Funny, the things I remember about preaching. Like the time someone suggested that I preface each sermon with the warning noted on cigarette packages: “What you are about to receive may be hazardous to your health!” Don’t know what he meant, but I liked it. For sure, the gospel is hazardous to ready comfort and quick fixes. Dangerous, indeed. As Jesus warned John, sometimes it will take you where you don’t want to go.
Recently another one-liner was jogged to awareness when a pastor friend, on the verge of retiring, asked me if I missed preaching. His question reminded me of that very same question upon my retiring, “Mahan, will you miss preaching?” My quick response even surprised me: “Well, how will I know what I believe?”
Somewhere along the way preaching became for me a week-to-week conversation with a particular set of pilgrim comrades. It’s unique. I can’t think of anything like it. The regular interaction was always on the same topic: What does following Jesus, loving God and the “other” look like in our time and place. It’s where I hammered out in public what I believed as a way to challenge members to engage in the same inner work. My part of the conversation was more external; their part of the conversation more internal.
I once commented — and here is another one-liner — “Why, I could begin each sermon with . . . ‘as I was saying.’” That’s true. I was picking up on an on-going conversation about the stories of God incarnating in the world. Out of a week of pastoral conversations, plus the study of the text (a form of conversation), I would pick up on the conversation, making it public, knowing that those present would in turn carry forward the conversation within themselves and within their relationships. Week by week, Sunday by Sunday I imagined this feedback loop occurring.
So back to the question: Do I miss preaching? I do miss that privilege. There is nothing to compare with preaching that comes out of a network of relationships and cycles back into these same relationships — over and over again. Preaching to congregations full of strangers never appealed to me. I always feel in those contexts that the sermon is a presentation, more a performance, less a to-be-continued conversation.
Then along the way, toward the end of my ministry, Walter Brueggemann shows up to deepen this understanding of preaching. In an article in Theology Today (1990) entitled “The Preacher, The Text, and the People,” he draws upon the concept of “triangles” from family system’s theorist Murray Bowen.
Bowen noted that life requires homeostasis (balance and stability). When two human beings become anxious they will likely “triangle” in a third person or issue or symptom as a way to reduce the tension. Always, a tripod is more stable than a dyad. You know the experience: two persons in conflict may “triangle” you in as problem solver or as the “problem.” If it works, you are left holding the anxiety while they walk away feeling lighter. These challenging triangles are the daily bread for pastors.
But Brueggemann draws on the positive use of “triangling.” He points out that preaching is often seen as a transaction between pastor/preacher (A) and people /congregation (B). It looks that way. Preacher in the pulpit, people in pew; preacher speaking, congregation listening; preacher interpreting, people agreeing or not agreeing. In other words, preaching appears to be a two-way interaction with the focus on the preacher and his message.
What if, as Brueggemann suggests, the voice of the biblical text is “triangled” in as “C”? What if the text is the focus, not the preacher, not the sermon. In Brueggemann’s thinking, you as preacher (A), along with the congregation (B), come under the authority of the text (C). It’s the text that matters. It is the sense of God’s Word through these words that matters. You, the preacher, are talking out loud about your engagement with the text, hoping the congregants will not only be in conversation with you, but even more, be in conversation with the Spirited text.
I found freedom in this view of preaching as a three-way conversation. Less did I obsess about correct interpretation, a polished sermon, a brilliant message. In this way of framing, the preacher becomes more prompter than expert, more witness than final authority. The preacher is liberated to engage the text, struggle with it, play and fuss with it — out loud — trusting that your authenticity, vulnerability and ideas will provoke a similar engagement between congregant and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with Spirit. We say in effect: “Fellow pilgrims (congregants) this is what I see, feel and hear in this text, what do you see, feel and hear? This is the Word that comes to me for us, what is the Word that comes to you?” The shift occurs: the sermon becomes more about God, less about you.
An addendum: This understanding of preaching as conversation, drawing on Breuggemann’s insight, has implication for other pastoral functions. “Triangling” in the “text” can also be a way of pastoral leadership. Take note, for a moment, of situations with potential for win-lose debates (between “A” and “B”) — e.g. differences over budget figures or couples in conflict or controversy on some public issue. Now see the difference when in such a situation you intentionally “triangle” in the “text” as “C” (i.e. your church mission or the loving act or an agreed upon guiding principle or mind of Christ, etc.) and ask how does our faithfulness to this agreed-upon commitment speak to this situation? What would faithfulness to the “text” look like? Looking through the eyes of our covenant commitments, what connections or possibilities do you see?
It’s a practice I recommend — triangling in the “text.” This reframing, like a pair of glasses, can change or reenforce the way you see preaching and even pastoral leadership.