…to preach after the manner of Paul requires, first, that we be so convinced of Christ’s love and so uncertain of human –even religious—endeavor that we yield to the priority of interior over exterior, unseen over seen, and eternal over transient that Christ’s death and especially his resurrection exemplify. It requires that we enter into the dynamic of divinely imposed death and resurrection to such an extent that we begin to yield up our prerogatives of self-determination, social dignity, and cultural identity, and thereby become conformed to the reality of Christ, with the new life that this entails. (p.226)
In a way what Knowles thinks is the task of the preacher who would proclaim the gospel with the force and balance of Paul is also the task of any Christian. I find my self left unclear as to how to achieve the kind of balance that Knowles articulates as he finds his way through the various dimensions of Christian life discussed or implied in the Corinthian correspondence. But he has left me asking again what makes a good sermon. I have long believed in preaching rather than sermons, by which I mean that I value the conversation in a community over time more than the occasional (although most enjoyable) tour de force. I am not a very good ‘visiting preacher’ as a result. Over time we can preach “ a little law and a little grace” (as I once told a parish search committee.)
Everyone has heard sermons we think are good and others that we judge to be dreadful. In that sense we all place ourselves in the position of being experts and critics. It is rare that we find the high doctrine of preaching articulated by Bonheoffer at his most Germanic when he opined that the duty of one who hears a sermon is to “listen and obey.” He apparently believed that a sermon should never be discussed.
I know that I look for something that qualifies as a ‘so what?’ in a sermon and I look for something that takes me beyond the obvious meaning or straightforward reading of a text which I assume is available to me by hearing it and thinking about it for a minute of two. I don’t enjoy hearing the story re-told unless the re-telling offers me some new insight of consequence. I am suspicious of stories that are designed to move me but which bear no obvious relation to a point. I am suspicious of sermons that offer ‘four steps to a better life’ or ‘three ways to forgive those who have hurt you’ or other such staples of self help literature. It is not that I don’t appreciate the wisdom; it is rather that I’m not sure that such sermons capture or proclaim God’s liberating grace in the gospel.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and some conversation about what makes a good sermon in your view. If you have heard “something that sustains you through the week”, can you offer an example? If you have been challenged in a way that altered the direction of your life, what was that like? If you have heard consolation in a time of trouble, what was the content of the preaching that gave you that sense?