Building Sermons that Build the Church Part 2

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Week after week, the preacher has the privilege of shaping sermons, using language and sparking the collective theological imagination of the people of God.

As I continue in that weekly preaching task, I offer three simple and practical tips for sermon development.

Preach Sacramental Sermons

In my tradition, we celebrate communion once a month and we celebrate baptism regularly, but not every week. Nonetheless, sacramental language and imagery is appropriate each Lord’s Day.

An increased practice of the sacraments and an increased opportunity to teach about the sacraments are instrumental in shaping congregational identity. I routinely refer to the Table and one of its theological themes even if we are not going to celebrate Eucharist. If baptism is not very common in the life of the congregation, there’s nothing wrong with a preacher offering a “baby-less baptismal” sermon. Listeners can be invited to splash in the waters of grace and remember the first touch of God’s grace.

Visual cues in a sermon that refer to font and table help to ground the congregation in its ongoing worship life.

Once a preacher asked the ushers to move the font to the front door of the church right near the end of the sermon. You can imagine how the sermon concluded: “Remember your baptism, and go out to serve the Lord.”  Or a similar charge related to the Table: “We have been drawn and nourished by the Body of Christ here, so we might be sent out to serve as the hands and feet of Christ in the world.”

Don’t wait for communion or a baptism to preach about communion and baptism! It helps to build up the church.

Language and Imagery Beyond the One

All preachers ought to go back over their use of language and imagery on a regular basis.

My hunch is that most illustrations tell of an individual. The majority of pronouns probably are “me” or “you” rather than “we” or “you plural.” Remember again that subtle language from the liturgy: “You (plural) proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again… These are the gifts of God. You are the people of God.” Comb through your language, and push yourself to be intentionally corporate.

In seminary, preachers were warned about not always using oneself in an illustration. Over the years, many of us have learned not to use all illustrations from sports or refer to all families as a unit of mother/father/child.

In a similar way, think carefully both when you engage illustrations or imagery that are all about an individual and on the occasion when you use direct address near the end of the sermon. Is it an address to the hearer as one? Or are you addressing the Church, the Body of Christ?

I, for one, am convinced that references to the congregation as “family” are way over done, not very helpful, and not very biblical. “Community” may be an overused term as well. Instead, work on building up the Body of Christ in your sermons.

Honesty, Challenge, Vision

In his short but powerful book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides an honest assessment of the hard work of being in a community that seeks to abide in God’s love.

At one point, Bonhoeffer warns of over-spiritualizing life in the community and mistakenly thinking that the community of faith is some kind of spiritual oasis away from it all. There is a danger of seeing the gathering for worship as one long retreat that convenes each Lord’s Day, as if the church were simply an order of prayer, a monastic movement, or, to use Bonhoeffer’s term, a collegium pietatis (a pious assembly).

Bonhoeffer argues that little mountaintop weekend retreats can even be threatening to the church. “Nothing is easier than to stimulate the glow of fellowship in a few days of life together” he writes, “but nothing is more fatal to the sound, sober fellowship of everyday life.”1

It is hard work, really hard work: life in community, discerning God’s direction, acting on a strategy, speaking for justice. All of that goes on in the church while we’re burying the dead, singing the Lord’s Song, teaching our children and visiting the sick.

Preachers should acknowledge how hard building up the church can be. Preachers can acknowledge how difficult, how counter-cultural, and how other worldly it all is while at the same time painting within the numbers given by God.

God provides the landscape of community life in the kingdom of God. Preachers ought to help the hearers by filling in what the vision looks like with the cadences and colors scripture provides in Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom, or in Paul’s lyric of neither Jew nor Greek, or in Jesus’ parable of the least of these. For at the end of the day, as Bonhoeffer wrote, we are not bound together by our experience of how well we build it. We are bound together by our faith.

We must be thankful for the experiences, the spiritual highs, as it were, but that’s not why we live and work and serve in the community of faith. We are here because we are called by God to live and work and serve in and through and as the Body of Christ. We are bound together in Him. Jesus Christ alone is our unity. He alone is our peace.

1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 39.