What Makes Sermons Tick?

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (II Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)

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I grew up listening to sermons.  How could I not?  Dad was my pastor and there was NO missing church!  At some point, I got interested as a kid, in what Dad was saying, how he was saying it, whether it got my attention, but most of all – whether it made me think.  I remember how on Saturdays that Dad would pile all kinds of books on his bed, stretch out, and read for hours.  Then nap.  He would get up, scratch out his notes on 1 ½ inch wide strips of paper, tuck them in his Bible and Sunday would happen.   I’d probably sleep too long and while I can read my handwriting just as I could Dad’s, it takes a lot of effort!  I much prefer my notes with LARGE printed font and I’ve always written my sermons, as a way for me to both reflect upon every word… and to have copies that I can share with the deaf and those who want to do more study (which is why I post my sermons).  Nor do I preach in the same style as Dad, even though he usually held my interest (for the first 15 minutes).  Dad gave me something to think about, and I cherished that, along with his deep affinity for the Word, not clipping verses to fit an agenda (i.e. prooftexting), but ensuring that what was offered had integrity with the larger text and its context.

The Word is amazing, prophetic, healing… We don’t need to twist it and shouldn’t.  We just have to trust it, approaching it with awe and wonder.

I’ve had some conversations about sermons of late.  I’ll be honest, my “style” has evolved over the decades, and where in my youth I thought of pronouncements, I made a major shift over the past 16-18 years.  Already moving that direction, in 2006-2007 I went through a year of clinical training and the spillover of that experience was to elevate my sense of curiosity as a central skill.  Curiosity holds no judgment.  It offers no conclusion.  It ponders.  It stays open, inviting discussion – for everyone who listens to a sermon is a theologian, even if not in formal training.  We each wrestle with the Word… its meaning… its application… its mystery.  In this encounter is the sharpening of mind and spirit.  It is also an experience of very intentional trust.  We’re all adults.  We are all Christians.  We are all invited to hold the Word, ponder, wrestle, even kindly argue about it with each other.  That’s how we stretch and grow, lest our spiritual muscles needed for life in this world – or they atrophy  I think this is one of the best things of our heritage as members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as the founders insight and intent.

At some point, back around 2002 or so, I started thinking about an old TV show, “Dragnet,” and how the two detectives had such different styles of getting a case solved – as a team.  Jack Webb would carefully align every single fact (“Just the facts, ma’am/sir” was his refrain!) while Harry Morgan would start telling a story in noticing some pattern – which drove Jack Webb crazy, but his intuition was often crucial.  Those two types sit in our pews and sermons somehow have to reach them both… engage us both.  As I have always been more of a “narrative” preacher, Harry Morgan made sense to me, but I weave in the concrete words that work for the Jack Webbs’ in the pews.  It is a finding a way to bring together the narrative writing style of the Gospel of John with the factually descriptive verse of the Gospel of Mark (read them side by side and you will see their difference).

That time I spent in clinical training that I mentioned, sharpened this style, and deepened me in the process.  I began to see things I had not seen before, even as I drew in the “exegesis” into that narrative – the word meanings, historical and religious context, allied texts, and what others wiser than me have lifted up in their commentaries.  It’s hard sometimes, because there can be so much that I end up setting aside – both in the interest of time and to keep the sermon focused.  Sometimes, I find sermons painful… as the Word drags me into places I would not choose, leaves me ambivalent when I want an A-B-C answer, and wears me out while I seek clarity of what it has to say “now.”  But, I imagine the disciples of Jesus must have felt that way at times as they learned in his presence!

Now you may have noticed, there usually is some type of story leading off.  Usually the whole thing is not told at that point, but rather it runs parallel to the text, giving it a relatable feel, pulling us into the text, before I go into why I am raising a particular point.  No, I don’t do the 2-point sermons I was taught in seminary by Dr. Dick White, nor classic 3-point sermons.  Mine are 1-point, with a lot of elaboration in the main body.  Then I move into a “so what” portion.  If you notice, often there are questions, an incomplete story, something that lingers….  This is intentional, because at this point the listener is invited to become a theologian in the days ahead… to wrestle with what has been heard… to mingle it with one’s own life story and observations… and to hopefully walk out with something that is “portable” enough to chew on over coming days.  Sunday worship should travel with us, after all.

What I am saying is that sermons are our partnership.  A meeting place between pastor, listeners, the Holy Spirit, and our sacred texts.  We stand in the same place, at the same level.  We are all students in this meeting place of curiosity, of wrestling, of personal application – be it one’s own life, our congregation, our community, and/or our nation.  This seems to be, after all, what it is to be a disciple following in the steps of Jesus.  It is how, ultimately, we are blessed with far more than we can ask or think.

Blessings,

Rev. Vinson Miller, Pastor

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Again, after 35 years of ministry, I remain a student of the process of each part of ministry.  Anytime I think I have really mastered something, I am humbled… and shown something new.  So it never gets dull!  I am grateful to my ever-patient bride who typically “proofs” my sermons.  She is my most honest critic and best friend.  She will spot what may not make sense and ask me questions.  That helps!  It also means she gets to listen to it twice, so a special shout out to Julie!

OK, I shared this earlier this week in our bi-weekly church newsletter.  So if you read it before, that’s where you did.  🙂

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