This will have to be my final post on this subject. I will, of course, post the sermon on Monday. Again, I’ll clean up the language later.
Back in the old days, when I was a lay minister for a small, independent sect of holy-rollers, our messages were supposed to be “evangelical.” Now, do not get your hopes up; this word only mean that we preached the need for salvation to those already saved. Considering that in the 32 years I was in the sect, my particular communities suffered only decline, with the newest members coming in two decades ago. There were re-alignments. Some United Pentecostals would move over, but that isn’t really a conversion so much as it is a “better revelation.” So, if visitors came, the pastor would usually preach. Further, it was the pastor’s job to preach pointed (i.e., slicing and dicing) messages; it was our job to make everyone jump and shout. I was fairly good at that. Actually, of the ministers in West Virginia, I can objectively say that I was by far the best. I tended to remember that the audience was before me, in the pews, while too often, the lay ministers, filled with envy, sought the approval of the pastor. (My wife and I would slowly notch on a piece of paper how many times one lay minister would use the words “my pastor.”) When we preach, I believe, we preach to those who are before us; however, rarely if ever should the sermon be about the people before the preacher. By this, I mean that pastors and other clergy members are sometimes given unique insights into the struggles of their parishioners. So, they must avoid unless necessary (perhaps their is a sudden death in the congregation. Of course, this is not a sermon, but words of comfort) using those circumstances as cannon fodder to shoot off at the mouth.
Craddock proposes that periods of study and reflection are necessary in the preparation of the sermon. He also suggests that our focus is two-fold; one focus is on the audience while the other focus is on the biblical text. This is where theology occurs — when we are connected to Scripture. Again, theology is front and center in the role of the sermon, because theology is also what connects the members to one another. I would not feel comfortable in a conservative presbyterian church nor would I feel comfortable with a conservative United Methodist preacher who is more in tune with Mark Driscoll than with William Willimon. As part of an audience, I am part of a community, an intentional community.
Our author writes, “it is… important for the health of one’s preaching to submit to the discipline of distancing everyone once in a while, to remind oneself that those who are to hear this sermon are who they are and have their worth as well as their needs intrinsically whatever may be their attitude toward or their relation to the minister (87).” This is my biggest concern, I think. I am, perhaps, a bit esoteric in my viewpoints. In my Sunday School class, I can see the Gospel unfold. I know the characters of the Gospel and I see them, from time to time, in the faces of the Sunday School class. (Spoilers! This has to do with the sermon). I do not see the Gospel as a one time event, told only in the historical past tense (Matthew and Luke) but one that is happening right here and now (Mark and John). Therefore, my problem is to remain distant enough to preach this sermon, but is is a sermon that is supposed to be close enough for them to recognize themselves in the Gospel story. Personally, I think any group of people can recognize themselves in the Gospel story. Craddock is against a sermon who puts people down; I agree; however, being compared to Judas doesn’t always make someone’s day. But, I like Judas. I like the person that reminds me of Judas. They both have received a bad reputation, then and now. So, how do I keep a safe but enjoyable distance?
Craddock’s section on The Listeners as Congregation is perhaps the most insightful in dealing with an audience you know because it deals with the familiarity between the preacher and the audience. He has three questions to ask oneself in preparation — who, when, and where. It may seem a little coy, but the location of the sermon does actually matter. In our church, we have the centrum which is the large worship space. We also have a more traditional chapel. I will stand in the chapel on Sunday. The centrum would give it an air of familiarity I do not want and I suspect an air of authority not needed. The chapel is the one those coming to hear the sermon will be less likely to know, space wise; therefore, they will not be too comfortable and have too many expectations. The when is also a unique factor. It will be in the evening, at an unusual time. It is not the normative church gathering time, but one in which we are preparing for Monday and one in which we are usually dropping our children off for choir. The who, on the other hand, is the most secure unknown quantity.
There are three ways the minister and the congregation build a relationship, Craddock points out. I’m not a minister, and they are not my congregation; however, for Sunday, I guess we will play our respective parts. The formal method is one of self-education. This involves the local history of the people, the images of themselves, and interviews. Informal requires the minister to sit and observe. I have to say — I’ve watched the senior pastor doing this when he thinks no one else is watching. But, he does; and he notices the relationships between people. It is interesting to watch this develop. Finally, Craddock labels the “capacity to achieve a large measure of understanding of another person without having had that person’s experiences” the empathetic imagination. My imagination, Rev. Craddock, can get away from me. This latter method involves the identification of the minister with the congregation, even if shared experiences do not allow for a real one. This is, I think, something I can identity with because of my studies in Mark and literary criticism. We create our bonds. We structure our experiences to determine which ones identify our unique self-images. Then we must ask ourselves if we can validate others as equal to ourselves if we do not share the same experiences – especially those experiences we deem as important.
So now, I turn to the final few days for sermon preparation. Here, I will cut and carve away those things I believe breach too much distance as well as those things that drive us too far part. Distance is good, but sometimes, distance creates an air of superiority.