Praedicatio Actus Liturgicus Est!
One of the candidates for synod president released his four-point campaign platform. One of his planks is that we need to “Improve Law Gospel Preaching.”
As far as campaign talking points go, this is a kind-of “apple pie and mom” proposal. “Law and Gospel” is part of our Lutheran ethos, and improving our preaching is also a safe and uncontroversial statement. Who is going to gainsay such a sentiment? President Harrison has called for our pastors to improve their preaching, citing Walther to show how perennial the issue is.
Lest we forget, preaching saw a renaissance during the Lutheran reformation, as the sermon was restored to its proper sacramental dignity within the Gottesdienst. Solid preaching is part and parcel of our Lutheran tradition.
Also within our tradition is the theological and hermeneutical concept of Law and Gospel (which is, unfortunately, sometimes reduced to a slogan). ‘Law and Gospel’ is a helpful shorthand for the application of God’s Word in pastoral care to sinners: those who are in need of repentance, as well as those in need of forgiveness . It is really more helpful in speaking of private pastoral care (Seelsorge, or cure of souls) than it is in preaching - though it can certainly be an element in our sermons, insofar as our preaching is part of generalized pastoral care. But it has its limits.
In fact, relying too much on the Law and Gospel formula for constructing a sermon is something that the sainted Reverend Professor Kurt Marquart balefully warned his students against, telling us future preachers in his classroom “for God’s sake,” not to become rote and formulaic about it, such as preaching seven minutes of Law, followed by a transition, and then eight minutes of Gospel. He told us that we need to mix up our preaching styles and approaches to our texts - lest we put our listeners to sleep.
I agree with the candidate that pastors ought to step up their game when it comes to homiletics. But I see a different problem than he does. Preaching is actually part of the Divine Service. And it isn’t just an optional add-on. The sermon is a constitutive part of the Service of the Word - which is half of the Mass: the Service of Word and Sacrament.
Preaching is a liturgical act!
A fact too often overlooked by Lutherans is that at least 55% of human communication is non-verbal. How you say something communicates the meaning you wish to convey. A verbal message - be it a commercial ad or a sermon - must be delivered with authenticity, lest the speaker or preacher undermine his own message. In other words, since we Lutherans believe the sermon is not merely information, it is not to be delivered like a TED talk or a Bible class lecture. Since we Lutherans believe preaching is kerygmatic: a proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ that delivers that Gospel - it is to be delivered as a town crier relating the truth to people who are dying to hear the Good News. And since we Lutherans confess that there is something of the supernatural in preaching, that is, God works through this proclamation to forgive sins - we Lutherans see preaching as sacramental (and I’ll just cut off the inevitable Lutheran screeching about the dogmatic need for an element and how a synod publication somewhere officially and irrevocably defined the sacraments to be exactly two in number, and did so according to the Law of the Medes and Persians - I’m using the word “sacramental” in the broad sense here).
And so, preaching should be done with reverence; for Christ Himself is miraculously present, speaking to us, forgiving our sins, and working a miracle upon us by means of the proclamation of the Word. Preaching should be approached with the same reverence as when the pastor intones the universe-changing words of Christ over bread and wine: “This IS!” Just as we confess the Real Presence in the Supper, so too do we confess that Christ is present in His mighty Word, creating faith by means of the preacher.
Ministering the mysteries of the very Creator of the universe - in Word and Sacrament - is no time for flippancy. It would be scandalous for a pastor to joke around while consecrating the elements. It would communicate the very opposite of the words for a pastor to consecrate the elements casually, flippantly, or disrespectfully. One could hardly imagine a Lutheran pastor at the altar chanting: “Take, eat, this is my body” while wearing a Green Bay Packers cheese head hat on his head, or decked out in Mardi Gras beads, or dressed like a clown. For that would undermine the words that he is using - Christ’s words. It would convey to his hearers that he doesn’t really believe all that supernatural stuff, and nor should his listeners.
And this is what we at Gottesdienst are all about: sacramental reverence. There are objective ways in which our liturgical celebration can communicate the truth that Jesus is present and forgiving sins - communication that is grounded in the verbal and the Verbum - and yet communicating also non-verbally in harmony with our words - that yes, we really believe what we are saying! We are proclaiming the omnipotent Truth: Christ, who is present and active. Our very lives depend upon this reality.
And so, this reverence also applies to preaching. This is most certainly true!
Some helpful hints for improved preaching:
Don’t slurp on drinks in the pulpit. You will not die of dehydration. Your mouth doesn’t need water every five minutes to speak. I’m an old guy and I can do it. Leave the drinks in the sacristy out of view of your parishioners. If you absolutely must, use a lozenge, but make sure you can articulate clearly. Practice.
Don’t crack jokes. This is not to say that there can be no humor in your sermon. There is a lot of humor and irony in the Scriptures themselves, upon which we preach. Jesus is cheeky and funny at times. But you are not a comedian. People do not “get a lot out of your sermon” because you make them laugh. Remember, this may be the last sermon one of your parishioners hears on this side of the grave. You had better be preaching about Jesus and not goofing around up there.
Avoid schlock and schmaltz. One of the worst sermons that I have ever heard was done by a prominent LCMS pastor who yammered on for 15 minutes about what kind of pizza and chicken he liked. It was folksy and schmaltzy - and it was a pathetic and impotent mockery of what we are called to do.
Make use of the entire liturgy - including the introit and the gradual and the ordinaries of the Mass itself as fodder for your proclamation. For these too are the Word of God that bears the power to raise corpses to life. And you also need to be studying all of Scripture, even passages outside of your pericope, and feel free to incorporate the whole of the Bible into your preaching.
And this brings me to the last point that I have to say about how to improve LCMS preaching: restore the liturgy! How can you preach on the Introit if you got rid of it! Ditch the drums and guitars and dancing girls. For this is entertainment: a distraction from the proclamation. Preaching a sermon in the middle of a teen house party is like trying to set a beautiful diamond into a plastic ring from a Cracker Jack box. So long as we have “contemporary worship” in our synod, we will have a crisis of bad preaching.
For a renaissance of preaching in our synod, we need a renaissance of reverent liturgy.
Preaching is a liturgical act!