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Behind the lectern

By Barry Gittins

If you go to church on a Sunday it’s likely you’ll sit and hear a sermon.

Traditionally one person will stand up behind the pulpit or lectern and preach for varying lengths of time and, possibly, various levels of relevance to the individual listeners.

The word “sermon” derives from the Latin “sermō”, for “talk or harangue” and unfortunately for many it might be the second part of that definition they identify with.

In our society the very term “preaching” has become an insult; postmodern shorthand for patronising sanctimony.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Rev Fran Barber, the continuing education coordinator for ministers at Pilgrim Theological College, says that sitting down to listen to a sermon “is pretty much an odd experience for everybody; both the churched and unchurched”.

“You are among a motley crew of people you might not otherwise choose to gather with, which is multi-generational and multi-racial,” she said.

Fran also argues that “in our culture, it’s odd for a consistent argument, in any form, to be shared”.

“It’s increasingly rare, with our dependence on social media and 24-hour news cycles and reactions.”

However, Fran says good preaching gives the congregation “a different lens to see ourselves and the world in a new, transformative way”.

“Preaching is both an invitation and a challenge,” she said.

“It forms us as a people who can live the values of the Kingdom readily in this world, because we are immersed in this language of the sermon and its connection to the community,” she said.

This means preachers have a responsibility and a type of dependence you never experience until you get up behind a pulpit.

“When we get up to preach – if we have given it the time and consideration that we can – the Holy Spirit has worked in the processes of our preparation,” Fran says.

“We rely on God. Beyond that, we have no control over how it touches people, and how the Holy Spirit moves and works.”

Sermon length is oft en a subject for humour, but Pilgrim Theological College head Rev Dr Sean Winter has a serious reply.

“For many people, the most important question about the sermon is how long is it going to last? It seems to me that is the least important question,” Sean says.

“The stereotype of some learned, bearded person, usually a gentlemen, droning on for endless amounts of time is fixed in certain people’s understanding of what preaching is – something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

“If we think about preaching as described in the New Testament, it is the sharing of good news. Good news, on the whole, isn’t boring. “If preaching is experienced as dull, monotonous or uninteresting, it is, by definition, not preaching. It’s not good news.”

Sean says concerns over attention spans are spurious, when you consider many people will happily go into a cinema for two or more hours.

As for whether preaching is still relevant, Sean maintains “the word of the Lord has to be proclaimed”. Sean maintains “the word of the Lord has to be proclaimed”.“You don’t intuit it. You don’t wander around in the world, experience your life and just ‘know’ … you may feel God is present, but you don’t know that God’s presence is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That needs proclamation,” he says.

“It’s also relevant in our contemporary society, because preaching is one of the places where there is sustained attention to the importance of public language and public speech in a culture where public speech has oft en become debased and/or deeply manipulative… or dumbed down, to use a blunt term, to the point where people are being vacuous and meaningless.”

Preaching is important, Sean says, because it’s one of the few places “where you can actually hear someone talk seriously about genuine human experience, in a way that tries to articulate the truth of that experience”.

“You may not agree with that attempt, or agree that it is true, but there is someone actually trying to do that in a sustained, intellectually demanding and reflective way,” he says.

“Even if no one takes any notice; the importance of this constant quest to speak the truth of our world in the light of the gospel is fundamental to Christian identity.”

Rev Dr Sally Douglas, associate lecturer at Pilgrim Theological College and Richmond Uniting Church minister, says sermons should never be dull or irrelevant.

“The whole scandal of the ‘Jesus way’ means the word of God comes to us in person, in Jesus, which is entirely disruptive and shocking,” Sally says.

“It’s something we need to continue to come back to. It retains its shock in every generation and across cultures – that we dare to claim that somehow the Divine comes with skin on, in Jesus.

“And Jesus talked about these radical concepts like loving enemy and loving self and loving neighbour, saying that I came to serve and not to be served.

“This is what God looks like with skin on, God is the one who gets down and washes our feet. This is the God who chooses not to wield power over others, who chooses not to smash enemies, but who actually opens up and is entirely non-retaliatory.”

Sally has been re-reading German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She says that he believed the question of relevance “entirely misses the point”.

“It’s not about trying to look at the news of the day, and tie it into the worship.” she says. “It’s about the whole Christ event, not just the cross, but the whole notion of the incarnation, where God comes to us in the person of Jesus.

“Jesus lives and feasts with people. Jesus includes people and forgives people. “He dies and rises in ongoing forgiveness, instead of just being furious at everyone for betraying him.

“The thread is consistently ‘homecoming’ and ‘welcome’. What does that then mean? It’s the heart of the universe. So it’s not about trying to make trivial things relevant. “It is about coming to this mystery again and again.”

Sermons must address this big picture, Sally says, and answer the question:“How is our life challenged or reformed or changed when we are faced with this God?”

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