Lately I’ve gone back to a sermon style that utilizes a simple outline – sometimes as few as three words (on paper or in my head) – rather than a written text. So you know, this style is hardly what I would call extemporaneous but it’s certainly a style of preaching that gives the Holy Spirit the opportunity to work literally until the last minute! It’s riskier than preaching from a text but to me often it’s more spirited.
Two great preachers influenced me here, both at conferences at (what used to be!) The College of Preachers at The National Cathedral.
The first was Tom Long. One day Tom heard me preach a sermon on Jonah that was very carefully written. When I finished he asked, “Can I re-preach your sermon?” I listened as he retold my sermon as a story, leaving out the alliteration, the assonance and anaphora. It was a big discovery for me – while my sermon read (and I thought preached) well Tom’s version preached better.
The other was actually someone many at my current church know – Frank Wade. At that conference Frank (who will preach at St. Alban’s this Sunday) described his preaching process in a nutshell: “I always know where I will begin and I always know where I will end… but I leave the middle open, so I don’t bore myself!” Frank told us the the “text” for his sermon would be compiled and recorded on the following Monday morning, based on the sermon that was preached.
I remember hearing (multiple times) the following, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” The quote (which preaches well but is also something St. Francis probably never said) is catchy but but more so ironic. St. Francis was a gifted preacher full of words! Mark Galli, in his history of Francis (Francis of Assisi and His World), describes Francis as the equivalent of a Jonathan Edwards, “sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, often outdoors. In the country, Francis often spoke from a bale of straw or a granary doorway. In town, he would climb on a box or up steps in a public building. He preached to . . . any who gathered to hear the strange but fiery little preacher from Assisi…” Apparently he was so excited when he preached that “his feet moved as if he were dancing.”
Several years ago I read a remarkable book called The Preacher King: Martin Luther King and the Word that Moved America, by Richard Lischer. In the book Lischer explains that King’s preaching had deep roots inherited from folk preaching traditions and that he had “a small canon of sermons, fewer than one hundred, that consisted of an enormous inventory of set pieces, thematic formulas he patched together in a bewildering number of combinations under a variety of sermon titles. Some of the formulas were of his own devising, many were borrowed. His most famous set piece was ‘I Have a Dream,’ which he developed from multiple sources, including the prayer of a young SNCC volunteer in Albany, Georgia. In King’s repetoire, the piece evolved from a biblically resonant formula, which was most appropriately recited in churches and mass meetings, into one of the most famous civil-religious passages in American oratory. His ear for these pieces and his uncanny ability to punch them into a sermon or speech at precisely the right time was a legacy from the black church and its oral tradition.”
It’s interesting to think about how King’s sermons, compiled of set pieces, undoubtedly were so familiar to him that he didn’t depend on a text. A brilliant combination of spirit, circumstance, timing & cadence bolstered by the literary devices that make public speaking powerful: Alliteration, assonance and anaphora.
The best sermons, without doubt, are the ones that begin in the hearts and minds of the believer when the preacher says, “Amen.”
Happy Monday on Tuesday,