This was the second of three talks at the Learning Christian Living: The Task of Catechesis workshop, which was held at All Saints' Margaret Street on Nov 8 2017. The other two were on Beginning Catechesis and Discipleship.
We've heard how to get people started on learning about the faith. Now we turn to the church's major tool in updating, and reinforcing Christian teaching: the sermon.
At a Billy Graham Rally
“I thought it might be very nice if Joe decided for Christ... but he wouldn't. ... [W]hen I decide for Christ (which I sometimes do, but it does not last) it is always in an Anglican church (high), and I didn't think I would care to decide thus in the Haringey arena, so neither of us got up.”
Probably these words from Rose Macaulay's 1956 novel The Towers of Trebizond will have a familiar feeling to many of us. Because we have read the book, perhaps. Or, even if we haven't, because we have been to a Billy Graham rally ourselves (as I did—not at all memorably—when I was about ten), or heard about them. The setting is close to home. The claim is that an Anglican church (high) does something similar and even better. I have considered my audience (as Macaulay had considered hers) and decided that you will enjoy the idea, gently put, that the right place to decide for Christ is at least somewhere with the sacrament reserved, if not All Saints Margaret Street itself. Of course, the difference between the Haringey Arena and All Saints Margaret Street feeds the absurdity of Macaulay’s scene. But it also says something important about deciding for Christ – that is, that we hope and expect such a huge decision to be founded on something more substantial than the glib words of a master rhetorician. Macaulay’s character here gestures towards the importance of actual theological content - the content found in the scriptures, the liturgy, the buildings, and the artefacts that link us to the traditions of the church. We know the decisions made by the crowds at the rally will not last. But while the rally packs up and moves on, the Anglican church (high) does not. So that when our heroine's decision for Christ wavers, she can go back to the Church (high) and make another decision for Christ, and another, over, and over, and over again.
Friends, no one's decision for Christ lasts. We all have to be born again into the knowledge that we are the beloved children of God not once only, but every day. And as preachers our opportunity is usually, what, once a week? To supply what might be the only real theological content that our congregations will get in those seven days. The scene from the novel is about conversion. And that is the point of a sermon as I see it, to inspire people to want to follow Christ and to believe that following Christ is possible for them, in their lives now. The scene is also a vindication of tradition and theological substance in the sermon. A sermon has to be about what the church actually teaches and not a dumbed-down soundbite version, because what the church actually teaches is a mystery: that is, something a) beautiful which draws people in and b) inexhuastible, and so always offering replenishment.
It's clear that to have any real content a sermon has to be a distillation of three things: i) reading, ii) thinking and iii) prayer. Which is good because they're three things of the things that clerics are given a stipend to free them up to do. You should have a reading life, a thinking life and a prayer life that you can draw on to have something to offer. And if any one of the fails you when it comes to writing a sermon (which it will, because time pressure, fatigue etc.), then you should have at least one of the others, ideally two, to combine into something worth hearing.
Let’s take them one by one.
How do you read scripture? I mean practically:
- In a hurry
- On your iphone
- Not really looking at the words because you already know what it says
- Not really looking at the words because you’re bored and you’ve forgotten yesterday’s bit of 2 Kings so you don’t really know what’s going on here
- Listening to someone else read it (well/badly)
- With a commentary
- With more than one commentary
- As part of a discussion with others
- As lectio divina
- In Greek/Hebrew
- In multiple translations
- In the wider biblical context
I leave that with you to think about.
I’m going to include wider theological reading under this.
Think teaching; think lesson plan. Consider an Aristotelian final-causes sort of approach - work out what the sermon is for, and then you'll know what a good one should look like.
So: what does your congregation need to know, and - just as important - what do they not need to know?
As a rule, they don't need to know:
- Which commentary you found this in
- What the other commentaries say
- The precise meaning of the Greek word
- The stages by which Thomas Aquinas reached this particular conclusion
- Who in the history of theology has got this all wrong, and how.
Now, everyone likes to learn a new fact – a bit of context about the ancient near east, some clarification of an obscure practice and so on. And it’s a crucial part of preaching as a teaching tool that you explain something when it makes no obvious sense. Definitely include detail. But detail should be not be driving it. You're not doing this for a grade. Distil your reading. If the confusion is a really theological one, ask yourself if it deserves to be the whole point of the sermon. ‘I’m going to elucidate this puzzle’. Fine - ONLY if you can link it to the gospel (not just the passage of scripture, but the proclamation of love).
What your congregation does need to know:
- That they are loved
- That they are normal
- That everyone finds life hard
- That Jesus knows that
- That everyone finds following Christ hard
- That Jesus knows that as well
- That the terminology is isn’t automatically transparent to others
- That others have succeeded
- That others have failed
- That God loves them just the same
- That the saints are praying.
- That the real gospel is even better than the dumbed-down version they have in their heads
What do we notice?
The things they don't need to know, are things that they in fact don't know.
The things they do need to know, are things they already know.
Let’s expand on that. Take this poem:
He tells her that the Earth is flat—
He knows the facts, and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong.
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell.
She cannot win. He stands his ground.
The planet goes on being round.
Not the greatest poem in the world, but it’s short and it serves my purpose because if it does nothing else it evokes recognition. We have all been in arguments like that.
And the preacher who wants to communicate the Christian faith has to do something similar.
What is the faith? It is 1) a description of the human condition, and 2) a description of God's remedy for that condition. The job of the preacher is to evoke recognition a) that the human condition is their condition; b) that there is a remedy and this is it. But c) – and this is where it’s real teaching – that the remedy offered in Christ is far, far better than the version of that remedy most of us are carrying around in our heads.
As soon as the truth reaches damaged human ears, it gets bent, like refracted light. Your job as a preacher is to unbend it – not the whole thing at once, but one bit of it at a time. I think I can say in this company that private reading of the bible is not an unmixed good. It’s possible to get some very unhealthy ideas (heresies, as we term them) by doing that. A focus on the preaching of doctrine means replacing the self-loathing, other-loathing or otherwise mistaken ideas we COULD take from scripture - and that people DO take from scripture - and showing how the Church has already provided thought-through answers and explanations, which do justice to our whole shared experience of the love of God. I watched someone weeping once, convinced that HE was guilty of the sin against the Holy Ghost that can’t be forgiven. Because he’d read it in the Bible.
Set yourself the challenge – how does my learning help me prevent that from happening?
However: Job number two is to help people participate in the Christian community by welcoming them into the vocab.
Fewer and fewer of the men and women in the congregation have any schooling in the faith. Nonetheless, they feel an urge and desire to be in church and participate as members of this community. We live in a lunatic world in which it’s believed that we have to understand things before we are allowed any claim to connect with them. So many people feel intense self-consciousness at NOT KNOWING. I remember it clearly myself. They won’t admit they don’t know what the words mean, because that is to say ‘I don’t belong’ or ‘my faith is without foundations’. Your job is to link the words to their sense – whether established or inchoate – that the message they are attracted to is true.
In the wording of your sermons, you could:
- Link to the creed – obvious, but too rarely done.
- Link to liturgical language – collects and other prayers as well as scripture carry theological content that can be opaque to congregations.
- Be explicit – “ ‘blah blah blah…. or what Christians call ‘prevenient grace’”
- Or (a favourite of mine from long ago from Harry Williams): There is nothing in this world or the next, absolutely nothing, which cannot, and will not, be turned into the valid currency we need to buy the one pearl of great price. That is what is meant when we say we are redeemed. 
Theology is a discipline that begins as footnotes. Its essence is comments on scripture. Here's a definition for you: Theology is the description and expansion of the kerygma for a defined audience.
As a preacher, you are a theologian.
The New Testament is the first Christian theology - it takes the canonical texts (Old Testament) and it comments on them in the light of the revelation of God in Christ. Then the Fathers – they take the canonical texts (which now include the New Testament) and comment on those in the light of the presence of Christ to the church. Likewise scholastics, mystics, and everyone else.
We simply continue what they are doing. So:
A) Use them.
First, use the NT to read the OT (and vice versa). Usually the compilers of the Lectionary are helping you here. As for the Fathers, read their sermons and commentaries on scripture and not just their more narrowly dogmatic works. You'll find they anticipate your own readings. I was very excited by my first sermon as a curate and the reading I had devised of the Good Samaritan, and my lovely training incumbent said ‘Oh, so you’re an Augustinian on this parable, are you?’. It’s all there already.
And there are lots more ways of reading any one passage: sacramentally, symbolically, ethically. The Fathers have it all, and you can find them online: http://www.newadvent.org has most of what you could want.
Don’t get bored.
B) Talk to one another.
Saints living and departed have asked these same questions. What was the best conversation you've had in the last couple of weeks? What did it tell you, about life, and love, and faith, and difficulty? Why not use that?
Use your sermon to try out the theological ideas you get from the thing you've most recently read. Ask yourself: can I make the theological ideas here my own? Can I put them in my own words? Can I put them in the service of the gospel? Can I phrase them so that my congregation will understand them? Take your Herbert McCabe or your James Alison or your Rowan Williams or your John Behr and share it out.
You will soon find that if the theological ideas are any good, they seem - astonishingly - to be exactly appropriate to this week’s gospel…
C) Do what the Greats do: look everywhere.
Before I was ordained I was always complimented on my clothes. And I’d cheerfully admit I’d got stuff in a charity shop, or Littlewoods (remember Littlewoods?), or somewhere even less promising. The first rule of being well-dressed – look everywhere. I had no shame. Likewise, Augustine nicked stuff from Plato, Thomas from Aristotle - so what? Good for them! You're not trying to be original. You're trying to show that the gospel is true. If something is true, and demonstrably so, then link it to the gospel, show that Christ has cornered and anticipated every true thing that can be said and done and known – evoke that recognition. The recognition should be easy to come by, because the truth is happening, all around us, all the time. Use artistic sources, philosophical sources, narrative sources – anything. My own tastes will show in these examples, but have you ever noticed that Sense and Sensibility is an extended commentary on the Labourers in the Vineyard? Have you ever thought about how the highly ambiguous ending of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette plays back into all the Pauline themes about knowing and not-knowing all through the novel?
We can debate about the Constantinian settlement and the effects of an established church, but say this for the saturation of Christian culture - it's everywhere.
I was judging a competition in a local high-school last week, a competition of theological book reviews for the school theology society. I was impressed and delighted by the huge range of different texts they had tackled. And I told them that this was a great skill they were practising, because there is nothing at all that is not susceptible of a theological reading. Nothing – Marian Keyes, Eastenders, a football match – all of them are concerned with human endeavour and blessing and failure and reconciliation and growth. And God is in all of that. Am I wrong? Prove me wrong!
By doing theology in practice - by doing doctrine – you’re also teaching the congregation to do it. Showing them the use of these methods lets them apply the same methods - commenting on scripture, and seeing the patterns of the Christian truth in world events, in their own relationships, and the cultural artefacts they encounter. It’s so important to give all this material a theological colour, and then they can too - whether they ever pick up Augustine or not.
Ways to get some extra doctrine in:
- ‘Not X but Y’ rhetorical formation – good for clarification of common misprisions
- Asides – NB example from Peter’s sermon. Summary format is a great way to include material you’re not majoring on.
- “In today’s church, vision statements and strategies are all the rage. If you visit almost any diocesan website, you will find some sort of tag line. Winchester’s is “Living the mission of Jesus”. This… is interesting: the mission of Jesus is the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity to offer the one true, perfect and eternal sacrifice for the salvation of the world. Winchester diocese is clearly nothing if not ambitious.”
- ‘As we all know’ – even if we don’t, helps us feel part of the conversation
- Blunt statement – often effective in subordinate clauses: ‘Since God never condemns anyone, …’; ‘although the persons of the Trinity give themselves without remainder…’
- Hymns – correct them or quote them, they are highly memorable
Read, think, pray – that is how we preach, and it’s how theology comes about at all. A sermon has a better claim to be actual theology than almost anything else.
So let's end with prayer.
You read the scriptures through once or twice. You add in your existing reading. You do your focused reading. Or you don’t. And/or you do your thinking. And then: do you get on your knees in front of the sacrament and ask the Lord what he wants you to say to these people about these texts this week? He is the best and, in the end, the only teacher. The beloved Son. Listen to him.
- H. A. Williams. (1965). True wilderness. Edinburgh: Constable & Co.