Help Arrives for a Common Preaching Problem
by Rev. Dr. Sam Persons Parkes on Friday, October 28, 2016
I love meta-level preaching advice, you know, the kind that invites me to adjust my theology to a fresher level or that considers the Others who will experience the event of the sermon. But few things are as satisfying for me as a plain old, down and dirty preaching hack. As a graduate teaching assistant in the University of Toronto I had the privilege to read and listen to scores of sermons by preachers pursuing the M.Div. At the same time I was writing lots of essays and eventually a thesis in homiletics. My profs would often give me much needed writing advice, and, sometimes, that advice would find its way into my own sermon writing. I started hacking my sermons with one particular piece of linguistic advice, and inviting my students to do so, too:
Remove as many instances of “There is…”, “There are…”, “It is…”, etc. from the sermon and reconstruct them. Simple as that.
Obviously, the verb “to be” is foundational to any language. And I’m not referring to all uses of “to be” as an auxiliary verb (although many of these constructions could be made more interesting). I’m primarily referring to uses of “to be” that take dummy pronouns as their subject. Let me break the problem down a bit.
THE VERBAL PROBLEM – As a main verb, “to be” is what Paul Ricoeur calls a verb of equivalence. Think of it as a linguistic equals sign. “The apple is delicious” means “This tasty object = apple.” “Jesus is Lord” means “Lord = Jesus.” We need this verb of equivalence to help us describe the world. We also need “to be” to help us redescribe the world. “To be” is often the verb that makes fresh, metaphorical links: “Her words are knives.” “To be” can be a powerful verb of description. But we waste this power when we connect this verb to subjects like “there” and “it” that are not clear. We rob “to be” of its ability to name and describe:
THE SUBJECTIVE PROBLEM – Often we use the word, “there,” as an adverb (e.g., “There is the clock,” “There are the shoestrings.”) indicating something’s location. This is fine. But often we use “there” as a dummy pronoun: “There is a parable that Jesus told about a woman.” Why not be clearer about the subject and verb: “Jesus told a parable about a woman.” By removing constructions like “it is” or “there is” from the sermon, we can opt both for clearer subjects and more interesting, active verbs.
A search in MS Word through my own sermon archive produces some cringe-worthy examples from yesteryear. In one sermon, I state, in reference to the Church, “It is an important part of our cultural heritage.” How boring! Now, when I see “it is…” I almost immediately take the opportunity to use that sermon space in a more interesting way: “We may not like to admit it, but our culture is covered by steeples and stained glass.”
In a sermon on Luke 5, I conclude the sermon: “Does it seem like you are all alone in this boat called life and it is slowly going down? Then, lovely people, I’m here to tell you that there is a lifeboat. There is a net of safety.” I had not provided a literal lifeboat or net in the sanctuary that morning. So, I wasn’t making a literal reference. No, I was trying to say, “A lifeboat exists for you. A safety net exists.” But, I could have taken the opportunity to be both more clear about the subject and verbs and also more interesting than indicating mere existence. I could have said, “Life’s little boat can seem lonely and isolating when we think we are about to sink. But, lovely people, look out over the surface of the dark water! A lifeboat races your way! God catches you in her gracious net!”
Where in the sermon do these constructions appear? I find them most often in two places. First, when pastors are exposing their exegetical work early in the sermon or when they are retelling the biblical story. And I also find them at the end of the sermon, as in my last example, where people want to make a claim for God and shy away from bolder statements. When I started including God (in one of the three persons of the Trinity) as the subject of more of the sentences in the sermon, particularly in last half, my preaching become more bold and clear. And people said so.
We don’t have to remove them all, but we only have so much precious time in each sermon. When I see these constructions, I ask myself, “Can I spend this time more helpfully?”
By removing these vague sentence openings we:
- provide more clarity to the listener;
- can describe life in more active, visual ways;
- can be more specific about God’s action in the text and in our world.
Now, let’s go hack!
Sam Persons Parkes is a 2016 Th.D. graduate in homiletics from the University of Toronto and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as a parish pastor and preaches weekly with the saints of the Cloverdale UMC in Dothan, Alabama. Sam also happily serves on the Preaching Consultation Team for Discipleship Ministries of the UMC.