Monday, May 16, 2011

Question of the week: Words that dance - how do you make your sermons more descriptive?

I once picked up Frank G. Honeycutt's book Preaching for Adult Conversion and Commitment from CBD's bargain section.  I didn't know what to expect from a book that only cost $3 but I was pleasantly surprised.  Honeycutt's book turned out to be a great look at preaching for transformation, something I hope all of us aim for.

As a side benefit, each chapter contains a sermon of Honeycutt's.  Each sermon reads like a three-dimensional movie with vivid descriptions that bring the biblical text into the reader's lap.  Take this section of a sermon in which Honeycut brings to life Luke 4:1-11.  The sermon is set up by a retelling of a scene from Joseph Heller's God Knows in which God utters to Moses the line, "Whoever said I was going to make sense? Show me where it says I have to make sense. I never promised sense. . . I'll give milk, I'll give honey.  Not sense."  Honeycutt moves from that line to discuss the gospel reading:

"Jesus has been invited to the home of a prominent religious leader, a successful clergyman who has a couple published books and pastors a successful congregation downtown.  This is a nice sit-down meal with the town's upper crust.  The kind of meal where you have about six more gleaming eating utensils than you really need when a single fork would do.  The sort of meal where you probably got an invitation in the mail including the white doily that falls out with the rectangular RSVP card.  The sort of gathering where someone stands at the door and makes sure you're on 'the list.'  I can't imagine that Jesus had an extensive wardrobe, but let's say he dressed up for the affair and rang the doorbell wearing nice slacks, Rockport loafers, and a navy blue sport coat.

"Jesus has hardly gotten in the door and air-kissed the hostess when he starts to deliver odious one-liners that have about the same effect as a loud fart at a funeral.  It says in the Bible that members of the church council were watching Jesus 'closely,' and to tell you the truth I can sure see why.  Into that gathering of the town's blue-blood elite, Jesus injects advice that would make Martha Stewart shiver.  It doesn't make sense, this upside-down etiquette.  'Whoever said I was going to make sense?' we can almost hear Jesus say. 'Show me where it says I have to make sense.'"

The rest of this sermon follows in this pattern as Honeycutt brings to life the healing of the man with dropsy, Jesus teaching about taking the lowest seat, and Jesus advice to invite the least of these to the next banquet.

At least in written form, the sermon's language does an excellent job of rescuing the text from the Oh-I've-heard-this-one-before syndrome.  For some preachers, such description comes naturally.  My guess is, that most of us have to work at it.  I know I do.  While we may not all be comfortable using the word "fart" in a sermon, spending time on how we describe things, finding the right word instead of simply the adequate word, can be the difference between evoking the listeners' imagination or lulling them to sleep.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre explains in her book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, that what we ought to be after is precision in our language.  "Precise language," she explains, "surprises like a dancer's extra second of stillness in mid-air: word and experience come together in an irreproducible moment of epiphanic delight."  That is, the precise word, well employed facilitate epiphanies, encounters with the divine.  in other words, how we say it matters.

So I wonder, how much time do you spend on how you are going to say whatever it is you are going to say?  How have you learned to say it better?

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