Often I hear sermons where the preacher begins with a focus on the disciples but then shifts to Jesus, or with a focus on the Israelites that then shifts to the prophet. Wherever the preacher focuses first is where the hearers are mostly to identify.
Take, for example, Luke 15:11-32, traditionally called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. One could preach a sermon in which the congregation is asked to identify with the father, the younger son, or the elder son. After all, we all need to forgive others, we all need forgiveness, and we all have moments of righteous indignation that we need to get over.
Often, however, preachers (intentionally or unintentionally) leave the hearer to choose their own point of identification, which usually means no significant level of identification is formed. Or preachers shift identification midway through a sermon, throwing the congregation out of the homiletical bus by taking too sharp a turn at too fast a speed.
Determine the analogy with clarity
When we preachers are doing our exegesis, an essential step is determining with clarity what analogy we will draw between the situation behind, in, or before the ancient text and some situation our hearers are experiencing today.
On any given day, we could choose an analogy between our lives and experiences, and those of the father, younger son, or older son, but choose we must if we want a sermonic unity that invites a deeper engagement with the ancient text that is relevant for contemporary Christian belief and behavior.
To offer another example, I am a United Methodist and at the time of writing this essay my denomination is in the midst of a decades-long conflict over inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the church, especially in terms of access to ordination and marriage.
Now let’s imagine I am tasked with preaching on Philippians 2:1-11. The text ends with the famous Christ hymn, but Paul quotes that hymn to deal with division that has developed in the Philippian church (for example, see Philippians 4:2-3).
- If I am preaching in my school’s chapel to students who are preparing for ministry in the United Methodist Church, I am likely going to draw an analogy between Paul’s approach to dealing with conflict and the ways they can deal with church conflict in their work.
- If I am preaching to a United Methodist congregation that is itself battling over issues related to sexual orientation, I am going to draw an analogy between their situation and that of the Philippian church members.
The issue of point of identification does not end with the analogy between the ancient text and the contemporary world, however. In our contemporary sermonic imagery (in other words, illustrations), we preachers must make sure we maintain the point of contact established in that analogy.
If we return to our example of the parable, let’s imagine a sermon that follows Luke’s lead and asks our contemporary hearers to identify with the elder son. We should look for stories in which our hearers can identify with a character who has rejected or overcome their rejection of someone or some group as unworthy of grace, inclusion, and/or celebration. Such stories would by design include characters who are analogs for the younger son, but we must construct the story in a way that the focus is on those doing the rejecting and not on those deemed unworthy.
Returning to the Philippians 2 example, let’s imagine in the process of developing my sermon dealing with conflict in The United Methodist Church, I have found a story about conflict in a Lutheran congregation. I am drawn to it partly because of the fact that it allows some distance for my United Methodist hearers—they might be able to let their defenses down and come to experience the story as an analog for their own experience.
Now, let’s say, in this story a turning point occurs in the conflict when a pastor decides to share the Eucharist at the end of a business meeting where the conflict is at its highest intensity. She places the elements in the middle of the board room table so that it is present as members arrive.
At the beginning of the meeting, the pastor leads the committee in the Eucharistic prayer but ends the prayer without saying, “Amen.” She then informs the people gathered that the rest of the conversation for the evening will continue to be a part of the Eucharistic prayer and they will have to pass the bread and cup to those with whom they are debating. The conflict is not resolved, but the way the members of the group deal with the conflict and especially with those with whom they disagree is transformed.
- If I am preaching at my seminary chapel, I am going to tell the story in a way that focuses on the actions of the pastor.
- If I am preaching in a United Methodist congregation, I am going to focus on the members who enter the room and see the elements placed on the table.
In the end, then, point of identification is maintained through a two-staged analogy: specific situation of the ancient text → specific situation in a contemporary image → specific situation in the life/world→experience of the hearers.