they understand what Jesus had to say about humility? The lesson here is “be more humble” or “recognize God’s special love for the lowly.”
These things are true, of course. It is good to come down off the mountaintop, just as it is good to be humble. Certainly part of what is going on in Matthew 20 (on James and John) is a commendation of humility. Yet to remain at this level is to rest content with mainly an image of Jesus as teacher. Surely the most interesting thing about both these passages is what God is doing in Jesus to enact the kingdom. The Transfiguration is not about mountaintop experiences, but about the Law and the Prophets bearing witness to the Son. Likewise, the reason James and John must learn humility is because the Father hides his mysteries from the wise and understanding and reveals them to babes (Matt. 11:25). Humility is an eschatological virtue. Notice how the text from Matthew 20 opens up only when we situate it within the larger, apocalyptic story told by Matthew. “Moralizing” sermons are often the result of not having done our homework. Baffled as to what we should say, we default to exhortation. Be more humble! Have more faith! Love God better!
Well, we should love God better. But if it is really God we would love, we must be willing to move beyond our homiletical comfort zones. Two good rules of thumb might be: “Embrace the Old Testament” and “Dare to engage Paul.” In my experience, Anglican preachers tend to avoid the Old Testament, or touch on it only lightly, as background material for the gospel. The reasons for this are obvious. The Old Testament is hard. It is even frightening. This is true despite the best efforts of our lectionary-makers, who, Mrs. Grundy-like, leave out the most offensive bits. All these are reasons to claim the Old Testament as our own. Many people who have been attending church for years really have no idea why these books are in our Bible. Ignoring Israel’s Scriptures will simply confirm their worst suspicions. Moreover, the Old Testament is not just scary, it is majestic and glorious and not least exciting. The priest who decided to preach through the David cycle, say, would command the attention of the congregation. They would come back each Sunday just to find out what happens next.
The same is true of preaching on Paul, often ignored because he is seen as forbiddingly theological and abstract. Like the Old Testament, Paul is “difficult.” But he is difficult because he is wrestling with the questions that really matter. Life, death; spirit, flesh; sin, grace; suffering, hope. And at the center of it all, a determination to “[know] nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Moreover, the rumors of Paul’s supposed abstractness are greatly exaggerated. Paul hammered out his theology in response to the travails of his churches. He was an apostle and church-planter before he was a theologian. The letters to Galatia and Corinth, in particular, offer rich possibilities of exploring the nature of Christian mission to a pagan world, and in a situation where the church itself is badly divided. Does this sound familiar? In our current climate, nothing could be more “relevant” or “contextual” than a strong dose of Paul.
None of this is to say that we should not preach on the gospel readings. We should. But without the Old Testament and Paul — as well as, of course, the other apostolic writings — we will stand little chance of understanding the Figure who confronts us in the gospels. I often think that the problem besetting our churches is not a low Christology but a shallow one. Jesus, it is said, shows us “what God is like.” We are thus treated to an endless parade of sermons on the theme “God is love.” True enough; we have this on apostolic warrant (1 John 4:8). Yet I fear that we fail to grasp the true import of this great saying. For the apostle goes on to say: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). This is deep Christology, secured by the active verbs loves and sends. Jesus here is more than just revealer of the loving attitude of a far-away deity. In the words of Austin Farrer, he is God’s “self-enacted parable.” And more even than parable, but the divine love poured out and embodied in a particular human life, Jesus of Nazareth, Love come dangerously close, God-under-the-skin.
What can we “get” out of such a story? Not very much, if what we are looking for is homely advice for getting through the day. The advice column in the newspaper will do for that. But everything, if what we are looking for is news about God. This is what the people in our congregations — it is what we ourselves — are hungry for. This hunger for the Word can be satisfied nowhere else. It is the great privilege of the Christian minister to help people get into the story, where they can be fed and perhaps feed others in turn. What a wonderful calling. What an extraordinary gift.
Dr. Joseph Mangina is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto.