The Craft of Preaching
Some of the sermons in this collection have been preached in a variety of Churches and settings, gradually developing over three decades.
In each of them, one way or another, I found I had fallen into the centre of something, an idea, a thought, an emotion. Yet the concepts never stayed long as conscious thoughts. It was as if I fell right into the centre of the universe, and then right on out the other side. A fragment of meaning attached itself to a Biblical verse or passage, to a theological idea, to some pastoral occasion. I found myself preaching on these fragments, forgetting them, then unexpectedly returning to them, sometimes up to a decade later. Then the returns occurred much more frequently.
Sometimes I thought also I was in a maze, in an astonishing maze, the path of which always moved me towards the centre. It produced the curious sensation of unexpectedly being close to core human values. Yet it was not through my own efforts, but rather because the path opened up just so.
In retrospect, I have come to see preaching as being exploration of the three key mazes which lead to those core values: natural theology, providence, and revelation. Each sermon finds its way in and out of these mazes. There is radical wonderment inherent in each maze, or at least I found it so.
Preaching is a rather despised occupation in New Zealand society, but I am proud to have somehow or other gotten into it. It requires rigorous intellectual and emotional honesty. It would be very surprising if congregations were not responsive to this approach. The other side of the coin is that rudeness, or negativity, or lazy acceptance of Church structures (that is, not being bothered to reform inadequate aspects of the institutional Church), will empty pews in a relatively short time. Telling lies from the pulpit will not do. It is impossible to please any one person, let alone a congregation, all of the time. Sunday by Sunday preaching, especially in a long ministry, is not a task for the faint-hearted.
Every preacher has to aim to improve his or her standards of communication and depth of knowledge. Preparation through careful research, and willing acceptance of both positive and negative feedback is necessary for any kind of improvement. Good preachers are not born, they are made and it takes a considerable number of years to do it. Congregations have a responsibility to provide constructive feedback. They need to give a lead in this matter.
Primarily sermons are spoken. When they are written out in full, it is done in order to clarify the spoken word. There is an error in writing a sermon and reading it like an academic delivering a paper at a seminar or a politician delivering a policy speech at a business Round Table or Chamber of Commerce.
A sermon is not a well-read essay. The atmosphere of a full Church, a congregation waiting with expectation for an insight, a moment of self-awareness, illumination, the gentle “Aha” or even the exuberant “Eureka!” or “Amen!” simply cannot be conveyed in footnotes on the page nor via the policy speech. Hence I believe that more than a little is lost when the preached word is published.
Yet, equally, the printed word may elicit the same cry of recognition. The chemistry of the Spirit is not confined to one medium of communication. I hope some sense of occasion is conveyed herein. For it is intellectual laziness not to prepare a sermon in full or at least with substantial notes. That betokens preparation. The creative discovery, the telling insight, almost always occurs from the seedbed of careful preparation. At the conclusion of some sermons, concepts for further analysis are developed, in the Excursions and the Reflections. It is my hope that these sermons may prove a basis for useful group study. Over the years I have found there is nothing so good as the Sunday sermon for parish study groups. The full range of Scripture, tradition, reason and personal experience can be brought into play and provide an opportunity for careful feedback. It is food for thought for the preacher and those who listen.
All in all, these sermons owe their origin to my enchantment with the mathematical tradition, especially its Greek roots. When St Paul preached to the men of Athens on Mars Hill, he cannot have known that his influence would profoundly amplify the spirit which gave rise to the West, and its democratic traditions, philosophy, mathematics, music, and poetry. I like to think that St Paul was also changed by his encounter with the Greek spirit. I know I was.