How to Hear a Sermon Part II

main image


  1. Learn from the oyster. By this I mean that a preacher will ask oneself – “what in this passage do I resist? What do I not want to hear?”  Lean into that. So for the hearer too. Have I misunderstood? Or am I being challenged? That point of friction may be the grain of sand producing the pearl. 
  2. Sermons are obviously but importantly inter- personal, embodied, human events of uttered communication.  No duh!  By this I mean a dying sinner, now redeemed, stands before and among you and tells something of urgent and personal importance. I am not saying that listening to sermons on YouTube is not valuable. But I am saying that an insert in the bulletin with all the same information is not the same thing. Sermons are “performance art.”  In this way the sermon is irrevocably old-fashioned, even luddite - Amen!
  3. Pray for your preacher, listen hard, and encourage him or her, honestly. Preaching is not easy, and when the preacher struggles it is usually because really of spiritual discouragement. The spiritual writers called this “acedia” or spiritual depression. Are they listening? Does it make a difference? Who am I to speak? Isn't the church as it really is discouraging? These are the spiritual temptations of the preacher, who may, all too soon, lower what they expect of themselves in preparation, especially in light of the manifold pressures of the job. But preaching must be inextricably linked to suffering through those pressures, for there the preacher hears the Word addressed to him or her, and you overhear it. 
  4. So long as the connection to the difference Christ makes is made, we profitably listen for the compelling image in the passage. The rope tying passage, theology, our experience, and today's world may be in a sense “visual.” The sermon is not a lecture. The preacher may help us see the point as a poet or a painter does. Listen for it and gaze on it.
  5. Here I admit I have a vested interest as your bishop - you need to be listening every Sunday!  Preacher and listener have a relation of spiritual challenge and cooperation. Formation of the soul is over time, like a marriage or a deep friendship. There are dry patches and days when the clouds part. The latter depends on sticking with it, especially since readings in our tradition usually either work their way through books or track the life of Jesus in the calendar. Listening to sermons is a long-term spiritual friendship which comes to been seen as walking with another on the road to Emmaus. Turn off the road and you miss dinner.
  6. This is related to what Paul in Acts calls the “whole counsel of God.”  We might compare this to hear a piece of polyphonic music. How the notes blend, the sound they make together is the heart of it. All preachers and listeners have themes they prefer, old standbys.  But the lectionary is intended to make us here the sweep of the Bible story of salvation. Likewise, the listener must be attentive to soprano and bass, bright and dissonant. The goodness of creation, our deformity in sin, the centrality of Christ, life together in this in-between time, the great hope:  we have to have ears for all the parts in the great harmony. The range of neither preacher nor hearer can be truncated. If it is, preaching becomes flattering words, winds of doctrine, self- help, or cultural commentary. But the real thing - hearing God Himself speaks good news through the struggling lips and ears of a room full of dying sinners, who are, it turns out, children of their Heavenly Father, is harder, and far better. 





How to Hear a Sermon Part 1

main image

I think most clergy of the Diocese of Dallas are good preachers... I think, because I never actually hear them when I pray Sunday by Sunday.  I know from my own experience as a preacher that I have Sundays when the sermon hits the mark, and others that don't, some doubles to left center, and other weak grounders too short! I have also learned over almost 40 years that the ones I like and the ones that speak to people are different, and that what speaks cannot be predicted.  Once I speak them I have to let go of them.  But congregations have a right every Sunday to expect that I, and your pastor, have prepared.  But just as preaching is a calling and a task, so is hearing a sermon. The congregant must be an active listener who seeks to take hold of what I am struggling to say and apply it to his or her life.  What other kinds of assumptions support this spiritual task of hearing a sermon? When I was in college my teacher of New Testament, Dean Krister Stendahl of Harvard Divinity has his 10 Commandments of Preaching, whose entries Never preach on lovebecause you will be misunderstood and You are responsible for what was heard not what you meant could be blogs of their own. Let me try to put forth 10 of my own guidelines, assumptions that conduce to profitable listening. 

  1. Every sermon must be 51 percent good news - bishop Paul Marshall. The important thing in this aphorism is what is meant by good news. That makes the rule more than a preference for cheeriness, which is surely unfounded in our world. Gospel declares a fact about history and the world, namely that what Jesus Christ has done has changed things. Now a sermon may describe in a thousand ways how that deed changes how you should think about politics, ethics, emotions, social relations, etc. But it is not primarily opining on these things. 


  1. Sermons should help us hear what God is saying to us, hear and now, through a passage of scripture. Taking this seriously is quite radical, and should offend our secular mind. God can and does speak to us, and that is why the Bible is called the Word of God. Now explaining the context and details of the ancient world, etc. may help us hear this address, but is only meant to subserve it. 


  1. 1 and 2 are fortunate, since none of our lives are interesting enough to sustain a congregation's attention more than a couple of months!  Now this is tricky since the preacher must recall that he or she is one more hearer too, in the same boat as the congregation when it comes to life and death. So in some way we address sermons to ourselves, the congregation overhearing - in this way we are assured that they matter to us. But they cannot be self-involved, narcissistic or publicly therapeutic. 


  1. The medievals were right:  all sermons, one way or another, have explicatio/ meditatio/ applicatio.  Of the making of books with sermon prep methods there is no end. Sermons can be thematic, expository, narrative, participatory, and on and on. It is probably good for the parish priest to change it up. But I reckon they all have these moments: some explanation of what the passage is actually about, some reflection about how this relates to what Jesus on the cross and out of the tomb has changed my circumstance, and how seeing that anew would change how I lead my life. Those three are paraphrases of the Latin words from the Benedictine tradition. 

To be continued….



12...6789101112131415 ... 6162