Sunday, August 29, 2010

Listening to the Lectionary

I’m a lectionary preacher. Not that every sermon rises out of the assigned lessons, but I always start there. Circumstances can send me off on another track, but even then, providentially it would seem, the lectionary sometimes provides a pertinent word.

In my last post, I wrote, “There’s a lot of meditation and contemplation that goes into a sermon.” It helps to read texts frequently so you get inside them as much as they are inside you. The sermon text then is never far from the surface of consciousness. It tugs at the preacher’s mental sleeve nagging for another thought, another brief meditation on its meaning, one more contemplation of what God is saying to the preacher and to the people. This sort of meditation can wake one up in the middle of the night.

Yet there is a more formal sort of meditation as well. It’s nothing new, of course. I learned about it in Sunday School when I had to memorize the First Psalm. There was that line about those who “delight in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”

Taking time to think and pray about the biblical texts for next Sunday through the week is an essential. It is a way of listening to the lectionary, or more accurately, listening to the Sprit speaking the Word in scripture. Obviously this is worth pursuing in the course of sermon preparation, if not at other times.

This is akin to an ancient practice that has become fashionable again: Lectio Divina. Benedictine monks would indulge regularly in a measured reading of Scripture with time to ponder its meaning. They named this spiritual style of reading, Lectio Divina, which can be translated as “divine reading,” “sacred reading,” or “holy reading.”

There is a process to Lectio Divina. One begins with reading the text with concentration (Lectio); then there is time for pondering what God is saying in the text (Meditatio); next one has a sort of conversation with God in prayers of listening and commitment (Oratio); finally there is a quiet concentration on the presence of God, and peace (Contempatio). Not a bad guide for those pondering the texts in preparation for preaching from them.

The most interesting thing about this is that meditation on the biblical text is carried over into the Lord’s Day worship. Everyone, not only the preacher, is to ponder the meaning of what is read and to make that pondering personal.

The Book of Common Worship (1993) flags this when it suggests that the reading of scripture be prefaced with a “Prayer for Illumination.” The prayers provided are all invitations to participate in a Lectio Divina sort of process.

The reading of Scripture is introduced with the rubric and announcement:
“The reader may then say:
“Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.”
Each passage is followed by a proclamation that the reading has presented the “Word of God” with a response of thanks from the people—and then the rubric: “Silence may be kept.” All of this suggests a Lectio Divina kind of approach.

My experience in the pews these days is that pausing for silent reflection following the hearing of Scripture is more neglected than observed. I think it has a real place in our worship. I wish that the rubric here would have been more directive than permissive and said: “Silence is kept.”

Listening is a vital ingredient in Christian worship. In a time when we are besieged by words, words, words, it is easy to miss the Word whispered by the Spirit.

In your worship service, is there silent time to take quiet counsel with God on the Scripture readings?

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Here’s a very personal subject for discussion: How do you prepare your sermons?

The reason it’s so personal is that every one has his or her own way of doing it. Especially if you’ve been cranking them out for a number of years, and you’ve found the way that “works” for you.

Recently I’ve had three successive Sundays in the pulpit, thanks to vacation schedules of my friends. This has forced me back into a discipline of preparation. I remember Frederick Buechner expressing great admiration for the weekly preacher—he had weeks, even months between sermons and could only imagine how difficult it must be to squeeze preparation into a week. A planned agenda of sermonizing, however, does make it manageable.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve worked out, assuming an every Sunday preaching responsibility, and I have only one week to pull it together.

On the Sunday afternoon the week before, I print out and prayerfully read the Scripture passages from the lectionary for the next Sunday. This is the beginning of time set aside each day through the week for “sermonizing”. In those days I move through working with commentaries and doing some exegesis; scribbling notes on a wide variety of pertinent ideas; jotting possible sermon titles; trying to put in a sentence or two the message of the sermon; noting connections from real-life events to the Scripture; developing an outline of the sermon with major points and subheadings and finalizing the title.

Starting the first Sunday afternoon with the reading of the texts, there is an almost constant thinking about the sermon, looking for connections, some word or event that will illustrate and enlighten. There’s a lot of meditation and contemplation that goes into a sermon. Someone once noted how hard it is to convince your spouse that you’re working when you’re standing there looking out the window. But sometimes that’s the most productive work.

Friday morning, when I’m fresh, I sit at the computer and, with a deep breath and a prayer, I have a go at it. I’m often surprised when what I come up with is not exactly what I planned—I like to think the Spirit is meddling and nudging me in better directions.

The rest of Friday and all day Saturday, I try to stay away from the sermon until Saturday evening. It gives me a chance to get some distance on what I’ve written, enabling me to see it and “listen” to it more objectively, more like someone in the pews might.

Saturday night I turn to my editor-in-chief, my wife, to give it a going over. She’s great at spotting wordy language and fancy words nobody but me would use. She’ll also tell me what’s weak or sloppy. Then I do another rewrite. Even if she has no suggestions or corrections, I’ll go through it again and rewrite.

Sunday morning, I’m up early to go through it again and rewrite if necessary before I leave for church. I will get there with time to spare for going through the manuscript a final time to hear how it sounds, and make marks in red ink accordingly.

Now, you understand that this is the plan for me. Of necessity, the agenda may be compressed. Still this kind of schedule sets a target for me to aim at. I know it’s only one way to approach the preacher’s task, and I’d be interested in seeing what works for others.

So how do you prepare to preach? What works for you? What doesn’t work? And if you’re not a preacher, why not talk to your preacher about his or her process?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Prep Prayers

One of my favorite prayers comes from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. I happen to like it in the Edwardian English of its time. It’s titled “For the Spirit of Prayer.”

"ALMIGHTY God, who pourest out on all who desire it, the spirit of grace and of supplication; Deliver us, when we draw nigh to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with stedfast thoughts and kindled affections, we may worship thee in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

It’s a worthwhile prayer to ask that we might pray passionately and minus as many distractions as we can reasonably shut out. One does not “draw nigh” to the Almighty casually. It’s an act one has to warm up to. And it takes some focus. A warm heart and concentrated mind are worth praying for before you pray.* We should pray before the service actually begins, in preparation for our fullest participation in the main event.

Entering into the worship of Almighty God usually requires a shift of gears: from our individual lives to a corporate experience; from mundane and trivial values to divine eternal truths; from our own selfishness to learning of God’s generosity; and so forth. Sometimes it is not an easy transition. So we need to pray before we pray, a prayer preparing us to worship God in prayer.

This prayer, in an up-dated revised form, is one of some 45 models provided in a section called “Prayers for Use Before Worship” in The Book of Common Worship (1993) (pp. 17-30). They call us to get ready in advance for the time of worship on the Lord’s Day, or any time for that matter. Some of them you might offer up to get yourself in the right frame of mind and heart
even before you pray privately, just as we are supposed to do before we worship corporately.

The practice of prep prayer that is urged here for everyone is especially important for those who compose liturgy. Writing prayers for church congregations is a shuddering responsibility. Not only do we approach God, but we are brazen enough to suppose we can find prayerful language for others.

So here’s another pre-prayer, a confession worship leaders might offer at their desks on Saturday night. It comes from The Worshipbook (page 202).

"Almighty God: you have no patience with solemn assemblies, or heaped-up prayers to be heard by people. Forgive those who have written prayers for congregations. Remind them that their foolish words will pass away, but that your word will last and be fulfilled, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

How do you prepare for worship? Are specific prayers suggested for worshippers? If you are a worship leader, how do you get ready for preparing worship? How do you prepare for your own daily prayers?

* Halford Luccock in Living Without Gloves (Oxford University Press, 1957—pp. 94-95), suggested that the opposite of coldness of heart and wandering of mind would be a cool mind and a wandering heart—also worth praying for if we want to think clearly and reach out with heartfelt empathy.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


This is a true story.

It was the early 1960s, and the American flag stood off in the corner of the sanctuary of the church I served. One morning the custodian reported that the flag, because of its severe age, had become tattered and worn beyond repair. The senior pastor (I was the assistant at the time) told the custodian to dispose of it according to the flag code, and so it was burned.

“I never liked having the American flag there,” the senior pastor said. “It really doesn’t belong in the church.” And so it came to pass that the American flag was not replaced. This elicited not one comment, positive or negative.

Shift the scene to the height of the Viet Nam War six or more years later, when I am senior pastor. Along with my associate, I’ve been outspoken against the war. Now someone notices there is no American flag in the sanctuary, which must mean that the pastors had it removed in protest of American policy.

Lengthy conversations ensue among elders and pastors and parishioners about the flag. The session says no flag, some vocal members say yes, the American flag. And after a while, the session relents and orders two flags, one American and one Christian, directing that they be placed in the sanctuary with the Christian flag in the place of honor over the American flag. That elicited even more strident comments with implications that church leaders were communist or at the very best “pink.” The flags nevertheless remained in that arrangement.

Now, I tell this story to illustrate the problem with the national flag in the sanctuary and why I agree heartily with the senior pastor’s wisdom almost half a century ago. The American flag does not belong in a church’s place of worship.

There are, however, people of strong conscience and good will who would support the display of the American flag in American churches. They remind us how grateful we should be to live in a country which provides and protects freedom of worship. The Stars and Stripes in our sanctuary is but a friendly reminder of that fact. Without the freedom guaranteed in this country, our ability to worship freely could and probably would be severely curtailed. So it is only a proper show of appreciation.

The argument is, I think, a feeble one. Christians have found themselves time and again in countries with uncaring and even hostile rulers, subject to discrimination and vicious persecution. Yet they still managed to worship God in spite of no support from government.

The other point is that it is difficult to see Old Glory displayed in a sanctuary without thinking politically (in the worst sense of the word). Just as the church members during the Viet Nam War read the absence of the American flag as something nefarious, and wanted it put back to show support for a governmental foreign policy, the symbolism of the flag speaks of national virtues, not Christian ones.

Balancing the American flag with the Christian flag (a red cross on the blue corner of a white flag) does not help. The Christian flag was invented by a Sunday school teacher, using the red-white-blue of the Stars and Stripes in his design of a banner to provide symmetry in the sanctuary. It may do that, but it perpetuates, and in a way blesses, the use of the American flag, and adds little more.

The real problem with the display of the American flag in a Christian place of worship is that it becomes a symbol competing with other liturgical symbols. It speaks of another loyalty that sometimes conflicts with the Christian’s highest loyalty to God. Liturgically, nothing should be in the worship space that competes with or distracts from the whole hearted worship of Almighty God.

This does not mean that Christians should not express loyalty to our country and show patriotism. Of course we should. At the same time loyalty and patriotism do not require universal and eternal consent—dissent built on Christian foundations can be truly patriotic.

So let’s get the flags out of the sanctuary—both of them. Use the space for symbols that speak of God’s grace and love shown in Jesus Christ.

Do you have an American flag in your place of worship? A Christian flag? What do you think, should they be there?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sermon As Sacrament(al)

When I was a preacher-in-training, the strong urging of one of my homiletics professors was for me and my colleagues to “get out of the way so Christ can be seen.” Another suggested that we should think of ourselves when preaching as “stepping aside to introduce Christ to the people.” So it came to pass that we all went out and ordered black pulpit robes so as to efface ourselves, put ourselves in the background, and I suppose, cover up any loud ties we might be brazen enough to wear. I don’t know that those urgings or suggestions were overwhelming influences, but through the years I’ve seen the truth in them.

Early in my ministry when it was the custom to observe the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper infrequently, I saw preaching as primarily “interpretation of the Word of God in Scripture.” In time, the celebration of Communion gradually moved from quarterly to twenty-six or more times a year, as it was when I retired, and my perspective about preaching changed.

What happened was that I increasingly appreciated the balance between Word and Sacrament. They were not different things, but different ways of presenting the same person, the risen Christ. As Christ is believed to be “really present” in the Lord’s Supper (and, for that matter, in Baptism too), so Christ preached becomes present in the sermon as well.

I’m convinced that preaching is at least “sacramental,” if not a sacrament in its own right. It all has to do with the Incarnation, that God chose to come to us in a real person, a human being. Now, after the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, we have these ways of continuing our relationship with him: the Sacraments, and the proclamation of the Word, the living Christ.

Both the Sacraments and the Word are very physical (read “incarnational”) experiences. Baptism is a bath, washing, cleansing, done with water, an act and element essential for living. The Lord’s Supper is a meal, food and drink, nourishment, again acts and things necessary for life. The sacraments reveal to us the presence of the living Christ, incarnate again in physical things in order to be incarnate in his people, the Body of Christ.

The Word we preach, of course, is the Word of the first chapter of John’s Gospel. We’re not to proclaim mere words, not even the words of the Bible, since we all know that words can be cloudy and smoggy and obscure rather than reveal. The Word, however, is proclaimed in a most physical way, through the body and voice of a person. If the Word which is Christ is to be recognized, in this instance it must happen through a human being.

Physical elements or actions in the sacraments do not in themselves “make” Christ present. The celebration of the sacraments includes the epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit; in baptism (BCW, p. 411):
"Send your Spirit to move over this water
that it may be a fountain of deliverance and rebirth."
and Eucharist (BCW p. 72):
"Gracious God,
pour out your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these your gifts of bread and wine…
By your Spirit make us one with Christ…."

Neither does the physical person preaching cause Christ to be present. There is something liturgically akin to the epiclesis here too, calling on the Spirit to reveal him. When the Word is proclaimed in the liturgy, it is preceded by the “Prayer for Illumination,” and the admonition: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.” (BCW p. 61) This ritual, introductory to the scripture-sermon proclamation, indicates the role of the Spirit in preaching, strongly reminiscent of the Spirit’s role in the sacraments. It is not the preacher who “introduces Christ’ to the congregation, any more than Christ is found present in the water of baptism or the bread and wine on the table. It is, in all three, the Spirit.

At the risk of sounding mystical, I witness to this role of the Spirit in my experience of preaching. I find that I really do hear the Word proclaimed to me in the preparation of sermons—it’s as though I must be the recipient of the Word before I can be the Word’s conveyer. What’s more, in delivering sermons, I find a dynamic working in and through me that is not of my contriving. I recognize that to be God’s Spirit, revealing the risen Christ in our midst.

It is clear to me that proclamation of the Gospel is inseparably linked to the administration of the sacraments. All are instituted by Christ; preaching in Mark 16:15: “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.’” All are designed to show Christ present to his followers, and all include calls to renewed discipleship and service. While preaching may not be a sacrament as theologically defined, it certainly has sacramental qualities.

“Ministers of Word and Sacrament,” in fulfilling both sets of responsibilities, become the vehicles for the Word to come again, to be incarnate once more in the lives of preacher, presider, and the people in the pews.

If you are a preacher, does it make any difference whether preaching is “sacramental” or “interpretation of Scripture”? What kind of difference does it make for you if you’re a pew-sitter?