Honing the Craft

Preaching like Augustine?

Preaching like Augustine?

Earlier this week I had the tremendous privilege of attending a preaching conference.  I’ve attended conferences on preaching before, sure.  But this one was different.  Five of us–all priests of some sort of Anglican stripe–got to hang around one of the world’s most respected preachers for three days.  That preacher was Will Willimon (pictured below), sometime United Methodist Bishop of Alabama and present professor at Duke University’s Divinity School.

220px-William_Henry_Willimon_(2011)

The format was simple.  We each came to present and discuss two sermons.  An hour was given for each.  We’d listen as the presenter preached; then we’d discuss, critique, etc. for the remainder of the hour.

While not a requirement, my first sermon I’d already prepared and given elsewhere.  The other (for me) was to be a work in progress.  That is, my plan was to take time on Tuesday afternoon and evening, during some allotted free time, to write a second sermon, which I would then present on Wednesday morning in almost final-draft form.

Such was my plan anyway.

What actually happened was the three hours of free time Tuesday afternoon turned into an hour because of lunch discussion and ensuing conversations.  And the five or so hours I had set aside on Tuesday night turned into a gouda-mushroom buffalo burger, two pints of a local (to Dallas) craft porter, and conversation with my new best friend Lawrence, a priest from the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina; leaving me with only two or so hours to create (which I turned into three by staying up an extra hour, till midnight).

Point is, when it came time to preach my second sermon, “Um,” I confessed, “this ain’t anything like a final draft; it’s still very much a work in progress.”

By work in progress I don’t mean lack of length.  I had about 1,200 words, or 13 or so minutes of speaking (normalish length).  But I’d been dealing with two pretty substantive themes, both which should have their place, I’d rationalized, but was having trouble connecting them.  Etc.

Anyway, after my initial qualifications and run-through of Sermon 2, coupled with the feedback I’d already received from canned, preached-without-a-manuscript Sermon 1, the insights I received were invaluable.

I give you three that stick with me.

First, “You can preach the phonebook, Tim,” one of the priests told me, “and people will listen to you.  You have this incredible ability to draw people in just through your use of body language, variations of vocal intonations, and expression.”

Yeah, I was thinking, tell me more.

“But”–he did tell me more–“don’t rely on it.  You still need to have something valuable to say.”

Implication: what I said was lost in presentation.  Ugh!

But, really, it’s so true.  He told me this just after I’d preached Sermon 2, which really did come out as kind of a mess.  The themes were disjointed, for one thing.

“And your first theme was so strong,” Willimon added, “that I spent the second half of the sermon wondering how and when you’d come back to it.  But you never did.”

Point taken.  Clarity and concision are super important.

By the way, as I sat in the airport for two hours on Wednesday afternoon I revised this yet-to-be-preached sermon, starting by keeping the first third of my manuscript and deleting everything else.  I’m taking Willimon’s advice and developing only the first, strong theme.  I’ll save Theme 2 for another go around, next Advent maybe.

The second insight in fact comes from a theme that kept surfacing throughout the three days, culminating especially during a breakfast I enjoyed on Wednesday with Willimon himself.  Four of us were staying in the same hotel, which included an excellent breakfast (shout out to the Holiday Inn on SMU Blvd.), and as I exited the elevator, lo, there was the guru himself, sitting at a table by himself.  For my part, I didn’t even ask permission; I just sat down next to him and invaded his space.

He seemed okay with it.  Southern politeness maybe.

But then, “Tim,” he said, “you’re a musician.  So use your musicality in your sermons.  And don’t just draw parallels between musical forms and sermon forms” (which I do, by the way, and which we’d already discussed), “but incorporate crescendos, diminuendos, rests, fermatas–performance!  It will make you that much more engaging.”

Anyway, gold!

The third insight struck me like an epiphany.  This is what I needed to hear more than anything else all week.  And the coolest part is (because it shows how important collegiality is), it did not come from Willimon but from two of the other priests (albeit with Willimon chiming in).  These priests, I should add, (like Willimon) are seasoned teachers as well as preachers.  One is presently a seminary professor and the other has ten years’ seminary teaching experience.

So, it was an answer to a question I asked in one of our post-sermon discussions:

“In your mind, what’s the key difference between teaching and preaching?  You teach a thirty-minute lesson and you preach, say, a fifteen-minute sermon.  What’s the difference?”

And the answer seemed so simple:

“In teaching, we present truth, facts, points–information.  But in preaching, we’re after an encounter with the divine.”

So simple, but I’d never thought in this way before.

So now I’ve got a new goal in my sermons.  They’re not after relevance, an application for today, or increasing in knowledge and/or wisdom.  These things have their place; and they will often happen in sermons, sure.  But more important is the encounter with the divine–just prior (in Episcopal liturgy) to joining Christ at his Table for Communion with God and neighbor.

Beautiful!

Footnote: if you’re interested to see what my attempt at sermon-for-encounter looks like, stay tuned.  I will post my sermon (in manuscript form), the byproduct of this conference, on Sunday.

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