Why do preachers insist on beginning sermons by relating a personal experience? I suspect that they do this as an easy introduction, the relation of an experience that we could all share, something to connect the preacher with the congregation. A joke helps to lighten the occasion and interest the listener. But after the anecdote has been shared the preacher must find a way to connect it with the biblical texts that have been read previously. The personal story is meant as a bridge connecting the present world of human experience and the past world of the biblical text.
The effort to make a connection between the present and the past may be well intended but is in fact impossible. There exists the very real danger that the personal experience will dominate the proceedings simply because it is familiar, whilst the strangeness of the text will find a secondary place or no place at all. The anecdote or story is given as an example of reality, and it must stand over and against the texts of Scripture that claim to describe the real. It is easy to see which one will win, the familiar, often sentimental or the strange and somewhat frightening.
On the one hand we have the familiar, something we all could have experienced or identified with and on the other a reading from an ancient text translated from an obscure language and written over two thousand years ago in a culture we can only know through historical research. But that is not the most important difference between us and the text because the text is the Word of God spoken into our world. Even though it is written by men in their own culture and place, it is a Word that confronts us, a Word that we would rather not hear but surely must. It is a Word that overturns all our assumptions about what human life is for. The introductory anecdote is comfortable and reassuring, the Word would bring that comfort to an end as the much-famed Old Testament emphasis on the coming of the Day of the Lord as a day of fire and deep darkness.
This is not to say that sermons must rage against the world. The Word is the active agent, not the preacher, it does its own work to unsettle and confront. Preaching is always good news even though our most fundamental assurances are taken apart.
The solution to the strangeness of the text is not to lead the congregation on the path of biblical exegesis, local influences, ancient history and translation. These endeavours are best left on the preacher's desk for obvious reasons. Karl Barth insisted that even though we are separated from the biblical text by two thousand years and cultural difference, the text can only be treated as the Word of God that breaks into our existence as if from "above".
There is a crisis in preaching that must be addressed if the Church is to hear the living Word of God and fulfil its purpose in being the harbinger of a world transformed. Part of the problem, as a friend has pointed out, is that we understand preaching as being like the theatre. The preacher is the performer, and the congregation is the audience. He suggests a different model in which the preacher is the prompter who says to the congregation who are the actors "come and see" a phrase that is repeated four times in the gospel of John. The congregation are the actors because they must go out and enact the Word in the world. The idea of the preacher being the prompter, with the text of the play before him, denies him the role of an actor that must put on a show that is then judged by the audience. No more cute stories, no more pulpit displays of eloquence. It is the job of the preacher to know the meaning of the play being performed and to ensure that the actors on the stage play out their part.
Preaching with this understand does away with any attempt to build a bridge between our world and the world of the text, or between our understanding of our lives and that of the gospel's. The preacher can listen to the text in its strangeness and not attempt to make it un-strange.
The preacher would do well to ditch the anecdote at the beginning and hence the often-agonised attempt to connect it to the readings and go straight to the heart of the matter. This does not have to be a dry theological discourse. The Word is addressed to us in the form of story be that of the creation, the incarnation or the reality of the resurrection or the kingdom which is already breaking in upon us. Preaching already has a story to tell without injecting another, personal and competing story. Such practice is an exercise in avoidance. It pampers the congregation and leads it into a false sense of security.
On the contrary, if the preacher is the prompter who has the text of the play (read Scripture) and is addressing his prompts to people who will go out into the world changed by them then the strange Word of God is directed towards its target without a detour of a funny, sentimental, uplifting story that is designed to comfort the hearers. For it is only then that the Word may go out "like a roaring lion" into the world. There arises the possibility that serious sermons may be preached that upends the religious sentiments of the congregation. Our problem with this is that the Church, being so much on the back foot and looking to save itself from irrelevance, will dismiss the preacher for being a disruptive influence or of being too serious.
The gospel is good news but it is good news only after it has broken down our religious sensibilities that are self-serving and replace them with truths that demand to be acknowledged, even though they are uncomfortable. Perhaps we should judge sermons not on the comfort they bring, not on their familiar message of the love of God for all but on their strangeness to our existing world. For Jesus came amongst us as a stranger and he was rejected by the comfortable and by those who are in control, the world turned its back on him and led him to a dishonourable death. Here we hear the words of the prompter in the theatre of life, reminding us of the price that was paid for our freedom, the light in our darkness.
A final addition may be added to the model of the preacher being the prompter and the audience the actors. God, for this model, is the audience, for it is to God that all worship is offered. This is why we pay attention to art, architecture, music, vestments and the celebration of the sacraments with dignity, beauty and poetry. We rely on ancient texts that have been refined so that they inhabit us and constantly remind us of the grace of God…
You have given us this earth to care for and delight in, and with its bounty you preserve our life.
Go in peace.