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Sunday’s sermons for Monday’s world

During a Synod of the Covenant webinar, preachers are invited to explore rather than explain

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Sally A. Brown

LOUISVILLE — With the goal to help preachers explore biblical texts rather than explain them during their sermons, the Rev. Dr. Sally A. Brown, the Elizabeth M. Engle Professor of Preaching and Worship Emerita at Princeton Theological Seminary, was the guest Wednesday on the Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series. Watch Brown’s engaging talk, hosted by the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, the synod executive, by going here.

Two years ago, Brown published “Sunday’s Sermons for Monday’s World: Preaching to Shape Daring Witness. She used some of that material during her 90-minute talk. The idea, she said, was to answer this question preachers often have: How can our sermons better help those in the pews to participate in the ongoing redemptive work of God in the ordinary situations of their everyday lives?

“The power of preaching to move hearers to action does not lie with the preacher,” Brown said, “but in the radical Good News to which we testify: God has acted, continues to act and promises yet to act in the world to make all things new.”

Too many people, Brown said, come to worship each week expecting two things from the sermon: a scolding and a longer to-do list.

When she preaches, “I pay attention to activities of God’s love and justice breaking through.” One example is a story she heard on how one church subverted a white supremacist march planned in their town.

The preacher asked worshipers to pledge a few dollars for every mile the marchers walked in the community, then painted “Thank You” messages on the pavement because “Every mile you walk is raising money for antiracism [training and activities] in our community.”

Church members set up water stations to help the marchers “across the finish line to raise maximum dollars for antiracism,” Brown said. “They didn’t interfere. They subverted and multiplied resources. Stories like that are evidence of God inspiring imaginative subversions rather than trying to shout louder over whatever we consider to be the enemy.”

Sermons that explore rather than explain leave hearers with this takeaway, according to Brown: Because God has done this, we are invited to/have the opportunity to do that. It’s a far cry from the traditional imperative sermon.

“I think people in the pews have tin ears for ‘must,’ ‘ought’ and ‘should,’” Brown said. The message can also stimulate this question in the minds and hearts of worshipers: “What can participating in God’s redemptive action look like here and now?”

“We can name injustice clearly,” she told the preachers on Wednesday’s call, “and yet reimagine transformation in those same situations. It’s the Spirit who transforms the world; we are agents in the process.”

The process Brown is suggesting includes reframing, which she defined as “evoking a familiar space or situation in all its brokenness and then reimagining its transformation in light of God’s redemptive action.” The preacher can paint a word picture to help worshipers answer this question: What would transformation look like in this situation?

“Part of our calling [as preachers] is to be daringly imaginative and hopeful,” Brown said, “to resist what is evil and embrace anything that’s an inbreaking of good.”

It can help, Brown said, to “work out in a single, affirmative sentence the focal message of your sermon. Then ask: What would it look like if taken seriously?”

The hearers can take that message seriously “in the everyday situations and settings” where they work, socialize and volunteer. “Your goal is to explore, not explain. Exploring is answering what it might look like. To explain is to use big words,” such as encouraging the hearers to seek out “more justice and less polarization,” she said. Rather, the preacher asks, “What would those look like? Be concrete,” Brown encouraged preachers.

Participants were receptive to what they were hearing.

“The opportunity to help the congregation imagine can be a really powerful way to engage — if they are willing to follow,” said one. “That takes time. There is never a lost opportunity!”

“I appreciate that the ‘explore’ model is one that builds trust as the preacher journeys with the listener,” said another, “rather than assuming that we, as preachers, have all the answers.”

Brown offered up this reminder to close the session: “The new creation work has been done. What we’re here for is to participate.”

Preachers living outside the bounds of the Synod of the Covenant are welcome to participate in the monthly Equipping Preachers series. Learn more or register here.

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