The Sermon: A Dialogue of Faith

by Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D.

Take your Bible and take your newspaper and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.

Karl Barth, 1962

With the encouragement of my wife, some of my future posts will be edited versions of sermons that I have preached over the years.  Before doing so, I wish to take a moment to briefly express what I believe a sermon to be and what it needs to do.

There is…awesome power in a sermon and with this power, comes awesome responsibility that needs to be grounded in a sense of humility and respect.  If nothing else, I hope that humility and respect grounds my sermons.

I have been influenced by Karl Barth in how a sermon comes together.  According to Barth, a good preacher will have a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other.  That is what I tried to do in my preaching.  From a historical perspective, the Bible is a book of antiquity and is filled with ancient myths, stories, poetry, and gospels that reflect the world in which it was written more than today’s world.  Its ancient literary forms make it difficult to understand, a strangeness that sometimes seems to lack relevance in today’s world.  Throughout history, however, religious persons have tried to breath a fresh breath into the ancient words by attempting to understand their significance and meaning within the context of their contemporary world.  Staying apprised of current events as collected in a newspaper facilitates that task.  How this done, however, is the subject matter of homiletics courses and that will not be discussed in these sermons. Rather, as Barth suggested, I have always tried to discern the spirit of the text (Martin Luther called this spirit the “Word”) and immerse it prophetically into a contemporary context.  In this way, the strangeness of the biblical text has opportunity not only to call into question the errors of our time, but also inspire our imaginations concerning what a grace-empowered life can accomplish and the type of life it inspires us to live.

But the sermon is also a discourse within a community of faith as Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught, an insight I developed in my Master’s Thesis at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA.  Inspiration is important, but the nature of inspiration is to strengthen the faith of the community that gathers and is called the “church.”  In this sense, the sermon speaks to those looking to strengthen their faith but, in my mind, the sermon does not condone a particular dogma nor defend an institution.  It speaks prophetically from the margins of life and challenges the status quo to change not for change’s sake, but a change that comes when one embraces a way of life defined by love and repentance, the acts necessary to hear words different from our own, ideas that radically challenge our thinking, and a lifestyle predicated not upon greed and/or egoism, but empathy and a willingness to listen before speaking.

These are lofty ideals, and I will be the first to admit that sermons don’t always live up to this high standard.  Mine are no exception.  But it has also been my experience that the one who preaches the sermon is most often the one who is its greatest critic.  The meaning of words tends to transcend the intent of the speaker, and this is no less true of a sermon.  Indeed, this form of transcendence has often been reduced to a spiritual idea that God’s “voice” preempts the voice of the preacher liberating the words spoken from the limitations of being human.  I don’t know if such a belief is true or necessary.  It is difficult to control the meaning of the words we speak and once said, the meaning of words cannot be taken back.  Transcendence definitely takes place when speaking words, and this is no less true of a sermon as the meanings of the sermon’s words mingle with the thoughts of those who hear them challenging them in ways that preacher may not have anticipated.  There is, therefore, awesome power in a sermon and with this power, comes awesome responsibility that needs to be grounded in a sense of humility and respect.  If nothing else, I hope that humility and respect grounds my sermons.

Finally, sermons are not words of authority that lie beyond question.  From my perspective, sermons initiate a discourse between the preacher, the community of faith and anyone else who hears them.  If this discourse is thwarted by lofty egos or a pretense of authority that lies beyond question, the life of the sermon is suffocated, and its prophetic form is jeopardized.  While it doesn’t happen very often in churches, I think the responsibility of those who engage in the discursive nature of a sermon have the responsibility to speak up.  If bothered, a participant needs to voice their discontent.  If inspired, the participant needs to give voice to their inspiration.  If challenged to change, the nature of this change needs to be the topic of discussion.  I would hope that if something touches you in the sermons I post, you will let us know by responding to the post.  It is in this way that the words of the sermon live.

My wife has been encouraging me to put my sermons into a book and one of these days, I may try and do so.  In the meantime, I will post them to my blog.  I hope this short piece orients you to what I am trying to do with these works.  Please, after reading them, let me know what you think.

Published by Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D.

I am a retired United Methodist Minister and recently closed my practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, retiring with my wife to Rancho Murieta, CA. Now I have a blog and several hobbies that take up my time. We enjoy traveling and occasionally spending time at our cabin in the mountains of Colorado.

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