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The Centrality of Preaching 

Among the many tasks of pastoral ministry, preaching has certainly been a primary discipline which I love.  From the start, preaching has been the one discipline that has been most integrative—bringing and tying together the work of pastoral care and leadership, of reading and writing, of prayer and observation, of teaching and administration.  Preaching has been the one constant throughout my ministry that has challenged and enabled me to connect the Bible and the Daily Newspaper.  Many of you will recognize Karl Barth’s timeless quote:  “Preaching is about holding the Bible in one hand, and the Daily Newspaper in the other.”

Even before I was ordained, as a student in seminary, I was already passionate about how to integrate the Bible and everyday life.  So when it came time to learn to preach, I hungered to learn how to write a sermon that connected with integrity the scriptures and everyday life.  What does a text written in a different time and cultural, socio-economic context  have to say to hearers in the 20th and 21st centuries?  And how can that text speak a transformative word to modern day Christians?  When I reached a level in my theological education where I could take the course that I had been waiting for, “From Exegesis to Sermon,” I was the first to sign up for the seminar!  It was co-taught by our New Testament professor and a reknown preacher from a local church.  We met twice a week.  The NT professor led a discussion on how he exegeted the text, helping us appreciate the literary, historical, socio-economic, and theological dimensions of the text.  The second session, led by the preacher, was what I most looked forward to.  I waited with anticipation to learn how he took the scholarship laid out at the first session and turned it into a sermon that spoke to our current context.  How does a preacher bridge the Biblical world with the world we live in a sermon, not to mention do it with good writing and preaching skills.  I was shocked when the preacher dusted off an old sermon he had preached years ago.  But my biggest disappointment was that his sermon had nothing to do with the exegesis that the NT professor had done in the previous session.  The very key and core to the course was how to make that connection!  When the same thing occurred the second week, I raised my hand and said:  “Dr. K, I have heard you preach in your church and have admired your excellent sermons.  In this course, what I am looking forward to is how a preacher takes the scholarship required in sermon preparation and translates that into a sermon.  For the past two weeks, you have shared old sermons with us.  Nothing wrong with the sermons; as I said, you write and preach great sermons.  What disappoints and troubles me, however, is that in this course, your sermons demonstrate no connection at all with the scholarship that Dr. W has provided us.  The title of this course, after all, is ‘From Exegesis to Sermon.’”  Dr. K immediately took offense.  I glanced over at Dr. W and he nodded in silent agreement with me.      

12 thoughts on “The Centrality of Preaching ”

  1. I lack the remedial insight and understanding of what it is to be Studying the scriptures (Exegesis) and perhaps you can elaborate at your appropriate time. I only know at between the age of 12 – 16 that there was an untruth about the Bible as the Catholics taught it:
    1) The Sin of eating meat on Fridays was not OK one day, and then OK on another day
    2) It “condemned” my schoolmates who spent time up at Cameron House. What was that about?
    3) What does saying 1 Our Father and 10 Hail Mary’s after Confession really DO to make it all right that I have committed a mortal or venial sin and will probably do it again?
    4) There were the films about Preachers like Elmer Gantry, hypocrites (as there are live ones today).
    I could go on.

    Thank goodness for the learning opportunities at Discipleship classes at PCC (your introduction to us to authors like Sponge, Fox, et al) and recent School of Discipleship zoomed classes with Pastor Don I clearly see the contextuality as key. But why do “powers-to-be” spend so much time “studying” and “deciding” via the Confessions that the rest of us have to abide by, only to have things change down the line?

    I recall a French saying from Middle School, “The only thing permanent is impermanence.” That brings me to Buddhist philosophy which is not contrary to but compatible with and supports Christian beliefs.
    Yes, Bible in one hand and Newspaper in the other. Listen to the people that are hurting, shouting, getting violent. Why? Because there’s the mentality of me vs. them, not me and them are ONE.

  2. Looks like Dr. K was mailing it in.

    I know this is hard work. How–like a jazz musician trying to come up with a different improvisation for Autumn Leaves, repeatedly–do you say something fresh everytime you preach to some parable again?

    1. How to be fresh each time? Maybe it’s like the parable about blind men describing an elephant. From each person’s different perspective, the description of the elephant will differ. If the parable is the elephant, then we can imagine different ways to look at the parable. In other words, depending on our perspective, we will see something new.

  3. Hi Cal!
    Thanks for your intriguing blog. In my retirement, I am attending a small church where the pastor gets one Sunday off per month. I’m on a committee to plan worship for those Sundays. Do you have any thoughts for integrating Lunar New Year, Jan 22, into the worship service? Have you ever done that?

    1. Roberta, when I served my home church in Chinatown, SF, we did integrate Lunar NY into worship through language, primarily. And of course, passing out red envelopes with money (lei see) to the children was always a hit.

  4. One of the things that I loved about this post is the reminder of how much students want to learn! What I loved about your teaching is that you took your students so darned seriously – who they were and who they were becoming!

  5. Thanks, Cal!

    So, if not from your preaching class, how did you learn to go “from exegesis to sermon”?What role did the congregation play in your preparation to preach? Besides the thoughtful scholarship, what would you say is the preparation needed in the preacher, himself or herself, to bring the Word to the people?

    I’ve always liked that image of Ezekiel “eating the scroll” before he speaks; it’s a reminder to me that preaching is never just an academic exercise or my own “performance”. There’s something of God that I must feed on first before I offer it to the congregation.

    I would love to hear your further thoughts on this!

  6. Sharon, I loved your image of Ezekiel “eating the scroll.” It’s like my experience of having the sermon I am working on for Sunday marinating in the juices of pastoral calls, crisis interventions, meetings, reading the daily newspaper, prayer and meditation throughout the week. And by the time I sit down to write on Thursdays, I want the congregation to be able to taste all that has seasoned the sermon. And it goes without saying that knowing and loving your congregation is indispensable to your shaping the sermon to fit the context.

  7. Beautiful, thank you.

    I have also thought of sermon preparation as a “marinating” process. It takes time to saturate. I’ve compared it to labor and childbirth too!????

    “Knowing and loving your congregation” is indeed indispensable. But I wonder how many preaching classes really highlight that?

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