Epiphany as Sermon Form


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How does one preach “epiphany” in an “epiphany-like” way? And how does a preacher keep epiphany alive throughout the year in one’s preaching?

Epiphany, in one translation, means “manifestation.” It is the manifestation or  “showing forth” of God’s glory and divinity in Jesus Christ. The word also translates as a sudden insight into the essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some ordinary occurrence or experience. Epiphanic truth, therefore, is truth that arrives as a sudden insight. It is the endpoint of significant delay, and is the hidden object of great anticipation. And its arrival is unexpected because it is not grand and overstated,  but shows itself within the ordinary stuff of life – like a child in a manger.

Many of the best sermons are “epiphanic.” They delay the arrival of the sermon’s meaning or deepest “truth,” and then, within the anticipation established by that delay, “manifest” that truth by means of the ordinary – in an image of grace, mercy, hope in spite of despair, love, or joy within the fabric of everyday life.

Eugene Lowry’s “homiletical plot” is one such sermon form. In 1980 Eugene L. Lowry published a very popular little book entitled The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form. In this book, he created what is now commonly known as the Lowry Loop to describe the way that a simple narrative plot functions in a sermon. The first part of the loop involves upsetting the equilibrium. An enigma is presented that energizes the sermon’s forward movement: something is wrong that needs fixing, something is out of balance that needs restoration, something is missing that needs finding, something is confusing that needs clarification, etc. This problem is deepened in the second, and downward part of the loop, called analyzing the discrepancy. Like a good plot line, the sermon goes deeper into the problem at hand, complicating the issue and creating a heightened concern among listeners. At this point, the sermon reaches the bottom of the loop in which the preacher discloses the clue to resolution. This is the decisive turning point in the plot. The gospel brings a reversal or “aha” that begins to move the loop upward toward resolution. This, in effect, is the “epiphany” or manifestation of gospel truth that is the heart of the sermon. This “clue” is often taken from ordinary human experience – a picture of “God with us.” From here the sermon moves upward in the fourth part of the loop, experiencing the gospel. The preacher fleshes out the good news of the gospel and its meaning. Finally, at the end of the loop, the sermon helps the congregation anticipate the consequences. The preacher unpacks fully the implications of the sermon’s message for the living of life. In order the help preachers remember each aspect of the loop, Lowry created a little memory device for each part of the loop: Oops!, Ugh!, Aha!, Whee!, and Yeah! The “Aha!”  is the epiphany at the heart of the sermon.

Another epiphany-form is parable. Parabolic communication is designed to introduce as an “epiphany” some form of contradiction and unexpected irresolution where reconciliation and order are otherwise assumed. According to John Dominic Crossan, parable is the polar opposite of myth and functions as an agent of deconstruction, interruption, and change. Many parables take what listeners expect to hear and reverse it. In this form of communication, therefore, the epiphany in the sermon is some form of reversal of listener expectation. For instance, in the New Testament story of the Pharisee and the publican we assume that the original listener expected the Pharisee’s prayer to be accepted by God and the publican’s to be rejected. In the story, however, the opposite occurs, opening the story to new meanings. Epiphany within parabolic preaching is iconoclastic, introducing contradictions or unexpected tensions where none previously existed.

So, how does one preach “epiphany” in an “epiphany-like” way? In two ways, mainly. First, by acting like a storyteller and delaying the arrival of one’s “meaning” in the sermon – and allowing it to arrive as a “clue” embedded within the ordinary fabric of human life. Second, by interrupting and reversing listener expectations; showing how God’s ways cannot be “storied” at all, but often arrive in entirely unexpected and counter-intuitive ways.

Advent Sermons as “Love Letters”


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Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my family gathered at a sibling’s home in Kentucky. We used to gather at my parents’ home in Alabama, but both of my parents have been dead for more than a decade now. This year, my older sister brought two larger binders filled with letters that my parents had written to one another during World War II. She had discovered them in an old box taken from their attic, and had arranged them in chronological order. The letters we read were all written during August and September, 1944. At the time they were written, both of my parents were barely twenty years old. He was in boot camp in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She was at home from Maryville College for the summer. They had met at Maryville, and were secretly engaged. But they were now separated, and, without knowing it at the time, he would be sent into battle in just three months as a medic in Patton’s 3rd Army, 365th medical battalion.

On Friday after Thanksgiving, four of the five siblings, along with my daughter, son, and spouses sat and read aloud to each other these letters we had never before read. The more we read, the more deeply engrossed we became, hardly noticing the passing of time and the setting of the sun. We were caught up in the world of two young people, deeply in love, torn apart by war, struggling with decisions about vocation, marriage, family, health (my mother had a heart murmur), all of which was clouded over by war, the loss of friends in battle, and the complete uncertainty of the future.

The next day, with Thanksgiving over and the season of Advent approaching, it occurred to me that all of the feelings and hopes expressed in those letters are at the heart of the meaning of Advent. The letters were literally dripping with eros (love), by which I mean the deepest kind of desire that can be humanly experienced: desire for intimacy, desire for health, desire for peace, desire for family, desire for friendship, desire for life, desire for a work, desire for fulfillment, desire for a joy-filled future, and the deep desire to know and to be known by God. In many ways, Advent is the season of desire for Christians. Messianism is, at its core, an experience of profoundest eros – the desire for Emmanuel, God with us.

During Advent, preachers could do no better than to write love letters to their congregations similar to the ones my parents wrote to one another in 1944. In these homiletical letters, we might speak to our congregations as partners on a great journey. On this journey, there is often distance between and among us – but we will create ways to unite. There is violence, warfare, injustice, and poverty, and misery all around – but we will not let these harsh realities separate us from our hope for peace. As we travel, our bodies will sometimes fail us, hearts will murmur, joints will wear out, mental faculties will bend or even break – but we will find other ways to keep moving forward despite these difficulties. Our churches and religious institutions will change and sometimes fail us – but we know that the Word we follow does not let us down. Our families and friends will change and sometimes abandon us or die – but we will seize a few memories to live on, and if we can’t remember them, we will create new memories that will sustain us. But most of all, we will never stop feeling the eros within us. We will not run from this desire, but will instead live into it with all our might, finding in that desire the way toward a new future, the one that God is preparing for us. We don’t know what it is, but we desire it more than anything else in the world, like my parents did – she sitting on her bed in her room that summer in White Pine, Tennessee, writing beautiful hand-written letters to my father; and he, sitting in a silent corner of the mess hall, writing her back, as the world fell apart all around them.

This, at least in part, is what it means to preach during Advent. We preach as if our lives depended upon it, knowing that in spite of everything to the contrary, nothing can stop our desire for each other’s happiness, our desire for God, and our desire for God’s future. This desire is utterly irrepressible in all of us as Christians.

As preachers, we could do no better than to send love letters like this during the season of Advent.

Preaching and Love


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The wonderful new preacher at my church, Mary Louise McCullough, preached a strong and thoughtful sermon this week on the Great Commandment. As I drove home from church I couldn’t help but reflect on love and the task of preaching. Her sermon seemed to embody perfectly much of what I think on this topic. I have long been committed to the idea that love for the human other and love for God are utterly inseparable.

Years ago, I came across what seized me as one of the strongest statements regarding love of neighbor as the locus of God’s word for the preacher. It came from an odd place for a teacher of Christian preaching – through the words of Jewish post-holocaust French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas:

“This face of the other, without recourse, without security, exposed to my look and in its weakness and its mortality is also the one that orders me: “thou shalt not kill.” There is, in the face, the supreme authority that commands, and I always say it is the word of God. The face is the locus of the word of God. There is a word of God in the other, (my italics), a non-thematized word.” (Alterity and Transcendence, 104)

For the preacher, what seems to me to be crucial in this quotation is that the very locus of the word of God lies in the face (visage) of the other. God summons us by God’s word through the reality of the vulnerable other person.

For me, this means that preaching begins in the summons by God, through the face of the other, to 1) desire good for the other and 2) to desire not to harm the other. These, it seems me, are two sides of the same love-coin. And the ultimate purpose of preaching is to bear witness to this word of love.

Although preaching has many other penultimate purposes: salvation, prophecy, healing, reconciliation, hope, challenging the principalities and powers, and so on, its ultimate goal is human flourishing before God. This aspect of love gives expression to what theologian Wendy Farley once called “eros for the other” by which she means love as an aching desire (eros) for fullness of life for all others as God’s creatures. This becomes the positive pole of love in Christian preaching, and it supports the church as it “builds itself up in love.” (Eph. 4:16)

The goal of love, however, also imposes a seemingly negative or at least cautious dynamic on preaching, indicated in the command “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” A homiletic of love is also a way of preaching that is deeply concerned with repairing and redeeming one’s theology and language in order to do less harm to the vulnerable in one’s congregation and in the larger culture. This does not mean that preachers are debilitated and unable to say anything for fear of doing harm. Rather, they are always aware that, when speaking for others, it is important that they have also done some prior speaking with others, in the deepest sense. In other words, preachers need as many real, loving, depth encounters with different kinds of people as humanly possible. This is not simply a pastoral practice, but it is a social and global practice.

For instance, some years ago, after preaching what I considered to be a prophetic  and challenging sermon about “forgiving seventy times seven,” I received a phone call from a woman in the congregation who had recently escaped a violent relationship. She informed me that my sermon could potentially have talked her into staying in her situation, in which case she might not still be alive. Although not intending harm, my sermon suffered by not having learned from those who are caught up in dangerous cycles of violence.

The same could be said for listening to the experiences of those who have experienced depression or mental illness, those with long-term illnesses or disabilities, persons experiencing unemployment or financial disaster, women and children in Afghanistan, victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so on and on.

Of course it is not possible to consult everyone! And we will always need to repair our language, based on well-placed feedback.

But it is possible to add one helpful question in this regard to sermon preparation: How might this message be heard by ______________? – and to put the most vulnerable faces we have encountered into the space at the end of this question.

When in doubt about how to answer this question, it is a good idea to ask someone, to encounter a living face and learn, or at the very least to do some reading and research.

At the end of the day, I am convinced that it is the great joy, but also the significant burden of preaching, to bear witness to the word of God (love) that summons us through the face of all others – for all are vulnerable. This word is the double-sided word of love that makes those of us who dare to preach desire with all our hearts to promote fullness of life in Christ on the one hand, and to do no harm on the other.

Collaborative Preaching


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I wrote a little book about “collaborative preaching” some years ago, and have been gratified by the number of folks who have adopted this method, and for all that they have taught me over the years.

Collaborative preaching is preaching that involves an intentional effort to involve others in both sermon brainstorming and feedback.

The Sermon Roundtable. As a collaborative preacher, you will form a small group of lay persons (what I call a “sermon roundtable”), including those from within and outside the church. This group meets each week with you to discuss biblical, theological, and experiential materials for the upcoming sermon.

It is important to keep the group small: usually 3-4 members. It is also important that the group changes regularly – every two to three months – so that an “in-group” dynamic doesn’t take over, and in order to add diversity to the insights that are provided to the preacher.

The Tag-Team Approach. One of the best ways to accomplish this constantly rotating group rhythm is through a “tag-team” approach. Each group member joins for a designated length of time. When a person leaves the group, it is their responsibility to “tag” someone to take their place. The goal is to seek someone who will “shake the group up a bit,” adding a new dimension to the biblical interpretation and theological ideas in the group. This might be someone younger, or older, or of another race or ethnicity, or from outside the church, or of another faith, or of no faith.

Change Group Locations. Another way to add richness to the process is to meet in different social locations so that sermon messages are not constricted by the worldview of your congregation. Sermon brainstorming might take place, for instance, in a public place such as a library or shopping mall, or at a women’s shelter or homeless shelter.

Your Task, Should You Accept It. Your primary task is to begin conversation about the biblical text, and to take careful notes. When you prepare the sermon, you will make use of aspects of both the form and message of the collaborative brainstorming process.

Face-to-Face is Important. Of course, collaboration could make use of technologies such as Facebook, blogs, bulletin boards, etc. But the genius of this method comes, in many respects, from its embodied, face-to-face quality. Much of what you can take into the pulpit comes from actual group dynamics, including bodily postures and attitudes: leaning in, hesitating, following, dodging, getting a footing, interrupting, re-framing, etc. I say more about this in the book.

Why Do It? The goals of this type of preaching are many: educating congregations on what sermons are and how they function in the community, increasing ownership of the ministry of proclamation in the church, teaching the Bible, widening preaching’s audience, promoting a public form of theology in the pulpit, and symbolizing a collaborative form of leadership in the church.

Beyond these goals, those who use this method testify to three surprising results:

1. Sermon preparation time is shorter. You would think just the opposite. If the groups are small and kept to about one hour, it is amazing how many new ideas for preaching can be introduced.

2. It is harder to avoid tough topics and prophetic issues. Again, you’d think just the opposite. But if you lead in a truly open-minded way, people will usually raise the tough issues. Most people want to hear their preacher deal with these topics.

3. Your “authority” in the pulpit will increase. Again, this seems counter-intuitive. But, as Jackson Carroll points out, authority in a late modern context is largely a function of relationships, and this method of preaching builds relationships around the pulpit.

A Couple of Videos. If you are interested in this method, or just want to know more, I’ve prepared a couple of small video presentations about it.

Portable Preaching


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John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman, in his essay “University Preaching” said the following:

Talent, logic, learning, words, manner, voice, action, all are required for the perfection of a preacher; but ‘one thing is necessary,’ – an intense perception and appreciation of the end for which (the preacher) preaches, and that is, to be the minister of some definite spiritual good to those who hear…. (bold-face and parenthetical change added, as quoted by John Broadus in his Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 255).

In homiletics textbooks, this idea that sermons should have a “definite spiritual end” is normally labelled the “sermon application.” And in homiletics classrooms, teachers of preaching such as myself often speak about this as the business of making sermons “portable,” giving listeners something that is not only memorable, but motivational – that leads to specific actions, behavior, or to a new persuasion. Application also refers to “bringing home” an idea. Portability means that the message “comes to roost” – – it suddenly becomes about us, in this room, in this local situation and can be taken away with us into our daily lives.

I find Newman’s words helpful – urging us to offer some “definite spiritual good” to the listener. “Definite” means unambiguous, clearly stated, and decided beforehand by the preacher. “Spiritual good” implies that the sermon influences the human spirit in some way for the better.

In a similar fashion, Thomas G. Long, in his much-used basic preaching text The Witness of Preaching encourages preachers to jot down both a “focus statement” and a “function statement” before crafting a sermon. The focus statement summarizes the preacher’s message. The function statement summarizes the preacher’s desired result. For Long, this result should be tethered as closely as possible to the literary or rhetorical thrust of the biblical text preached. He wants us to ask first of all: “What do the words of the biblical text want us to do or become as a result of this sermon? Texts don’t just “mean” things, they try to do things!

At least three aspects of this way of thinking are much debated.

1. Should the preacher always decide beforehand what spiritual good is to be brought home at the sermon’s end? Inductive homiletics, under the tutelage of Fred Craddock, questions this presupposition. Instead of moving from the exposition of a general truth to its “application,” the inductive sermon moves through a range of experiences toward a general truth. In many inductive sermons, the listener is left to complete the picture – drawing conclusions that best fit their own faith experience.

Craddock’s picture of “Inductive logic” (from As One Without Authority)

2. The persuasive element in application-oriented preaching is sometimes called into question. Lucy Rose, in her book Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church, argues that this persuasive and transmissive model of communication is non-dialogical and reinforces a gap between pulpit and pew. It makes the goal of preaching the business of transmitting what the preacher wants to happen into the hearts and minds of rather passive listeners. This tends to disempower listeners – even if and when they nod and articulate their consent, as in call-and-response forms of preaching. In effect, listeners learn to be passive – awaiting the portable golden nugget(s) to arrive each week.

3. Others believe that “applications,” especially when they are too specific, let some people off the hook. If the preacher is too precise in spelling out a particular “pay-off”, people may find wiggle room enough to say, in effect: “That’s not about me.”

Despite these concerns, when interviewed about preaching, sermon listeners indicate that they generally listen for some kind of portable “take home” element in sermons. The Listening to Listeners to Sermons Project, a massive empirical project funded by the Lilly Foundation, contained several findings that point directly to the desire among listeners for some kind of “portable” application in sermons. Three of these, summarized by Ronald J. Allen, who spearheaded this project, point toward sermon portability:

  • The sermon should center in the Bible and make the biblical material come alive for the listener
  • The message needs to relate in a practical way to the lives of the listening communities
  • Congregations are eager for sermons to help them make theological and ethical sense of the range of life‘s issues
  • Ministers ought to be specific in helping congregations draw out the implications of the Bible and their deepest theological convictions

I sometimes draw out the distinction between denotative “applications” of the gospel, and the connotative “implications” of the gospel. This idea is not new. The great mid-twentieth-century homiletician H. Grady Davis, in his book Design for Preaching put it this way:

“…a sermon idea of more than a bare thought. It is a thought plus its overtones and its groundswell of implication and urgency.”

Whereas an application might denote a particular sought-after behavior or attitude, an implication is not always explicitly stated. Implications surround us with images, ideas, questions, angles of vision that “implicate” us in some way. Instead of striking directly, like an arrow, implications absorb us into a sphere of gospel-influence.

Implications should not be wishy washy. They can and should be intentionally pursued by the preacher. They can be honed as carefully sought “spiritual goods” within sermons, and might include such things as being implicated in the gospel’s relentless hope, or its ethical challenge, or its unexpected offer of forgiveness. Preachers still have to decide ahead of time what such implications are, but they do not have to turn them into a highly specific sermon-takaway (or a list of such things).

In the end, it is likely that all sermons have some kind of function (even if it is to put the listener to sleep). Finding that function, whether an “application” or an “implication”, truing it up, refining it, and focusing it on the situation of one’s listeners can be crucial for making a sermon portable in the best sense of the word.