Saturday, January 14, 2006

Reflecting on Homiletics

I’m working on a sermon today. Now, what that means for me and what that means for others is not the same. I’m not one to write out a text, unless there are specific circumstances I need to speak to. Instead, for the last 20 years I’ve been preaching extemporaneously. I stand up in front of the congregation and say what I think God wants me to say. That is, I stand up after hours of reading and reflecting and churning. I may not write out a text, but I do my homework.

Still, preaching extemporaneously has some distinct hazards to it. As I say to students who ask me about it, preaching extemporaneously requires that one learn to live with fear. While the Spirit hasn’t failed me, and I haven’t failed often, I continue to consider the possibility that I’ll stand up and go blank. There is an old joke about the seven-word sermon: the preacher stands in the pulpit and says, “I have nothing to say this morning.” I won’t say I’m terrified of that thought; I will say I do not forget it. It is possible that some time I’ll find myself utterly empty.

A more common hazard is the possibility that the lessons will have no central or compelling theme. As an Episcopalian I’m committed to preaching from the Lectionary. I’m not concerned whether I’m using the lectionary from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer or the Revised Common Lectionary. Both work well enough, and the differences are too small, or I’m not scholar enough, to notice. But since I am committed to using the lectionary, I’m not one for choosing my topic and then choosing lessons to fit.

Unfortunately, there are times when the lessons chosen for the day don’t fit. Now, I’m not talking about a misfit with the season or the date. The apparent (and only apparent) misfit between the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, and the Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday (including the verse, "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”) simply makes me stop and think (and chuckle, embarrassed). Instead, I’m talking about those Sundays, usually in Pentecost, when I look at the three lessons and can’t find a theme or idea that connects them. On rare occasions I look at all three lessons and can’t find anything moving to preach on in any of them.

More often, I look at the three lessons and one of them simply doesn’t connect. That is the issue for this weekend, at least for me. The Old Testament lesson is the call of Samuel the prophet. As a young boy he hears a voice, but doesn’t know who he’s listening to. The Gospel lesson is the call of Nathaniel. He receives an invitation from Phillip, but he doesn’t know who he’s going to see. (The astute reader may pick up on where my head is, at least at the moment, for tomorrow’s sermon.) However, the Epistle lesson is Paul writing in I Corinthians about the purity of the body and refraining from sexual immorality of all types. I find myself looking at a lesson that doesn’t fit, a reading that won’t integrate. It’s not that it’s not possible to preach on that lesson, although in the current climate in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and as an unabashed progressive, I’m not sure what I’d want to say. I could, I suppose, say something out of that lesson that could reflect the love and compassion of Christ. But I can’t see how it would connect with either of the other lessons.

Now, in reality this is simply an intellectual difficulty. I can (and probably will) preach tomorrow on the theme I’ve found connecting the other two lessons, unless the Spirit compels me to something else. I can preach and have preached on two lessons without reference to the third and no one will think it unusual or inappropriate. I doubt anyone else in the congregation will note or think much about it. But I am the preacher tomorrow. I have the responsibility to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the lessons, and then discern God’s word in them and share that in public. So, yeah, it is only, really, an issue for me. Still, I enjoy those Sundays when the lessons all connect, and wrestle on those Sundays when they don’t. Since I do take all of Scripture seriously, even when I disagree with it – even when I have to wrestle with it painfully – I sometimes wish that all three lessons in the Lectionary for each Sunday fit better together.


Milton Stanley said...

How about this:

Samuel is called but doesn't know who he's listening to;
Nathaniel is called but doesn't know who he's going to see;
The Corinthians are called but don't know whose their bodies are.

In each case they don't understand their call.

Marshall Scott said...

Milton, that's an interesting take. One could say further, and especially about the Corinthians, "they don't know whose body they are." I take that from Pauls' concern about "I am Paul's; I am Appolis's; I am Christ's." So, perhaps even Paul would have to think about that.

Thanks for the comment.

Milton Stanley said...

You're right about that. I look forward to visiting your blog in the future.