I moved from debate hall to pulpit as a sophomore in college when I was appointed by a Methodist bishop to serve a “student charge.” I was paid to practice on those poor people who had to endure my first attempts to preach. I continued my attempts through seminary as well—and did about the same thing.
It was deductive; it was argumentative; it pushed toward a conclusion. My mother, who was present for my first sermon, expressed her appreciation. “It was lovely, Eugene,” she said. Later, however, she added, “it did sound like a debate.”
It is strange that this should be true because of my experience with jazz. I started playing the piano prior to kindergarten to get back at my older brother, who after finishing piano practice would close the Thompson primer. I then would move to the piano and play by ear what he had been attempting to play with the help of the Thompson book. This just irritated the devil out of him—to my delight. Soon my parents decided that I, too, should begin taking piano lessons. I was five at the time. By seventh grade I was playing piano in a jazz band run by a high school student. Throughout high school I ran my own stock dance band. I also played trombone in a blues band. In college, I formed another band, The Blue Notes—until my District Board of Ministry decided that running a dance band was not suitable for one appointed pastor of a local congregation.
Now, many years later, I just wish that somebody would have said to me, “When you are preparing to preach, remember to preach the same way you play the piano.” I would have understood the narrative principle of preaching years more quickly than I did. Early on I learned that for jazz improvisation, you take a simple tune and by “messing around with the melody and the harmony” you turn the song sideways. It becomes more complicated, more interesting, and finally turns toward the reprise called home.
My early argumentative and deductive approach to preaching was not helped much in seminary courses in preaching that I took at Drew. The textbook was Principles and Practices of Preaching, by Ilion T. Jones. His view was that after some idea “strikes,” the preparation process begins with three steps. First, one works on the idea until it becomes quite crisp—he calls it “the exact truth the idea contains.” Second, one figures out what to do with that idea. Jones wanted clarity about the intended sermonic “purpose.” “State clearly in a brief sentence . . . the purpose of the sermon.” Step three: “Find a suitable passage from the Bible on which to base the sermon.”
I really didn’t need to heed that advice at that time in my sermon work. Unfortunately, that’s what I already had been doing as a college-student preacher.
Within ten years, I finally began to understand something about the notion of narrativity in preaching. Yet, it was still logical; it was still discursive; it was still “pushy.” But, then I began to find wider reaches of mood and purpose. It was then that I wrote Doing Time in the Pulpit—as I was beginning to grasp the difference between space and time. As I noted, a sermon is not an object in space; it is an event in time. It moves like music moves. It starts with a beginning and stops at the end. That’s how it works—beat after beat.
A simple scale on the piano illustrates the growing thickness and final resolution as it moves slowly from middle C upward through the entire octave. The timing is crucial. If you reach the resolution of the high C too soon, you will have killed it.
Don’t forget Jeremy Begbie and the twin elements of tension and resolution in music.
It was Aristotle whose understanding of plot assisted me in first naming plot as basic to every sermon of whatever type. And it was Aristotle whose grasp of the stages of the classic plot lured me away from the dominance of narrow discursive ideation. Now, encountering the Aristotle Blues can help us all better understand those stages.
This article is excerpted from the author's The Homiletical Beat: Why All Sermons are Narrative. Used by permission.