Sermon Introductions and Badly Stained Tablecloths

This blog post is a response to an informal poll on Facebook in which I asked:

Hey Reformed friends, I’ve wondered for a long time about the first part of a sermon. Which of these two do you prefer, and why?

Option A:
1. introduction/story
2. scripture
3. exegesis

Option B:
1. scripture
2. introduction/story
3. exegesis

The responses were great. On the whole, the majority opted for option B or something similar. Here is my response to the poll:

Thanks everyone for the fantastic conversation about sermon form. You all give me hope that Facebook can be a place for faithful Christian dialogue. I purposely didn’t respond to anyone so as not to tilt the conversation. But now that the responses have slowed down, allow me to push back pretty hard on those who argue for the traditional structure of [scripture > introduction > exegesis] or even more rigorously, [scripture > exegesis].

I totally agree with the theological reasoning for placing scripture first and insisting on the primacy of the word. I do think that starting with scripture should be the norm from which we deviate, not the exception. But I can’t say that starting with an introduction is off-limits. Here’s why:

First, to the charge that starting with an introduction necessarily leads to eisegesis, I tend to think that the line between exegesis and eisegesis is very fuzzy. It is a noble pursuit to try to avoid certain kinds of eisegesis, but it is impossible to eliminate it. It is a function of our human finitude and inherent perspectival apprehension of the world. Better to relentlessly study and name and baptize your perspectives than to pretend that they are not there.

Second, worrying about the temporal primacy of the word in the sermon strikes me as an overworrying. Don’t we believe in the ontological primacy of the Word? Doesn’t that trump our petty squabbles about our experience of a tiny slice of time? Theologically, we can say pretty confidently that the Word precedes us in the creation of the world, and the Word precedes us in the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the gospels. If we preach these truths regularly, I don’t think we need to freak out about whether or not we start the sermon with the scripture or with an introduction. (Besides, if you start the entire worship service with a votum, you are already starting worship with a curious interweaving of human and divine speech. So calm down. God and we are already, in the power of the Spirit, in this together.)

Thirdly, insisting that we start with scripture assumes a level of Biblical literacy that our congregations simply do not have. When I think about the Reformers (or even the later Puritans) insisting on scripture first, I am reminded that Calvin (and later John Owen) preached every day. In a context with that high level of scriptural knowledge, it makes a lot of sense to not distract your congregation with introductions. Oddly, for all of the Reformation polemics against monasticism, this kind of daily preaching of the word in places like Geneva was actually much closer to a monastic daily spiritual ordering of life than our contemporary American Reformed context. I don’t say this lightly, but times have changed.

And here, metaphorically, is the meat of it: preaching a sermon without an introduction is like serving up the most delicious culinary creation by plopping it directly onto the tablecloth. People need a plate on which to hold the food. If people begin to admire the intricate design on the plate instead of the food itself, then the sermon introduction has gone too far. But it is an act of hospitality, an act of missional engagement, and an act of love for your people to hand them the plate before you hand them the food.

Having said this, I think we can make clear distinctions between more and less faithful sermon introductions. As others have already said, a sermon introduction is helpful to the extent that it provides helpful context to the scripture passage, or asks a key existential question which the text itself will also ask or sharpen or answer. A sermon introduction can be less helpful if its purpose is to emotionally hook (or manipulate) the congregation, or establish the brand of the preacher, or flirt with and warm up the congregation. Put more bluntly: intros that lead into the text are good. Intros that lead too deeply into the interior life of the preacher (or even the congregation) are less helpful.

Sermon form carries invisible theological weight. The form of the sermon subtly shapes the way we see the contours of the life of faith. A sermon which begins with subjectivity (and, most likely in the application phase ends with subjectivity) will shape your congregation to view their spiritual life as the work of God framed within the larger framework of their needs and wants. A sermon which begins and ends with the work of God will form people to see their lives as surrounded by the active grace of God.

This is by no means to eliminate your emotions and guts from preaching. There is totally a place for feelings and subjective experience and your needs and wants in a sermon. It’s just not what should open, define or drive the sermon.

However, for the sake of hospitality, mission, and love, I have to say that in some instances (but not all) an introduction to the sermon can be a very good thing. If I am preaching a narrative, I would prefer to lead with the story of scripture. If I am preaching deep in the middle of Romans, or Hebrews, or Ezekiel, I as the waiter might want to set the table before I serve the chef’s special.

Improvisation and Mistakes

My friend Brendan made a great comment and asked a helpful question about my last post:

I would also add [to improvisation] the role of mistakes. Some of my greatest musical moments began as a mistake about which I was willing to have curiosity and creatively trace its relationship back into the original harmonic structure. Your thoughts on mistakes as they relate to improvisation?

I think Brendan is especially on to something when he says that the task of the artist when dealing with mistakes is to ‘creatively trace [the mistake’s] relationship back into the original.’ Here, the artist becomes a host, welcoming the mistake into fellowship with what has already been created. It is a kind of generosity.

Improvisation is an inherently open-handed posture toward the world. It invites surprise. Seen this way, welcoming and incorporating mistakes is a natural outpouring of the spirit of improvisation. From a harmonic perspective, mistakes are only the notes or colors or words that are farthest away tonally from the center of the work. Part of the task of the artist is to lovingly and thoughtfully welcome these estranged motifs on the margins into the center. Or, even more provocatively, to allow the mistakes to become a new center that now coexists alongside the original center of the work.

Really long nerdy footnote:

I would want to make a distinction between three different kinds of ‘mistakes.’ The first kind of mistake is what we might call a ‘sin’ in the singular. This kind of mistake is a moral wrongdoing committed against someone else. The second kind of mistake is the mistake that is not a ‘sin’ but is still a failure or non-perfect action. These mistakes are a feature of our finite nature as human beings, and in art they are not necessarily something to be avoided; they can even be celebrated. The third kind of mistake is a mistake judged by the internal rules of an art form. So, for example, within Western art music, a tritone could be judged a ‘mistake’ in certain musical contexts. But, as we know, in a different context, this kind of mistake can be re-evaluated to actually be something very good.

The first kind of mistake is moral, the second two are aesthetic. But as soon as I make this distinction, I am compelled to say that it is a false distinction. As much as the modern world has tried to sever them, the moral and the aesthetic are intimately and multivalently linked. I don’t think we can cleanly parse the three kinds of mistakes (And indeed, if you go with Augustine, even the first kind of mistake can take on aesthetic beauty, as in his idea of the “fortunate fall”.) But as serious as the first kind of mistake is, it should not prevent us from wholeheartedly embracing mistakes of the second and third kind, for the joy of artistic exploration.

Improvisation and Spirituality

I played jazz bass for the first time in a while last night. There’s nothing quite like creating new music in real time with two other people. I love those moments when I go off in a different harmonic or rhythmic direction right at the same moment when the drummer (Ben) or the pianist (Larry) breaks loose too, and for a split second something completely unexpected and beautiful happens.

I know that it bothers some people, but this is why I never play a song the same way twice in church. I’m always looking for those unexpected moments when a different harmonization or a different rhythm joins with the congregation in unexpected and beautiful ways. I love improvisation and I think that spirituality can be deeply improvisational.

Anyone who has ever improvised can tell you that it’s not simply “making something up.” It takes hours of practice, hours of discipline before the happy accidents can happen. There are rules and values that the improvisers share among themselves as they enter into improvisation together. Our walk with God is the same way. Hours and hours spent in lonely silence, in prayer or in scripture, can eventually lead to the most beautiful improvisation with God.

Watching Big Fish Again, Ten Years Later

Thursday night I watched “Big Fish” again. I hadn’t watched it in a decade. (Did you forget that the movie even existed?) It was way cheesier and sappier than I remembered. But apparently that didn’t matter: just like last time, I wept through the last twenty minutes of the film. I wept because of the deathbed father / estranged son story, even as it was full of cliches. But I also wept because the film raises a serious question about my faith: Is Christianity just an elaborate story we project onto the sky? As the father character dies, and the luminous glow of the film slowly fades, all we are left with is a faith in the power of human storytelling, and it is a terrifying spiritual darkness. Faced with the prospect that we are truly alone with our stories, I wept. But there is a chance that Christianity is true. There is a chance that we are not alone. The film proffers a set of myths that are so archetypal that nothing in the film is particular, nothing is unique, nothing is incarnated. Perhaps it is in what was missing from the film that our hope lies. In the Incarnation, I believe the preposterous claim that all the hopes of our myths were answered not with another myth, but with a scandalously particular human being. He was not a mythical everyman but a poor migrant Jew with no citizenship papers, living without any promise of food, clothing, or shelter. He probably smelled bad, had a crooked face, or maybe he had an annoying laugh. That this man, this obscure itinerant preacher, would be the revelation of God in his particularity as a human being, this is the Incarnation, and it tears through all of our myths and stories, presenting us with the possibility that God is among us.

Evangelical Christians like to point to the cross as the center of the Christian faith, but the early church was right to see our salvation as consisting of two centers. It is not only the cross, but the Incarnation that is good news for us. Without the Incarnation, all of our myths are a closed loop, a crushing canopy of immanence. Under the weight of that canopy, I wept. But by faith in the Incarnation, joy comes in the morning. There is nothing I can do to prove this, but by faith, I believe.