Hey Bloom Family–
On Monday, a couple members of the staff and I sat in an office talking about the art of preaching–a subject I’m just a little passionate about. We talked about the relationship between Scripture and the words of the preacher, and it got me thinking about an image for what happens in a liturgical preaching space that I’ve sometimes thought about but never really expressed. So here it is. But first, naturally, a story.
I never really drank whiskey until I moved to Colorado. A friend of mine worked at Stranahan’s as a bottler and tour guide. If you did the tour (which was free), you got to sample some of the whiskey (again, free). He told me about his job and asked me if I’d like to come out for a tour one day. Never one to turn down free things–certainly not free whiskey–I signed up.
The tour was fun, and even interesting at times. The real enjoyment, however, was the tasting. He poured each of us a glass and then walked us through the art of drinking whiskey, which went something like:
First, cleanse the palate… now taste some of the whiskey as-is (“neat”)… what do you taste? Now with a couple drops of water… what do you taste now? And now with a few more drops… what do you taste?
And so it went. My friend provided language that helped us interpret the experience: “vanilla”, “smoky”, “buttery”, etc. It was really eye-opening.
What surprised me was how the experience of the whiskey unfolded as each tiny bit of water in differing volumes was added. The water, it turns out, “opens up” the flavors native to the whiskey, releasing what was already there, making the experience of the drink progressively more accessible. And, of course, you don’t need to add much water to make that happen. “A little dab will do ya”, as my mom used to say.
Preaching in a liturgical setting is a bit bit like that. The Scripture, I genuinely believe, stands on its own (like a good whiskey); and especially so in a context governed and enriched by liturgy–creed and confession, prayer and praise, with the Table at the center. If we had no other interaction with Scripture in a worship service than hearing it, meditating quietly on it, and then taking its summons with us as we confessed our sins as we made our way to the Table, the Holy Spirit would do something remarkable with it. Week in and week out, we would be transformed.
So then what is a sermon? At its best, a sermon is a like a little water added to the whiskey of Scripture which helps open it up, releasing what is there into the life of the congregation, and thereby making the experience of Scripture more accessible. I’ve learned that it doesn’t take much…
A bit of historical background…
An explanation of a word or a phrase or two…
A summary of the movement and central thrust of the text…
A story and a question that puts the text to the congregation in a fresh way…
All of it, hear me, in the service of simply “opening up” what is already there. Hopefully no more and no less. It is certainly not trying to “exhaustively explain and apply” what is going on in the text of Scripture; long experience has taught me that that is neither possible nor desirable. Scripture is far too rich for that and the Holy Spirit is far too imaginative to be limited by our finite sense of “how this Scripture applies to your everyday life.”
Instead, the preacher is using their words to hold Scripture up as a prism–or better, a window into a new reality through which the hearers may gaze imagining that perhaps everything is not as it seems and my life may be different than it now is because God is my Father and Jesus is Lord and the Spirit is at work in the world and dammit-all we’re on our way to the kingdom... The words of the preacher open up Scripture ever so carefully so that it may be “the Word that redescribes the world”, as the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has said.
That metaphor has helped me greatly over the years, and its what we’ve tried to model at Bloom. For the really fascinating thing is not what the preacher has to say (water just isn’t that interesting), but the rich complexity and transformative power that Scripture holds–the Word that shatters us and makes us whole.
Grace to you,