On preaching and space

Having spent an interesting hour or so trying to figure out if the University thinks I am student of either the undergraduate or postgraduate variety, or indeed even a student at all (don’t ask – it’s one of those complicated aspects of my life at the moment!), I decided to check out some blogs I used to read regularly but have stopped doing since life got busy.

When I did so, I came across this post by Ben Myers about preaching. The gist of it seemed to be that ‘perfect’ sermons or homilies don’t really leave much room for God to act, and that preaching is by nature an act of vulnerability as without the Holy Spirit, no amount of brilliant exegesis or homiletics can enable people to hear God speak. This got me thinking about a seminar I attended recently where the chaplain of St John’s College, Kate Bruce, talked about the use of the imagination in preaching.

I take it as axiomatic that a sermon is not a prepared script, but actually consists of a particular person speaking in a particular place and at a particular time to a particular group of people. In other words, a sermon is an event (which maybe begs the question of why I’ve posted my sermons on here… ) rather than just the words on a page. The obvious corollary is that the sermon is a two-way process. The congregation have work to do as well as the preacher, and active listening and engagement is required, otherwise the whole thing is pointless.

Thinking about the sermons I’ve heard over the years, the ones that stick in my head have all been those where I have been given the chance to use my imagination. As an example, one of the canons of Durham Cathedral once discussed whether God really has a ‘treasure map’ for our lives and we have to make the right choices at the right points or else miss out on being the people we could be – a wrong turn being fatal. I’ve found myself coming back to this idea over the past few months when pondering the future.

What was good about the sermon, it seems to me, was this creation of imaginative space, in which one was given guidance as to how to make use of the new possibility opening up, but nevertheless left to figure out how to make best use of it for oneself. I think of it a bit like being taught some basic dance moves and given a studio, but it being entirely up to me to put the dance together (or indeed, just to go with the flow of the music and see what happens, which I think is a bit like the idea about the missio dei understanding of what mission is – God in Christ is at work through the Spirit and we’re invited to join in).

This process, it strikes me, requires taking a risk. Risk on behalf of the listener, because stepping out into an imaginative space means one might be changed by the experience, which incidentally I think is the biggest reason we hide from God, because life to the full involves a disregarding of worldly security blankets and this is a painful process (I know for one that I find it very hard to let go and trust God – Luke 12:22-31 is very sobering). Risk to the preacher, because this imaginative space can only ever really be a place of transformation, of new life, if the Holy Spirit is at work there, and we can never force this to happen.

I think this is what Myers is getting at – as preachers, we need to be prepared to take the risk of failing, of all our endeavours falling flat, because it’s only when we are prepared to be vulnerable that God can have room to speak. This isn’t an excuse to be lazy and never prepare, nor does it mean that we should not give our best, but it does remind us that putting God in the ‘box’ of a neatly packaged, perfectly delivered sermon risks stifling the divine creativity longing to turn our mortal words into a vehicle through which the life and love of the Kingdom can become that bit more visible. It also made me think – is being complimented on a sermon a good thing?

In summary, when preaching, try to let go of ego and give people space to imagine, to dream, and for God to create, renew, transform.

What do you think?