At every priest’s ordination there comes a moment when the Bishop presents a Bible to the newly ordained with these words, “Receive this Bible as a sign of the authority given to you to preach the Word of God and to administer his holy Sacraments. Do not forget the trust committed to you as a priest of the Church of God.”
Although the prayer book frequently makes mention of the ministry of “Word and Sacrament”, sadly homiletics—the craft of preaching—has not always had as much attention in the Episcopal Church as the sacramental, liturgical side. (Or for that matter, even as much as the social justice, mission and outreach side.)
That’s tragic because good preaching can be so important. At the preaching workshop I attended in May, Canon Mark Oakley of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London reminded us, “Our words are sacramental, too, like the bread and wine and water. They are outward and audible signs of inward and spiritual grace.”
I was blessed to have some amazing preachers among the people that formed me for ordained ministry. I served as a parish intern in seminary at a small parish where the homiletics professor, the Rev. Kathy Calore, served. She was a brilliant preacher and a terrific teacher, and I was blessed to watch her at work, both in the classroom and at Sunday morning parish worship. Later we got a new homiletics professor, the Rev. Dr. Bill Brosend, and I ended up working as his assistant.
Both took preaching very seriously. Bill frequently reminded us that the goal in every sermon was to answer what he called “the Homiletical Question:” What is the Holy Spirit saying to the people of God through these readings on this occasion? There is an art and skill to effective preaching, that’s true, but one must never underestimate the ability of God’s Spirit to take what are plain words strewn together and to make out of them a living message that touches us to the core.
Over the past year, I’ve come to believe that the sermon on Sunday morning may be one of the Church’s most important evangelistic tools. For a person off the street, who normally isn’t a church-goer but has happened to wander in to our pews, the worship may be a challenge. We sing music that is very different from what you hear on the radio. We participate in a liturgy that is ancient and strange with a ritual meal that probably seems confusing and awkward. We read from texts that were written thousands of years ago.
In the midst of all that strangeness, I think the sermon is probably our one chance to really connect with this visitor. It is our one opportunity to bridge the gap between ancients texts and life today and to demonstrate that the Church does have something meaningful (even helpful) to say. It is our moment to bring Good News of healing, hope, and peace, in the midst of a fast-paced chaotic world.
We cannot and must not squander that moment. I think it’s important that the Church invest in good preaching as a way of reaching out to those who need to hear God speaking. Already there is great work going on. The Episcopal Preaching has been trying to create future generations of great preachers, and there are even rumors that the once defunct College of Preachers is being reestablished.
I’m trying to do my part by helping with the planning and facilitation of a new training program for licensed lay preachers, upon whom more and more of our small congregations are relying for weekly worship.
The Vestry has graciously supported me in further developing my own preaching through a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program at Sewanee. This program, designed for working clergy, will help me to continue learning and growing. Much of the work will go on at home behind the scenes, but there will be a few weeks of residency and intensive coursework at Sewanee each summer where I and others will learn from other great preachers and teachers.
It is exciting and daunting all at the same time, and it gives me hope for the future of the Church.