Consider an invitation to the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. I tell you I’ve found some new recipes I’d like to try out on you because they sound tasty.
You arrive at the appointed time and, because you have been eating lightly all day in order not to ruin your appetite, you are-in a word-hungry.
After taking off your coat, getting settled in the house, and sharing small talk, you notice the dining room: tablecloth, linens, fancy dishes, wine glasses, and candles. If presentation is an essential part of appetite, as food writers claim, your desire for dinner is unmistakable.
You take a spot at the table and I enter the dining room from the kitchen with a stack of 3X5 index cards and begin, “Turkey: preheat oven to 350, rub the skin with salt and pepper, slip chopped sage, rosemary, and thyme under the skin, place in a roasting pan and roast for fifteen minutes per pound until done.” I do the same for all the trimmings until I have read through the entire menu.
“Doesn’t that sound good!? Let me get you a cup of coffee before I read about dessert.”
You would, of course, leave disappointed, confused, cheated, and above all, hungry.
At its best, the task of preaching is about feeding people hungry for grace, hope, and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. Rather than describing God the way a recipe describes food, the language of preaching is meant to serve up the real, creative, redeeming, and life-giving power of God.
I will concede that this way of describing language for preaching may strike you as fanciful, but it is biblical. The psalmist delights in the taste of God’s word, “sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Psalm 119:103). Ezekiel eats a scroll of the word and finds it equally delicious (Ezekiel 3:3). Not all biblical words satisfy us in the same way, though. When John the Seer eats a scroll, he’s left with a bad case of indigestion (Revelation 10:9). And for us, the apocalyptic texts that preachers encounter each year, this time of year, remain an acquired taste. Still, the task of preaching is to find language that gives us a taste of God’s goodness, serving up God’s very self rather than merely being about God.
This is no mere abstraction. Philosophers talk about “speech acts,” a situation where a person says something and the fact of saying it actually does it. From Genesis 1 on, when the world is created through speech, the scripture is filled with examples of how words change and create things. And within Lutheranism there is a long tradition of thinking about preaching this very way-that our speaking is not so much about God as it is the very speaking of God. When the preacher speaks, God speaks. And of course when God speaks, things happen.
Jesus himself, when preaching his first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, does not offer guidance or instructions on how to free captives or give sight to the blind. He simply says the text he quotes from Isaiah has now been fulfilled in him and in our hearing. And note how, on the Sunday this gospel text is appointed, the Prayer of the Day picks up on the theme of words meant to feed us. “Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life.”1
So how does a preacher go about thinking of preaching with the purpose of feeding and filling the hearer with God’s own life? Good question! After all, the task of such preaching will never be as clear-cut as serving up a Thanksgiving Dinner of turkey and side dishes. With preaching, we remain in the realm of language. However, we know that there are certain words and forms of language that make things happen more than they pass along objective facts.
For example, we read poetry and tell jokes because they do something to us beyond conveying information. Or, after a couple has been caught up in long, drawn out argument, one person says to another, “I’m sorry.” Those two words serve up a new world and satisfy in a way that a discourse about contrition never would. In fact, in the middle of an argument, a discourse on contrition would have all the appeal of reading a recipe to a hungry person, and the dispute would be far from over.
In the same way, we have a sense for how language can leave us hungry. For instance, I have an increasing fear that sermons dependent on the aid of electronic media all too often drift toward talking about God and look as though they are offering a recipe for faith. Projected outlines or blanks in sentences that can be filled in as the preacher goes along make it all too easy for preaching to turn into a sort of lecture about God rather than being the means through which God speaks. Such preaching is more recipe and less meal.
Instead, the vocabulary and grammar of preaching is, at its best, language that conveys God in the same way that speech acts make things happen or poetry and jokes create a world we can inhabit. Preaching does not, for instance, simply talk about sin as though it were an object or a philosophical category for our inspection, admiration, or disdain. Rather it serves up the truth of sin in our lives, and it frames the landscape of the captivity from which we cannot escape on our own. It offers up grace and reconciliation, not simply as a happy ending to an otherwise dismal story, but as something hinted at, longed for, and even tasted in our lives.
By now you may fear that preaching which feeds people, rather than that offering recipes, puts increased pressure on already busy pastors or gives the impression that a preacher’s task is to produce a memorable homiletical feast week in and week out. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the course of eating meals week in and week out, very few meals stand out as memorable. So while I may not be able to remember the details of what I ate for lunch last Thursday, I know that I have been fed. Preaching falls into the category of being fed. Preachers are not, in the words of Robert Farrar Capon, meant to be “homiletical chefs serving four-star food.” Rather, the principal job of a preacher is “to serve their families nourishing and flavorful meals.”2
Engaged in the discipline of regular preaching we are, all of us, simple household cooks. Far better to be household cooks than readers of recipes because there are too many people hungry for the word of God! And no word could be better to hear at the end of worship as parishioners are on their way out the door than, “Pastor, your sermons always feed me.”
1Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p. 23.
2Robert Farrar Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 1997) 56.