Selecting a Listener
Ted Kooser—Iowan, former US poet laureate, and, like Wallace Stevens, an insurance man—famously described the reader he would choose as someone with “hair still damp at the neck / from washing it,” who takes down his book from the bookstore shelf, peruses it, and puts it back, saying, “For that kind of money, I can get / my raincoat cleaned” (“Selecting a Reader,” Flying at Night, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005, p. 3). For me, a preacher, it’s not readers I would choose, but listeners. What kind of listener would I like?
First of all, I’d like one who has the good, midwestern common sense of Kooser’s reader. She is drawn to the poetry, but she knows that it’s more important to get her coat cleaned. My listener has developed a fine appreciation of the poetry of the sermon and loves it when the rhetoric takes flight, allowing for a moment a glimpse of a world beyond this one. But she knows that rhetoric alone will not suffice. She needs to get through the next day. We preachers often deal in absolutes: “Give your all for Jesus.” This listener knows that whatever “giving your all” means, it has to include getting breakfast, getting to work, dealing with a difficult boss, and getting home without losing one’s soul.
Good sermon listeners are good judges of what comes from the Spirit and what comes from the preacher. I love the listeners who are able to say, if only to themselves, “We love you, but that”—whatever I just said—“is pure Clay” (in every sense of the word). In my Michigan congregation, it was generally known that if I mentioned a movie in the course of a sermon, the members of the congregation should be warned to avoid the movie. They knew me. They knew my nonsense, my predilections, my hobby horses—and they were wise enough to discount them, to listen beyond them to what the Spirit might be saying through my words, sometimes in spite of me.
Second, the listener I select allows the Spirit to draw her beyond my words into uncharted territory—uncharted, at least, by me and my sermon. One of my best listeners was a man who early in my career told me that often something I said in the sermon would send him on a wave of thoughts unrelated to anything that came after. Sometimes his thoughts and my sermon would come back together in the end, and sometimes—more often, I think—they would not. It didn’t matter to me. What mattered is that there was enough in what I said to launch his thoughts in a certain direction. There is Spirit in that, and grace, the Spirit speaking beyond my words.
The goal of preaching is to walk the listener up to the edge of something so vast, important, beautiful, and incomprehensible that one can only stand at the edge and marvel at the mystery of it all. In her book When God Is Silent (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), Barbara Brown Taylor says that good preaching takes listeners to the edge of mystery but never across the line, because to cross that line is to destroy the very thing we want our listeners to understand: that we cannot possess God, as some theologies try to do, because in the act of possessing God we reduce God to our dimensions.
It’s for this reason that I personally despise the practice of fill-in-the-blank outlines so much loved by a certain kind of preacher. Not only are the answers predictable, but they draw the listener away from the vastness of our God and the mystery of faith towards the pedestrian thoughts of the preacher. I prefer listeners who use my words to launch themselves into that mystery and who, having encountered the mystery, are thereby changed.
Third, the listener I select begins the sermon before I open my mouth. Such a listener sees the text and asks, “What would I do with this Scripture were I preaching?” He plunges into the Scripture before and during the reading. In a church we attend when I’m not preaching, the Scriptures—in this case, the four weekly lectionary passages—are printed in the bulletin. I like to look at them, consider the interaction among them, and allow them to speak to me before worship begins. From this vantage, I can see how the liturgy has been built around the texts, how the songs and prayers comment on them, and how the elements of the liturgy advance us towards the Scriptures. By this means, I open an internal dialogue among the Scriptures, the liturgy, the message, and my own thoughts.
In this dialogue, we join a larger chorus of voices among whom and within whom the Spirit speaks. The Bible is itself a set of conversations: Jesus and Moses, Genesis and Isaiah, Paul and James. To these conversations, enriched by voices from the apostolic age to our own, we join in—we who have come lately, who are least in authority—and we tentatively offer our voices, or at least our thoughts. I would have listeners who are aware of being part of this larger conversation so that what we do on a given Sunday morning takes its place as only the latest attempt to understand what it means to follow Jesus.
Fourth, the listener I select forgives me for those sermons that do none of the things I’ve mentioned above—for those times when we fail to connect at any level. What do you do during a bad sermon? A friend of mine, a mathematician, says that he looks at the curve described by the tops of the organ pipes in the front of his church and tries to figure out whether the curve would best fit an exponential curve or a power curve. When I was a kid, I looked upward toward the high ceiling of my church where there were old-style acoustical tiles. I counted the holes in a single tile, then tried to count the number of tiles on the ceiling, and, multiplying the one by the other, came up with the number of holes on the ceiling. This took some time, and got me through some deadly sermons. For some of my sermons what I need most from my listeners is forgiveness and the willingness to let me try again—and perhaps a way to while away their time.
In these moments, the Spirit is often gracious. I’m sure all preachers experience this from time to time: As I walk off the pulpit thinking that the sermon was horrible, some blessed member of the congregation approaches me and says, “Pastor, that was just what I needed.” I don’t probe what it was the congregant needed. A bad sermon? I simply say to myself, “Thank you, Lord.”
Last, and most important, the listener I choose comes to the sermon not simply as a listener but as a partner. In an earlier article, I said a sermon is a dance with three partners: the preacher, the listener, and the Spirit. If we danced well together, there was joy in the room, and the Word of God spoken. In this dance, each of the partners has a role to play.
The Spirit comes as the Spirit comes, plays as the Spirit plays. Preachers must come to their messages prepared, both by way of preparing a specific sermon and by the longer preparation that makes them preachers in the first place. There is a mistaken notion that the Spirit is greater when the preparation is less, as if preparation gets in the way of the Spirit. This is false. The Spirit wants our best.
The listener should also come prepared. Knowledge of the Scriptures helps. Knowledge of the ways of Jesus helps. An eagerness to hear and a certain confidence in the preacher helps. But beyond these things, the listener I choose comes to the message with the expectation that in the message, as in the rest of the liturgy, he or she will meet Jesus. This expectation is as much an article of faith as a product of experience.
How do we as preachers instill such an expectation in our listeners? What I learned years ago from someone wiser than me in these things is that it begins and perhaps ends with love. That which holds the dance together is love: the love of God, the love of the Scriptures, which are the Word of God, and the love for each other, the preacher for the congregation and the congregation for the preacher. Congregations sense when they are loved and when what the preacher has to say comes from love. Love builds expectation.
There is a moment between the reading of Scripture and the first word of the sermon at which I sometimes pause, and in this pause my heart often swells with love for this people to whom I’ve been called to speak. In that moment there is expectation: my own for what the Spirit has opened to me in the Scripture I just read, and the congregation’s for what, through my words, the Spirit will have to say to them. We trust each other, and in that moment the sacred dance begins.