It’s been some time since I last preached. But this past week I was graciously afforded the chance to enter back into that mysterious, challenging, and oft humbling art of preparing and performing a sermon. I say “performing” not because preaching is some kind of fake or insincere act, as if a “mere performance”; the kind of act whereby one is not herself. I mean only to say that preaching is an act which requires one’s whole heart, mind, soul and strength–a total act of love that includes the body as much as the written and spoken words. It is a performance, a dramatic, daring dance with scripture and Spirit.
Like any dance, it is also an exhausting event. I find it easy to anticipate the fatigue I am sure to feel after performing a sermon on Sunday morning. But I seldom remember how unsettling and tiring the whole process of preparing to preach can be.
Maybe I was even less ready for the “preparation fatigue” because I came to the sermon this past week with a confident sense of where I was going, what biblical passage would take me there, and what I hoped to say. I even wrote a draft, an almost complete sermon, before discovering that the Spirit was leading me back into the text. We might say a holy dissatisfaction rose up in me, encouraging me to put aside my desire to preach with precision a tidy set of points. So instead I re-entered the world of the gospel story, wondering and wandering through the narrative anew. Bracketing, as best I could, the premeditated positions I planned to unleash on the plot.
In the passage (Mark 8:27-33), Jesus asks his disciples what others are saying about him. The disciples share with Jesus the litany of possibilities circulating in the rumors and stories they hear. But then Jesus turns the question in on them, piercing them with the very question they may have hoped to avoid for themselves: “Who do you say that I am?”
In walking through the Scripture again my previous sermon melted into meditation and I was compelled to restart from scratch. Yet, even as I grew tired writing a second sermon, I did not experience a sense of defeat or failure. I found a new vitality in a deeper sense of direction, even as I remained uncertain about where I would ultimately end up. I discovered a feeling of lively purposefulness in a text with no clear answers–only a startling question. And it was the very release of my firm grasp on the text which made the whole experience fill with joy.
The question Jesus posed seemed to me to be of the utmost importance. So much so that I let it wash over me. And I let it wash over the sermon.
By the end of the experience, I had a sermon that wasn’t so entirely different from what I had initially imagined. Some of the same points crept back in. Though they took on a new form. The sermon followed the rhythm of the narrative, rather than the thrust of my deductive logic; and in becoming more intimate with the biblical text, I shied away from a litany of principles and points and honed in on that defining, peculiar, startling question; the one Jesus asks us all: “who do you say that I am?”
That question became so deep and wide for me in the wake of my sermon writing experience, that it has led me to reconsider and reimagine a number of ideas. Including preaching itself.
I wonder if that question Jesus posed to his disciples isn’t a preacher’s most daunting task: to perform that question through the words of Scripture, the rich theological tradition we inherit and the experiences that we carry with us. In so doing we may, like Peter on the heels of that question from Jesus, utter words we may not fully understand until a later time, if at all.
I wonder if preaching isn’t the dramatic, even traumatic, act of becoming responsive to that elusive, infinitely inviting question in creative, spirited ways. Maybe we can only ever be surprised by our own answers, even rebuked for them as Peter was. And yet, despite rebuke and surprise, I suspect we are invited to answer again… and again. I suspect preaching dwells in that wound between question and answer, a place where rebuke lingers and promise remains.
It’s no surprise that this was an exhausting experience. Not just in performing the sermon on Sunday, but also in preparing it. After all, I wrote two sermons. I struggled to focus in on some salient aspect of the biblical passage. But more than that, I drowned in a question I feared answering only in part. And yet answer it I must, and answer it I did–in the sermon and in my heart of hearts.
This experience with preaching, and specifically preaching this text, has refocused my attention on the art of preparing and performing sermons. In the weeks that follow, I hope to foster conversation through a series of posts asking after the place, purpose, techniques, forms, and meanings of preaching.
And I would love to hear your thoughts on and experiences with preaching. If you are a preacher, what is it like for you to prepare a sermon? What do you draw on for direction and inspiration? If you are a listener, an “overhearer” (to use Fred Craddock’s term) of the preached word, what is it like for you? What opens up a sermon for you? What engages you and draws you out?