Tag Archive | Preaching

A Sermon in the Face of Tragedy

Last Wednesday, on the eve of his ordination, my friend Jody’s wife passed away. Carolyn was young and this was completely unexpected. Jody anticipated going to presbytery on Thursday, then being installed at Grace Presbyterian Church in Conway, SC on Sunday. That changed radically. Jody and Grace Church are both in shock and would covet your prayers for their healing.

In the face of this, Grace asked if I would preach to them the Sunday Jody was to be ordained. This was far and away the most difficult sermon I have ever preached. You can download the sermon by clicking here or listen using the widget below. If you do listen, please pray for Jody, his 4 children, and Grace Church.


Book Review: Telling God’s Story

I am a firm believer that every Reformed pastor should have a favorite Arminian. It’s good for the soul and it helps keep tabs on your blind-spots. When I was in college, I bought a bunch of books at an estate sale that had interesting titles. In particular, two books on pastoral care by William Willimon struck despite our very different views on the nature of God’s sovereignty, Willimon became a go to source on pastoral care.

He may have been supplanted as my favorite Methodist. Telling God’s Story by John Wesley Wright is one of the best books on preaching I have ever read. A while back I spent an entire semester reading books on preaching and as far as methodology of deliverary, none of them hold a candle to Wright.

What I found so good about Wright’s book was the way that he recorded a number of things that I have done in my preaching for years, that I never quite knew how to explain. There have been an onslaught of books in the past 10 years about narrative preaching and most of them have been lack-luster. Many of these books have been overly simplistic.

“Uh, stories are good, you know. People like stories and you should tell more of them. It would even be cool if your whole sermon was a story, eh?”

Obviously that is a bit exaggerated, but the nuts and bolts how to make transitions and structure a sermon were missing from these books. Wright walks through the how-to’s of narrative sermon, showing why each piece is important. He gives particular attention to two ideas; the comedic verse tragic nature of sermons and concept of a sermonic “move”.

Wright points out that much of the churches current preaching is falling deaf ears because it has become routine and people see it coming. He calls this sort of preaching comedic. He goes on to compare it to I Love Lucy. There is going to be a problem and that problem will neatly wrap up in the way that you expect it to in about 25 minutes. Wright shows how this caricature is far too similar to most of our preaching. He suggests instead a type of preaching that tragically reveals the disconnect between who we are and who the Biblical narrative calls us to be. He says that this type of preaching should feel more like Romeo & Juliet. The ending of the love story makes us uncomfortable. Wright says this is precisely what sermons should do.

Wright says that one of the ways we should accomplish this is sermonic “moves”. These moves differ from points in that they are not just pieces of information to build on, but connections between the text and the listener. These moves form the basis of the sermon and serve to connect us to the text and to show how the original hearers would have moved through the text as well.

Overall, I cannot recommend this book any more highly. It is a perfect complement to books like Greidanus’s Ancient Text Modern Preacher.


Book Review: A Cross-Shattered Church by Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is noted theologian and professor at Duke Divinity School. He is typically known for his work in Ethics, additionally he has the distinction of being a man who is committed to the local church as well as the academy. As a teacher of practical theology, he takes very seriously the call to be both professor and practitioner. He serves at the Church of the Holy Family in addition to his post at Duke.

A Cross-Shattered Church (ACSC) is a collection of sermons from the Church of the Holy Family, the Chapel at Duke Seminary, and some other places/events. In all 17 sermons range from the dedication of the new processional cross at the school to the homily at a wedding of some of his students.

As a collection of sermons, ACSC is best read slowly and periodically. I found when I read more than one sermon at a sitting, the strength and power of the sermons was blunted. The book is certainly more devotional than it is instructional.

Three particular things jump out about Rev. Hauerwas’s preaching. The first is the connection to communion. Preaching in a liturgical context, he does an incredible job tying each sermon into the meal that follows it. This focus on communion (which had created some fascinating thoughts in me, which I will share some other time) is both beautiful and helpful. While some in liturgical traditions seem to apologize for weekly communion, Hauerwas celebrates it. For anyone who teaches in a church that serves the Lord’s Supper weekly, this book has some excellent teaching on how to make fresh connections between word and sacrament each week.

Second, all of the sermons in ACSC are short and simple. Hauerwas rarely gets involved in complex metaphors. Furthermore, he rarely adds illustrations. His messages are truly spartan. What is most fascinating about this seemingly drab approach to homiletics is that he doesn’t seem boring. He is genuinely engaging. The simplicity of the sermons lends itself to their “punchiness”.

Lastly, Hauerwas is known for his stance on non-violence and pacifism. When I decided to read this book in January, I wondered if it would be too preachy in those areas. (pun unintended) Much to my surprise, these issues take a back seat to the texts that Pastor Hauerwas expounds. He speaks of non-violence when the text indicates it, but he does not wedge it into others.

A Cross-Shattered Church is a good collection of sermons, that would be excellent for men in ministry or seminary to read one a week for spiritual refreshment and encouragement. As far as value in teaching homiletics or showing any sort of method, it’s value is eclipsed by other books.

Book Review: The Expository Genius of John Calvin

Editors Note: As part of my Lenten Vow of blogging Thursday’s will be book reviews. This is kind of the bread and butter of my site, but they won’t necessarily all be theological.

I picked this book up and added it to my reading list for the spring. I hadn’t read anything by Lawson previously and so I had no real expectations.

The book is small and has well designed packaging. Upon reading the book, I was a bit disappointed. The book was one part biography and another part model for modern preachers. As a biography, it was a bit too short to get beyond anecdotal stories and popular level introductions. As a standard for preachers, it had some content that frightened me.

The book wove the biography together with a list of principles from Calvin’s life. This list was continuous from chapter to chapter, but there was not a summary list of all of the principles that I could find in any appendix. One of the things that was very helpful was the appendices that contained several of Calvin’s sermon plans. Looking over these plans was a great window into Calvin’s methodology. Quite frankly, these appendices were worth the price of the book in themselves.

Lawson does make sure to say that we should not hold everything Calvin did up as a standard (in the sense of preaching without notes or preaching 7+ times a week). At the same time, he presents such a positive view of Calvin, it is hard not to walk away thinking that if every preacher were Calvin, the church would be a great place and heretics would cower in fear before the most average of pastors. My fear is that the small size of this book will make it attractive to laymen who will hold their pastors to the titanic example of Calvin. This can be dangerous to our churches. Each pastor should be held to the standards of scripture, some of which Calvin embodied incredibly well. But we must remember that each of us has been gifted differently and our ministries will function differently. In fact, if every minister looked, preached, and pastored just like Calvin, the Church would be in shambles. Jim from Raleigh needs to preach/pastor like Jim from Raleigh.

So the book isn’t bad if you are looking for a short introduction to Calvin’s life and work, just be careful not to assume that everyone should be a little Calvin.

Book Review: The Shape of Preaching – Dennis Cahill

When I was younger, my dad use to say, “Missed it by that much”. He was of course referencing the TV show Get Smart, but it was always a running joke in my house. As I reflect on The Shape of Preaching by Dennis Cahill, my response is: missed it by that much.

Cahill’s book reads like a modern introduction to preaching that seeks to take into account the last 20 years of homiletic development. It seems like it is written to undergrad students as an overview of the philosophy of preaching and a practical model for developing sermons.

The first half focuses on the shape and literary form of preaching. Cahill includes a great deal of explanation of the idea of narrative preaching. He shows how the last 20 years have changed our approach to preaching. Though he claims neutrality, He seems to gently suggest that modern forms are unnecessarily slanted in areas where we should be uncomfortable.

This bias shows itself in the second half of the book. Again while claiming neutrality, he seems to create a method for sermon creation that is imminently traditional. Even when he speaks of developing narrative sermons, he seems to shoe-horn this into a traditional model.

I did not have high expectations for the book, and I was not disappointed. I would not necessarily recommend it.

Book Review: Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner

Telling the Truth is the written record of the 1977 Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School. That year, Frederick Buechner gave a series of lectures/sermons on the “Gospel as tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale”.

They are breath-taking.

I will have to admit some affinity for Buechner at the outset of the review. I love Buechner’s preaching and he was a strong influence on by favorite fiction writer, John Irving.

The book is arranged in 4 chapters which directly correspond to the 4 opportunities Buechner had to address the seminarians. The first is more of a lecture on the great responsibility of preaching. He speaks of Henry Ward Beecher, the first to give these lectures. He speaks of Beecher’s failings and his own. He draws deeply on the awkwardness of a sinner telling other sinners of a holy God. And as he does this, what he does best is not necessarily in his content, but in his delivery. Buechner’s text is poetry. His cadence is rhythmic. His illustrations, weaving biblical narratives together with modern details, draw you into the world of scripture and the world of your own heart. To say that these sermons are a pleasure to read is make a categorical understatement.

After laying out the difficulty of preaching and setting the table for his coming lectures, Buechner focuses on the gospel as tragedy. He says, “the gospel must be bad news before it is good news”. He lays out how our tragic sin binds us to tragedy. He draws from Melville, Shakespeare, and Dostoyvski. And through it all he reminds the preacher that he must address the emptiness that we feel as humans.

Drawing on this emphasis, he turns to comedy. In the face of such tragedy, the fact that we are loved, persued by God is unbelievable. He uses the parables to show that Jesus again and again taught about the lavishness of God’s love. Much like Keller’s Prodigal God, Buechner shows us the comical degree that God chases us in spite of the tragic ways in which we reject him.

Finally, Buechner moves us to the arena of fairy tale. He shows how sermons should not just touch on our sin (tragedy), God’s extravagant grace (comedy), but the beauty and movement that happens when the two meet. God is making all things new. When he sat in the upper room with his disciples, he said without a hint of irony that he had overcome the world. Tra-la the witch is dead.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone. The only difficulty is in the price, it can be a bit costly.

And it is worth every penny.