Dear Working Preachers! How many of you were at the Festival of Homiletics this past week? If you were not able to attend, I hope to see you next year in Atlanta! If you were there, then you know this without me telling you, it was a spirited and Spirit-filled week.
A week full of worship, great preaching, and homiletical presentations will certainly channel the Spirit in some way, that’s for sure. It’s an experience that is difficult to describe, hard to articulate. We are left with a feeling, many feelings — and maybe this is the place to start your Pentecost sermon.
Even if you weren’t in Denver, you know what I am talking about. This is an important distinction in a Pentecost sermon — a sermon that is not about what or who the Spirit is, but what the Spirit does.
Too many of our Pentecost sermons try too hard to explain and define the who or what of Spirit with the end result being a boring doctrinal mess that tames the Spirit into domesticity. But when the Spirit is let loose, like it was this past week, in our imaginations and in our intuitions, well, who knows what will happen.
Take this fundamental feeling and read the texts for Pentecost Sunday through this lens. But don’t just ask what the Spirit is up to, but what it feels like when the Spirit is up to that. Does that make sense? As Frank Crouch notes in his commentary on the Acts lesson, the reaction to the activity of the Spirit can be translated as confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending. Or in John, what does it feel like to be guided (16:13)? Or in Romans, what does it feel like to be accompanied in your groaning, your sighs, your hopes, your prayers? And then write and preach a sermon that does just that.
I know what you are thinking — how? Well, you are going to have to feel it first before you can describe the feeling to others. That means you are going to need to choose a feeling, feel a feeling, and go with it. But, it is likely that the feeling will, in the end, find you. It means that you will have to sit with it for a while, perhaps a long while, with these texts, and that it might, depending on the feeling, get uncomfortable. The truth is, we have a tendency to avoid feelings, discount them, distrust them, dismiss them. We attempt to numb the hard ones and we justify the joyous ones with questions of self-doubt and worthiness.
But in fact, this is where all of our preaching should start — what feelings surface when reading or hearing a biblical text. What the text is doing to you. We tend to start in our heads with questions like, what does this text mean? Or, what am I going to say about this text? Or, Luke is telling us that … Instead, start with how are you being moved — what do you feel. To paraphrase Yvette Flunder from this past week, our faith is a movement, not a monument.
But feelings take time. You will have to start early on this one. People might ask you, “What are you doing, Pastor?” when they see you just sitting in your chair, not writing, not typing, not reading, but just being. And your answer? “I’m working on my sermon.” And you will have to allow time in your sermon for the feeling to take hold.
This may be the perfect week for some dislocated exegesis. That is, get out of your office, your study, your place of usual when you read Scripture or write your sermons. Sit on a park bench. Cozy up to a bar, if you are so inclined, with a glass or mug of whatever. Go to a coffee shop. And with the way the Spirit works, don’t be surprised if you overhear a conversation or someone starts one with you that just happens to be the story you need for your sermon. Just be. And feel.
Perhaps then you will be able to capture the dynamism that we know is at the heart of who the Spirit is, yet we never know how to describe. Because it’s the feeling of what the Spirit does that carries us through, not always the knowing of what the Spirit does. And preachers need to feel that feeling. That’s why over 1800 of you showed up in Denver. That’s why some of you were moved by Luke Powery and some of you by Grace Imathiu. Some of you said that it’s this week that gets you through the next year. But it’s not just what you learned, how you were inspired, or that you got desperately needed time with colleagues so as to defer, even if for a bit, the isolation and loneliness that comes with being a preacher.
It’s because you sensed the Spirit. And that’s a feeling you just can’t let go and can’t get enough of.