A Transactional Relationship

January 24th, 2013

When I began to preach, nearly thirty years ago, I approached preaching quite differently. I leaned more toward topical preaching and frequently, as young preachers do, selected a topic that interested me and then looked for texts that dealt with the topic—often stringing scores of unrelated texts together, along with far too many personal observations, into something that I was certain resembled a sermon. Over time, things have changed. Now I start with the text. Preaching holds the potential to help hearers realize that the human element is present in every part of the Bible—in the letters, in the historical passages, in the Levitical codes, in the Psalms, in the Prophets, in the Gospels—everywhere! Effective preaching transforms ancient text into a living text with the hopes that it becomes a lived text in the lives of parishioners.

When I am not using the Revised Common Lectionary, texts for preaching come from devotional reading of the Bible. My better sermons are often around a text that will not let me go, one that I revisit again and again over a period of days or even months. When this happens, it feels like the passage is trying to say some­thing important to me or to others, and I am drawn to it again and again until I hear—and share—the good news (or the words of warning) that the text brings.When I am preaching from the lec­tionary, I often read all texts over and over, from different trans­lations, aloud and silently, meditatively and exegetically, until I hear one of the passages speak louder than the others.

Most of my sermons are an eclectic blend of exposition and nar­rative. As needed, parts of the sermon are expository, with preacher as narrator bringing congregation up to speed on helpful details about things like the sitz im leben, the geopolitical context, the use of language, or assumptions that the original audience may have had about relationships, taboos, norms, and deviances, so that later, the denouement the sermon makes sense. Other parts of my sermons are in a storytelling style reminiscent of the old-time preacher, hoping to help the congregation see and feel and touch the very human elements of the story.

I am drawn to preach from Bible stories because they dramatize the human encounter with the divine—where divine intervention has taken place in some form, leaving us mortals to ponder what does this mean? I delight in scripture text that dramatizes the topsy­ turvy nature of the gospel message where people who think they are on the upside of life are exposed in their poverty and those who are poor in spirit, physically ill, or deranged are restored to family and community to the glory of God. I believe this is the gist of the gospel message as forecasted both in Mary's Magnificat and in Jesus' inaugural sermon. No member of a congregation should be able to hear a sermon and remain unchanged. Similarly, no con­gregation should leave its community unchanged.

The preacher is the person who challenges, woos, and coaxes the congregation to embrace the lifestyle and ministry of Jesus Christ in ways that change their immediate surroundings and eventually their world! The greatest fodder for my sermons comes from the healing stories of the Bible from both Testaments. Those stories reveal a basic elemental need for God that is common to rich or poor, young or old, or people from any national or cultural back­ground. The way most cultures regard the chronically ill or those who are debilitated is scandalous. The scandal of God's love for the poor, those who are sick, or those who are mentally unstable stands in direct contrast to our human tendencies and provides a way for us to see ourselves.

I have a love-hate relationship with pulpits. The pulpit is a pow­erful symbol—one often denied to some of our sisters in other denominations who are required to teach from the floor, when they should be preaching from the pulpit. But, for me the pulpit is more of an inconvenience because pulpits are designed for taller people and as such often become more barrier than symbol. For this rea­son, I often stand beside the pulpit or even preach in the midst of the people if it does not appear to make them uncomfortable. I almost always create a manuscript, but I preach from a skeletal outline. This is a discipline that I embraced in seminary. The manu­script serves as a place to test and perfect ways to get to my main point. Later, the skeletal outline is just a roadmap to keep me from chasing unproductive points. It bears mention that I consciously may choose not to follow this roadmap when I am on my feet in the unique transactional relationship between preacher and congrega­tion and Holy Spirit.

I believe that preachers are charged to take their congregations on more frequent excursions into the otherness of God. We are to make sure that those who listen to our preaching with any frequency are confronted with a God who is greater than racism, than sexism, than poverty or politics. Through the foolishness of preach­ing we are able to see and taste the kingdom or reign of God enough to be dissatisfied with the status quo. I believe that our ancestors on this continent were able to prevail because of preach­ing that helped them focus on the majesty and sovereignty of God more than upon the myriad problems that they faced. God comes to lift the lowly, to level the mountainous pride of our age, and to lift up those whom the powerful have brought low. And if, perchance, the rich and powerful, who have often come to their wealth and position by less than honorable means, incline their ears and their hearts toward God, they too can be saved.

excerpted from: Black United Methodists Preach! edited by Gennifer Benjamin Brooks ©Abingdon Press 2012.

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