Thoughts from the Poets, Prophets and Preachers Conference

Bell argued that the sermon is an artform in need of reclaiming. The sermon should prompt people to some sort of action, or it should warn people of their behaviors or it should invite people into movement that is already taking place. Look at Jesus’ first sermon: “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29, TNIV).

Have you ever had that kind of reaction?

Bell said, “If after your first sermon, nobody tried to kill you—then you’re doing alright.”

But maybe we should be preaching more to incite and instigate.

This last July I had the privilege of attending Rob Bell’s Poets, Prophets, Preachers conference in Grand Rapids, Mich. It was a three-day seminar for teachers, preachers, speakers, leaders and pastors serious about reclaiming the ancient practice known as “giving the sermon.”

Because let’s face it: Why would anyone want to give a sermon? The very word “sermon” recalls falling asleep in wooden pews, droning voices, suits, hairspray and checking your watch as you begin the infamous countdown to lunch. Sermons aren’t very exciting, they aren’t very passionate and they certainly don’t incite movement.

I mean, when was the last time you heard someone at the church doors tell the preacher, “That was amazing, I’m going to go out right now and sell everything I own and move to Bombay!” Or, “I’m so convinced that I should love my neighbor, I am going to ask for forgiveness from everyone I have ever slandered … starting with you!”

No, it’s usually, “That was nice” or, “Good job.”

And if a sermon can simply be defined by the words “nice” or “good,” why do it? Why have a sermon at all? Because I have to admit, for a culture that seems to be embracing media and movies and the Internet, I’d have to agree.

I am just a little over 40 years old, and so I sit right on the fence of these two worlds. On the one hand, I would love to preach a tight 30-minute sermon with a little exposition thrown in, some application, three points, a joke about my kids and a nice “a-ha” closer. I’d love for people to exit the church, shake my hand and say, “Good job.” That’s the world in which I grew up.

On the other hand, I could also get excited about an interactive message that involved movies, insightful imagery, a beat poet, a guitar soloist and a ballerina all interpreting a parable from the Gospels, followed by a keenly edited video of me in some cityscape backdrop talking candidly to the camera.

And I would argue that for most, the sermon just seems like a giant chunk of time when nobody is participating [save one person] nobody’s voice is heard and nobody’s story is told. We preach “talks” but nobody is ever talking … just growing hungrier.

The sermon can also be misused at times. If giving is down, we should give a sermon on giving. If we have a building project, “I feel the Spirit moving me toward a sermon.” We preach “instructions” at people, and then feel let down when nobody stands up to follow, or give, or build.

Bell argued that the sermon is an artform in need of reclaiming. The sermon should prompt people to some sort of action, or it should warn people of their behaviors or it should invite people into movement that is already taking place. Look at Jesus’ first sermon: “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29, TNIV).

Have you ever had that kind of reaction?

Bell said, “If after your first sermon, nobody tried to kill you—then you’re doing alright.”

But maybe we should be preaching more to incite and instigate. Is getting the proverbial handshake and “Good job” enough? Is that what we really want from those who listen? The reaction we see with Jesus is, “Kill the preacher—then lunch.”

But what’s so exciting about the sermon is this: It’s just words. It’s always been words. Whether it’s words in your notes, or in your PowerPoint or said aloud, it’s just words—and if you remember, that’s how God began everything. It all started with a word. The divine God spoke a world into existence: “In the beginning God … And God said …”

As Bell said, “Words create new worlds.” And this is reflected in the Rabbinic teachings as well. The Bereshit Rabbah 3, 2 says, “God created the world by a word; instantaneously, without toil and pains.”

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How many of us have seen what the power of simple words can do? How many of our greatest preachers, prophets and poets have understood the power of their words?

So maybe the issue has never been with the sermon, but with the words within the sermon and the attention we give them (or don’t give them). Are we daily wrestling with the voice of God and the world in which He has placed us, or is it Tuesday morning and we are just now begging God for a nugget or a morsel?

“There is a big difference between having to say something, and with having something to say,” Bell said. Sure, preaching or teaching or talking or inspiring might be our job, it might be where our paycheck comes from, but how many of us really have a “new word” to say? Why should “I” be the one to stand and take the microphone? What makes my voice, or my story any better than anyone else’s?

After the infamous ladder dream, Jacob awakens and says, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (Genesis 28: 16).

Maybe that is the reaction the sermon should bring out. Perhaps the preacher isn’t so much a schoolteacher as she is a tour guide. “Did you notice that? Hey, look over here.”

And then like any good guide, we allow the viewer to take their own pictures, explore some personal trails, we allow questions and we encourage walks that take us further. Our sermon doesn’t have to be the last word on the subject, being the answer-person doesn’t have to include closing the door behind us definitively.

“A sermon can be focused and yet open to interpretation,” Bell said. “It can be said and yet left with things to say. It can be defining and yet open for more imagination, and it can be resolute and yet unresolved and left with issues.”

The ancient art of the sermon is an invitation into the presence of God, and it is an artform and a privilege that too many of us (myself included) have neglected and abused.

One of the most powerful things Bell said over the course of the conference and that is still ringing in my ears, was this, “A sermon is like building a cathedral of words that invites people to come into it and say, ‘Ah it’s beautiful.’”

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