During my travels this summer, I have attended Sunday worship in one Episcopal Church and three congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The four preachers I heard (all of them women, well-established in their careers, and accomplished) have prompted me to think again about what makes for good preaching in progressive churches of our time. I liked these preachers because they were:
Personable: It felt as thought they were talking with and to the people who were in that church on that Sunday, including me, guest for the day as I was. Clearly all of these preachers were working from what seemed to be complete manuscripts, which means that their sermons were tightly constructed, with a sense of movement from beginning to end. Yet, the preachers looked at congregants more than they looked at the paper. Their carefully constructed sentences took life in the immediacy of semi-extemporaneous delivery. Although their personalities were distinctly different from one another, each of them had leaned a communicative method that softened the personal idiosyncrasies and allowed their transpersonal message to shine through.
Biblically focused: Each of these preachers paid attention to a text from the Bible that had been read earlier in the service. Here they differed from many preachers (some of whom I hear gladly) who make little effort to illuminate the biblical texts or to show the connection between the ancient Word and the contemporary words of the sermon. They also differed from many preachers whose sermons focus so much on ancient times that it is difficult to see any connection with life in the world in which we live.
Oriented to life today: These four preachers spent time early in their sermons highlighting some part of their texts so that the ideas therein contained would illuminate and support the message for today that the preacher was prepared to deliver. An example is one of these sermons, which in the worship folder was entitled “Family Values.” It was based on Luke 9:41-62, especially the last portion where someone wanted to delay following Jesus until after saying goodbye to family. The preacher explained how important deference to family was in that time and then indicated the radical character of the challenge that Jesus brought. Even our highest personal and social values are to be aligned with those of the coming age.
She used Dorothy Height, long-time civil rights leader who died recently, as an example of someone who embodied deeply held family values but moved beyond them during her long and illustrious life. The preacher also noted that all of us face the question of where do our family values and our greater values converge. She gave immediacy to the issue by reporting one conversation in which the person had stated “Being gay is not a choice. Being Christian is.” (The very next morning, I fell into conversation at a coffee shop with a woman who has had to struggle with this very issue in her own family and, with little help from her own church, has come to resolution similar to the one implied in the sermon I had heard the day before.)
Appropriate to the liturgical setting: These four sermons were part of full services of Word and Sacrament. Their purpose, in part, was to describe the world the way God wants it to be. In the eucharist that was tightly connected with the sermon, congregants were given a momentary experience of that world. In the family values liturgy, the sermon prepared people to meet one another at the table of God’s family, a table that is broader, more generous, and finally more satisfying than any of the lesser family tables around which we would be gathering later in the day. These sermons came in two sizes: short (nine and eleven minutes) and longish (nineteen and twenty-one minutes). Yet all of them seemed just about right. It seems clear that sermons are only as long as they seem to be.
I’m a hard listener to please, especially on Sunday mornings. Thanks to four good preachers, in Virginia, West Virginia, and Indiana, who have helped me hear the Word this summer.