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Invitation to a Sermon

Prize-winning sermons take their initial power from the sometimes stated but often implicit questions they address. Like dramatic theater, a compelling sermon first suggests complications that we recognize in our own lives, and then weaves believable resolutions with the threads of the plot. A powerful sermon raises provocative questions that enable listeners to join in the story.

I can still hear George Buttrick preaching that "the first and primary question of the Bible" is the voice of God calling in the cool of the garden, "Adam, where are you?" By helping us hear the voice that speaks to each person, But-trick defined the religious context of the world we inhabit. And I can hear Reinhold Niebuhr preaching on the still small voice that came to Elijah after the wind, earthquake and fire had passed, saying, "Elijah, what are you doing here?" With that question the prophet, cleansed of his doubt and self-pity, summoned the courageous faith to face oppressive forces and reroute Israel's history. As we journey through our lives, these kinds of questions become ingrained in who we are.

The gospel story is studded with time-tested sermon starters. The politically naive wise men ask wicked Herod, "Where is the child who is born King of the Jews?" John the Baptist questions Jesus, "Are you the One, or should we look for another?" The disciples are almost too much like us when they ask, "In your glory, can we sit closest to you?"  From the cross Jesus asks the opposite, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And all the resurrection stories begin with questions that are directed to us as well as the Bible characters.

Not all questions have to have such cosmic sweep. Simple queries can humble and engage a congregation. I recall a pastor who helped adults to imagine their childhood sense of God by asking, "Who among you can remember wearing an old bathrobe to play a shepherd in a Christmas pageant when you were a kid?" Women and men of all ages, sizes and statuses in the congregation raised their hands, sheepishly at first, then proud of their curious unity in the simplicity of faith. To a very attentive congregation, the pastor proceeded to preach about our inability to enter God's realm "except as a little child."up

On another occasion, a lay speaker confronted a judgmental congregation with the blunt question, "If you know or have connections with anyone with AIDS, please stand." A few stood, then a few more, until more than half the congregation were on their feet. First the speaker offered prayer, then she preached to a congregation now sufficiently humbled to want to hear God's healing word. Once I heard a physician preaching in a service that celebrated all the members who served in any capacity in the healing industry, from orderlies to surgeons, nurses to general practitioners, desk clerks to pharmacists. Standing with an array of service providers, the doctor announced, "We are the helpers, but who of you can remember a time when you were healed by God, the Great Physician?" Amazing testimonies came from the congregation, not to downgrade medical care but to affirm the power of faith. The questions involved them in the service.

At one worship service I led, the children's choir provided the music. After they sang I asked the children to stay and talk with me in the chancel. I asked the kids many questions--about their sense of God, their experience with fair play and even their impression of their own families in trouble, grief and prayer. Children can be candid, trusting and sometimes embarrassingly honest. We laughed and cheered with their stories, and clapped when the conversation concluded. Years later both the children and the congregation happily remembered this. But at the time, some parents asked me "not to put their family life in jeopardy again." The questions did help us listen, and the stories of each became the struggles of all.

Questions often carry the energy of the whole worship service--from naming the child in baptism to the transitional moment when two separate people answer that they wish to be joined as one in B the blessing of marriage. The celebration of the Passover begins with a question from the youngest child: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" and the ancient freedom story is re-enacted, debated and digested by yet another generation.

In an equally powerful tradition, the black preacher may pause mid-sermon to inject the question, "Do I have a witness?" This invitation can ignite an amazing public. dialogue before God. Responses range from the affirming "Amen" and "Tell it like it is" to an occasional "Well?" and prayerful "Help him, Jesus."

Great sermons engage the preacher with the places where the congregation hurts, or the hardness we deny, or the blindness of the soul. The sermon's power begins with questions that make connections. As you preach, take care not to offer answers to questions no one is asking.

September-October 1996




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