The Reverend Doctor Horace Thaddeus Allen. Jr. received his B.A. from Princeton University, his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and his Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary. Continue reading
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
The title for today’s gathering was announced as “Getting from There to Here.” As I reflected on it I wondered if perhaps “getting from here to there” might be more apt. “Here” being the text in front of you, to “there, ” the sermon. That works.
But as I thought more about it I saw the wisdom of “from there to here.” From “there,” “the strange new world of the Bible,” to “here,” the world we live in. And I thought of some of the various locutions we have used over the years to capture this movement from text to sermon, such as “from text to context” or “from Word to world.”
Then I considered the many ways I have approached the writing and preaching of sermons, and I realized this movement from text to sermon was more dialectical and less linear than any of these ways of speaking about it.
As I thought about it, the more I liked the sub-title of The Hobbit, which as you may know is “There and back again.” So perhaps “here to there and back again” is more like it.
From here to there and back again describes a journey that is not just a straight line, but rather more like a journey without a map or even a predetermined end. And I like this way of thinking, because it captures how I have experienced sermon preparation in my four decades as a preacher.
I start with a Biblical text, and then I live with that text throughout the week on my journey, revisiting it and wrestling with it and worrying it until I begin to hear something of the voice of God in it, and by then the contours of the journey begin to show themselves, as do even the purpose of the journey and it’s destination.
The process seems to take on a life of its own, which is another way of saying that the Word of God is alive. I like today’s Isaiah text where God uses the agricultural metaphor of rain and snow watering the earth and making it produce to describe the way his Word works, “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
And I want to say a bit about what I mean when I say “the Word of God,” which can mean one thing or another, even sometimes one thing and another, or even three things depending on the context.
One way of thinking about this that has helped me comes from Karl Barth. He wrote about the threefold understanding of the Word of God. First, there are the written words of the Bible, then there are the spoken words of the preacher, and finally, and most importantly, there is the living Word, Jesus Christ.
This living Word is mediated through both the written words and the spoken words. The prayer I began my sermon with today is based on this idea: “Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we behold the living Word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And that is not to say every text needs to be understood Christologically (although it can be), as in the text we have from Isaiah today. But to say there is a living Word is to say that whenever we hear the Word of God as direct address to us, it is the same Word of the same God, who came to us and for us and became the Word made flesh.
So when I talk about the Word of God in sermon preparation, it may be a reference to the text itself, the words, or to the proclamation in the form of a sermon, the Word preached, or to both, but the goal of the journey is, through the finite human words of the text, and the finite human words of the preacher, to transcend this finitude to hear the living Word of God. And I believe this is the primary task and challenge of preachers, and of the church, for that matter.
Let me say a little bit more about the words of the text and the words of the preacher as the Word of God. I think of them by analogy to the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Jesus is truly human and truly divine, not half and half or some other percentage.
And in much the same way (although not identically) the words of our Scriptures, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are truly human and truly divine. Human in every way, written (and edited) by human beings, and truly divine through the agency of the Holy Spirit of God who inspired the writers to write them, the same Holy Spirit the church invokes when we read them.
And the same thing can be said about the words of the preacher. A sermon is not written in some special spiritual words, but in the same human words that we use in everyday speech. Since everyone in this room is a preacher I don’t have to belabor the point that we are all human, even all-too human. Yet the Holy Spirit that inspired the writers of Scripture is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the preacher, and the same Holy Spirit that the church invokes and invites as it prepares to hear the Living Word of God from the frail words of scripture and the frail words of the preacher.
This is admittedly a high view of preaching, and some might say it claims too much for the preacher. I would say quite the opposite. It is the views of preaching that put emphasis on the personality and performance of the preacher that claim too much for the preacher.
The claim that the preacher is to be a minister of the Word of God is much like the church’s understanding of the celebrant at the eucharist. The principal was established early in the church during the Donatist controversy. The Donatists were heretics, so the question arose whether the baptisms they performed were valid. And the church agreed that “the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the sanctity of the celebrant.” So the preacher may be more or less gifted with the homiletical arts, but it is not those gifts that are decisive. What is decisive for the preacher is that he or she has been set apart to deliver the church’s proclamation, so that the church may hear in it the living Word of God. It is not about the preacher. It is about the church hearing the Word of God.
This is a (nearly) sacramental view of preaching, that the preacher should say what the sacrament shows. And in both cases neither the preacher nor the celebrant has control over the Holy Spirit of God, as if we somehow could control God. No, Christ is not truly present in the sacrament nor truly alive in the preached Word because we invoke his name, but rather because he himself commanded us to do these things and promised to be present with us when we did.
So with this high view before us, and a text in front of us, how do we get from there to here or from here to there and back again?
The first thing I want to say about approaching a text is the expectation that God will speak through it. Which is to say that the high view I propose operates out of trust. I think it was Richard Hayes who wrote about a “hermeneutic of trust.” For decades we have been talking and hearing about “a hermeneutic of suspicion,” and that has had its place as an corrective to the Scriptures being misused as instruments of oppression and injustice, “texts of terror,” as my teacher Phyllis Trible so eloquently called them. But there has been a heavy price to pay for the widespread “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has so pervaded the academy for decades, in that many preachers now reflexively distrust the texts.
And I think it is sometimes necessary and appropriate to distrust a text, but it shouldn’t be where we start. Sometimes distrusting a text along the way will lead you to the Word of God.
So the text is in front of us. Perhaps it is an assigned text from the lectionary. I like that, because I can be a lazy sinner who is inclined to make my favorite texts do tricks for me, but that is just me.
Perhaps the Bible is open on our desk, perhaps it is on our computer screen or smartphone, but there it is. First things first: read the text.
Read it in expectation that God’s Word can be heard in it, but don’t rush to decide what it means or even what it has to say. Texts need time. They need to be listened to. I have always described my sermon preparation as inhabiting a text. Living in it.
Another good way to think about it is to “stand under” the text so as to understand it. And the preacher stands under the text along with the rest of the church.
I am really talking about hermeneutics now more than the homiletical side of things. So you all know the various ways to worry a text into view. Read it in the original languages if you have them. Read it in several translations. Look up any key words or phrases in a Bible Dictionary. Take a stroll through some commentaries. Find out its genre and its original context. In other words do your homework. I once preached a sermon that involved Herod, and added “you remember him from the Christmas story.” My dear friend Luther Pierce, a retired UCC minister, shook my hand at the door and said, “Good sermon, Rick, but you conflated Herod the Great with Herod Antipas. Different Herod.” Oops!
So once you’ve done your due diligence and you have the text in your grasp, reflect on the context. Those of you who were preaching in the weeks after 9/11 may recall that the Common Lectionary texts were from Jeremiah and Lamentations, texts we had all avoided in the past because they are horrible cries of despair for the destruction of Jerusalem. All of a sudden after 9/11 texts about the city of devastation and the burning tower became eerily contemporary.
Which is to say contexts change. The immediate context of any preacher is the life of the congregation, and when I talk of inhabiting a text, I am referring to going about one’s pastoral duties with the text in mind. From here to there and back again.
Then there are the larger contexts of the communities in which we live and the country and world we are a part of. Sometimes contexts demand our attention.
We rarely get the kind of compelling clarity about the relationship between text and context that we got after 9/11, but keeping the text in mind as we think about the multiple contexts will often show us the way to go, the particular context that needs to be addressed by the Word of God.
The dialectic of the journey of text to context and context to text means straddling two worlds with the hope we can find in them the same story.
I had the privilege of preaching my daughter’s ordination sermon back in June, and afterwards Mary Luti said, “I like the way you went back and forth from the story in the scriptures to your story now.” And her comment made me realize that I preach that way because to me it is the same story.
I immediately thought of Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, a wonderful and important book. Frei’s thesis is that prior to the Enlightenment Christians inhabited the Biblical Story. They understood it as their story. They were part of it. The Enlightenment changed that as we held the story at arm’s length like any other observable phenomenon.
The task of the preacher is to repair the breach; to make the Christian Story our story again. I am reminded of Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, where he argues for the re-enchantment of the world for children through fairy tales.
Letting the words of scripture and the words of the preacher be the Word of God for God’s people requires a similar kind of re-enchantment. It means the church realizing that the Story isn’t just back there, but is still going on and we are characters in it.
Let’s look quickly at our Isaiah text for today to see how this might be done. The text is from Isaiah of the Exile and the context is a people who have no reason to be hopeful, since they have lost the three pillars of their identity, their temple, their land and their nation.
The promises made to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob seem null and void. Their prospects seem dim, their possibilities few.
Into this context God speaks through the prophet. “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” “You know that rain and snow we sometimes get in the desert? That is what my word is like. It will not come up empty. It will make happen that which I promised.”
And that is what the Word of God sounds like.
And when we hear this story, can it speak to us, where our prospects seem dim and our possibilities few? Can it speak to a declining church too often eager to call it a day? Can it speak to a nation full of grave injustices and inequalities? Can it speak to a world of death and terror?
When Isaiah speaks the Word of God to the exiles he lets them see what can’t be seen, and makes them believe what they can only know by trust in the one who speaks to them. The Word makes them part of the story again, the story that began at the beginning when God said “light” and there was light, the story that saw their ancestors freed from bondage, the story that seemed to come to an end, but now God says to them, “No, it’s not ending. Not at all. I will lead you through the desert of your journey into my own future.” And what will it be like? It will be like this:
“You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
And let the people say: Amen.
I preached this sermon at the New England Pastor’s Meeting of Confessing Christ, West Boylston, Massachusetts, on September 26, 2013.
Has this ever happened to you when you are captive in a pew?
I was at a house of worship not long ago, where the preacher is a long-time friend of mine. I was looking forward to hearing him preach, and I when he started I was pleased with his voice and his manner. He said some wise things and I could feel that he was wrapping up, but then . . . he started on a new tack. He did this three times, and each time I thought he was done. It was a very long sermon; in fact it was three long sermons.
The next day I was at a seminar with a bunch of pastors and I mentioned the experience to my friend Scott, who provided me with one of my favorite axioms: “If you don’t know what you are doing, you don’t know when you have done it.”
In addition to various places in his monumental and magisterial 14 volume Church Dogmatics, where Karl Barth addresses preaching directly, he also left us a fine little book on homiletics and some anthologies of sermons. With these in hand we may explore his views on preaching.
What is preaching? That is the question that preoccupies Barth throughout Homiletics (Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1991.) Barth begins the book with what is really an extended essay on the history of eighteenth and nineteenth century German hermeneutics, entitled “The Nature of the Sermon: A Historical and Dogmatic Sketch.” He critically examines in turn the theories of David Hollaz, Frederich Scleiermacher, Alexandre Vinet, Christian Palmer, C.I. Nitzsch, Johannes Bauer (with a surly nod at Albrecht Ritschl), Karl Fezer, and Leonhard Fendt. Let us look at each in turn and see the evolution which sets the stage for Barth’s own definition of preaching.
Hollaz was an orthodox dogmatician whose definition of the two–fold task of preaching (investigation and application of the text) raises questions of form for Barth. Schleiermacher, the most brilliant theological exponent of the new Romanticism, understood preaching as the articulation of the shared spirituality (as some might say today) of the congregation. The preacher . . .“steps forward to project his innermost self as a subject of shared observation that has been prompted by God, in order to lead them to the sphere of religion, where they feel at home so that he can instill his sacred feelings: He expresses divinity, while in holy silence the congregation follows his inspired speech.” (From On Religion, quoted in Barth on p. 23.) Barth rightly asks whether “the self–presentation of the pious feelings of the congregation is really preaching as Schleiermacher thinks?” (p. 25)
We see the next unfortunate and inevitable mutation in the evolution of homiletics in the theories of Vinet, a disciple of Schleiermacher, who believed preaching to be a special sort of rhetorical speech whose decisive character was its “spiritual”(that word again) content, and who posited (logically enough based on his assumptions) that a biblical text does not have to be the basis for such discourse.
The next theorist, Christian Palmer defines the task thus: “To preach is by living witness, and in the name of God, to offer the salvation which appeared and is present for human beings in the person and work of Christ.” Barth thinks Palmer claims too much for the “living witness,”that is, the preacher. Palmer, like Hollaz and Schleiermacher, allows the preacher to maintain control over what is proclaimed. To Barth “the offer of salvation” sounds too sacramental and “overmuch is ascribed here to the preacher.”
Barth goes on to commend many features of the theories of C. I. Nitzsch, whose definition is: “A sermon is the ongoing proclamation of the gospel for the edification of the congregation of the Lord, a proclamation of the word of God through texts of holy scripture which take place in a living relationship to contemporary circumstances through called witnesses.” (p 27). Barth likes the fact that Nitzsch, unlike Schleiermacher, who had dissolved the distinction between preacher and congregation and preacher and subject matter, understands that the subject matter of preaching is different from humanity “in the plight from which it has to be rescued.” (p 29) But Nitzsch falters when he ascribes some special religious attitude to the preacher as a requisite part of preaching.
Barth dismisses Johannes Bauer as a regression from Nitzsch to the total subjectivism typical of this period under the spell of Ritschl, Troelsch, and the history of religion school.
If you will pardon a personal digression, it was in reading this material that I was reminded once again how ill-prepared I was for preaching and pastoring, not to mention for the dialogue with fundamentalism that began my ministry, by my theological education. That education was informed on one side by the therapeutic verities of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) (certainly helpful in certain contexts) and on the other side by the critical social theory of James Luther Adams and Max Stackhouse (also helpful in many contexts), which had a direct genealogical line from Troeslch. I was given psychology and sociology, but no theology worthy of the name, and certainly no handle on what it meant to be a preacher. My clergy mentor admonished me at my ordination to be a “minister of the Word of God” but it was years of intellectual struggle before I had a clue as to what that meant.
To return to Barth’s history of preaching we come to Karl Fezer. He is the first of the theorists to abandon the principle of the superiority of the preacher over the subject matter and Barth, after some small criticisms, is most approving. For Fezer, God is now the subject of the process. Fezer understands that God gives us himself in the work of scripture, and this notion is centered on the atonement.
Leonhard Fendt, earns some praise from Barth because his notion of preaching, like Fezer’s but unlike Bauer’s, takes God seriously. Barth breaks Fendt’s definition down into nine constitutive elements.
Barth then offers his own definition in two formulas which are to be in dialectical relationship to one another:
1. Preaching is the Word of God which he himself speaks, claiming for the purpose the exposition of a biblical text in free human words that are relevant to contemporaries by those that are called to do this in the church that is obedient to its commission.
2. Preaching is the attempt enjoined upon the church to serve God’s own Word, through one who is called thereto, by expounding a biblical text in human words and making it relevant to contemporaries in intimation of what they have to hear from God himself.
In both the history of the theories of preaching that he offers and in his definition of preaching, Barth is attempting to identify preaching that, as he said of Palmer, “takes God seriously” as the subject of preaching, that is, as the one who addresses both the preacher and the congregation through scripture.
It is interesting to read Barth’s anthology of sermons Call for God (Harper Collins Publishers, 1993) to see examples of how Barth’s theory of preaching takes shape in actual sermons. In reading them I had, as I have had before when reading Barth, the sensation of glimpsing a different world, the “strange new world of the Bible” as Barth once called it (in The Word of God and The Word of Man) and of being addressed very simply by a different word than the world speaks, and realizing it isn’t just a word, but the Word of God.
In Barth’s sermons “religion” isn’t explained or taught, rather the hearers are addressed by the God who both speaks and acts in his Word. For example in the sermon “What Remains” he tells about the nature of the address that confronts us in the scriptures. He says, “But let us ask once more; What kind of word is it? Where is it decisively spoken in such a way that we can hear it? I will try once more to answer quite simply: God has said his Word simply by doing what it says. What happened was that he appeared and worked and acted in our midst as our God.” (p. 60.) Here we see Barth work out in sermons that which we see worked out in the Church Dogmatics, the identification of revelation with event. “ . . . his Word tells us what he has done. It is no mere word. It is loud and clearly perceptible to everyone in the Christmas event . . .” (p. 60.)
Barth’s theology has been the single most significant influence (besides scripture) on my ministry . It may well have allowed me to remain a minister at some key junctures in my many years in ministry. As a struggling believer I found great solace and also great challenge when I ceased to be an observer of religion and was faced with the personal question of my own faith as one addressed by God. As a newly-minted minister I found the task of weekly preaching to be terribly agonizing. It was then I started reading Barth, beginning with the little book The Word of God and the Word of Man. Clearly the questions Barth was asking were mine as well, “What is preaching?” and “where does the preacher derives his or her authority?” His critique of Schleiermacher and theological liberalism spoke to my own sense of the bankruptcy of my liberal religious background and much of my theological education, which had understood “religion” (whatever that is) to be some special sensibility that humans have that needs to be nurtured and cultivated and that in some sense is identical to our highest aspirations and deepest emotions.
Reading Barth I was able to gain again the joy of discovery of a living God that is “God with us”, a joy that I had known as a child, but was distilled out of me by years of exposure to the post-enlightenment world-view of my education, not least by Post-Bultmannian seminary professors for whom texts were seen more as the pieces and parts of a puzzle and not a Word of Life. I have to say that reading Barth right out of seminary was tantamount to a conversion. Ever since then my preaching has been that of one who stands under the Word of God, rather than as a religious expert that dispenses divine truth or sings the lyrical theism of liberal religion. Reading texts this way has enabled me to develop what Paul Ricouer has described as “a second naivete.”
One can see in both Barth books that preaching means being addressed by texts, and then by grace finding in the struggle with the text that one is addressed by God. I have found great help in sorting out the authority question by a simple reflection on Barth’s threefold understanding of the Word of God: the written word of scripture, the spoken word of preaching, and the Word of God, Jesus Christ. I often begin my sermons with the following prayer: “Gracious God, we pray that through the written word, and through the spoken word, we may behold the living Word, even your Son our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Hear an example of how Barth addresses the hearers in this portion of the sermon “What Remains”: “Whoever does the will of God—and that means whoever hears the Word of God and holds fast to it as he listens—whoever allows what it creates within him to take root and grow—that is a little faith, a little hope, a little love—such a man remains at this moment and will remain too forever.” (p. 65) Here in one sentence is promise, exhortation, ethics, humility, and hope.
I think Barth’s approach to preaching and the hermeneutic that lies behind it have revolutionary implications for the practice of ministry in local congregations. It calls into question the prevailing therapeutic and managerial models of local church life, and invites ministers and congregations to take themselves seriously as those who are addressed by God in his Word. And more than addressed, congregations are constituted, called, gathered, sustained, empowered, in fact have no authentic life of their own apart from the life given them by God in his Word. To take such a God seriously demands a congregation that studies scripture in all seasons, that takes prayer seriously, that risks putting an end to “the sin of bustle” (the phrase is P.T. Forsyth’s) so that they might hearken to the particular call of God to their time and place.
Such a community and such ministers will take sermon preparation seriously as demanding time, study, research, prayer and a kind of deep reflection impossible for the modern pastor whose vocation is conceptualized in professional terms as a primary caregiver. One piece I have added to my sermon preparation over the years is the lectionary bible study with members of the congregation. When we sit down together to struggle with the texts new understandings emerge, new insights into the text are shared. In addition the community raises the context to provide the relevance of which Barth speaks in his definition of preaching as . . .“expounding a biblical text and making it relevant to contemporaries. . .” But the most important piece of that definition is the next phrase: “in intimation of what they have to hear from God himself.” ( p. 44) That is the key to authentic Christian preaching.
(These reflections are based on a paper I submitted during my doctoral studies to Professor George Hunsinger at the Bangor Theological Seminary at Hanover, NH, on February 8, 1993.)