by Leonard Sweet
Judy Garland believed she owed it to her audiences to give them everything she had. Just before walking out on stage, the superstitious
Garland refused to utter the standard entertainment slogan, “It’s time to break a leg. “Instead, she’d say, “It’s time to give blood.”
I can’t think of a better definition of preaching than “giving blood.” Of the three traditional ways of making a living-mud, blood, and grease-preaching involves all three: the mud pies of creativity, the
blood bank of living in the Word, and the grease pit of hard work and dirty hands. But of the three, giving blood is the defining metaphor.
The blood of Christ is the prime bearer of the gospel’s message and meaning. Red is the primary color of Christianity. To appropriate what sportswriter Red Smith used to say about writing: “Preaching is easy; I just open a vein and bleed.
Blood is liquid life. Preachers are homiletic hemophiliacs, hereditary bleeders of liquid life. If you’ve never bled, you have no material for preaching. The real questions for the 21st-century preacher are:
• Will the blood you give be ink or EPIC?
• Will the blood you give be your blood or royal blood?
C.S. Lewis once said that Christian writers should have blood in their veins, not ink. The same is true of the 21st-century preacher. Preachers should preach from the blood in the veins, not from the ink of words on a manuscript. Preaching has become too inky, too watery, and too bloodless. And the Christian preacher should bleed the shed blood of Christ, as preaching is ultimately God’s act through the power of the Holy Spirit. A preacher sets a table before the people in which there is laid out the body and blood of Christ in bread and wine and in word and flesh. If, when you’re finished preaching, you’re not finished, spent, wiped out-if you haven’t died a little-you haven’t really preached. I once heard Presbyterian preacher Howard Edington say that if you’re truly preaching, you will shorten your life a little, because every time you preach you die a little.
A DEATH-KNELL AND A DOORBELL
The word “epic” carries a double meaning of both timeless and timely. The gospel is both. But even more, EPIC is my acronym for preaching that sounds the death-knell for pulpitcentric Christianity and rings the doorbell for preaching that is:
• image-rich, and
In the once-dominant culture of the printing press, preaching was uniformly accepted as pulpit presentations that were rational, representative, wordbased, and individualistic. However, that pulp-and-ink approach is rapidly losing whatever effectiveness it had. For postmodern culture, EPIC preaching leaves the pulpit behind while taking with it the contributions of modernity to the preaching enterprise. EPIC preaching is less a repudiation
than an expansion of modernity: rationality expanded to embrace experience, performance expanded to embrace participation, exegesis of the Word expanded to embrace exegesis of the image, and the joining of the “me” and the “we” that’s the essence of connectivity. EPIC preaching is a communal experience of the Word created by participation in an image-rich narrative or sequence of stories.
Modern preaching prided itself on lucid reasoning, coherent message, excellent delivery, focused structure, and stylistic elegance. No more. The days of the “pulpit prince” with “golden tonsils” and oratorical excellence are over. EPIC preaching is helping people experience God.
The postmodern consciousness involves a sea change in human cognition. “Points” no longer make points. People are beginning to think in brand new ways that are creating whole new experiences. People are moving from knowing God with the left brain to knowing God with the whole brain, from faith formation through catechism to faith formation through proverbs, metaphors, music, images, imagination, and dance. People today aren’t hungry for new information or brilliant logic; people are hungry for fresh experiences of faith and for experiences of a God who loves them. The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer argues that the difference between experience and thought is the difference between dancing and talking about dancing. People today want to dance, not just talk about dancing.
Ironically, this transition is returning the preaching craft to Jesus’ mode of communication. “Other rabbis want to speak so that their words can reach the sky,” Kotsker Rebbe used to say; “I want to speak so that my words will reach the stomach.” Jesus spoke so that his words would reach the heart. To do this he used a method of communication called parables found in many languages and many religions. A parable was a literary form designed less to convey concepts than to platform experiences. Jesus was so skilled at using parables (53 of them, each only about 100-150 words) that he was known as a “parabolist.”
Moderns have been as unnerved and slightly embarrassed by Jesus’ penchant for parables as were the original disciples, who could not figure out why Jesus used parables in the first place (Matthew 13:10). They complained that the people simply didn’t “get it” with Jesus’ teaching style. Why couldn’t he make things as clear as possible? Very often his hearers said, “We don’t understand what he is talking about” (John 16:18). They wanted him to “get linear,” to say exactly what he meant, just as we expect sermons to lay out “truth” in black and white, lay truth “on the line,” and to blow no uncertain trumpet.
But Jesus’ goal was not that everyone understand him, but that everyone experience him. Indeed, it’s quite possible Jesus didn’t intend for everyone to get his message (Matthew 13:13-15). He did invite everyone, however, to hear God’s story, become part of God’s story, and to learn about others who joined God’s story or were seeking God’s presence. In fact, if a sermon is truly EPIC, you won’t be able to put fully into words what it means.
To be sure, since the early 1980s preaching has witnessed a resurgence of narrative approaches, which have shifted homiletics from more discursive, rational, analytic discourses to more inductive, perceptual journeys. But these stories were still carrying “points” and “principles,” and were designed to “principalize” the text through induction (rather than deduction), where stories and examples reveal the abstract proposition which has already been asserted as true. Jesus never used stories as stand-ins and standups for propositions and points.
he function of narrative in EPIC preaching is not to deliver points but to help people see, hear, taste, touch, and smell the gospel. Some faith traditions (such as Pentecostal, charismatic, Eastern Orthodox) have been leading us this way, and we would do well to sit at their feet. W.E.B. DuBois, the author of the civil rights classic The Souls of Black Folk, was so struck by how the preacher and the congregation work to create a drama together that he described the sermon in the black church tradition as “a happening.” In the homiletic resource my wife and I provide called PreachingPlus.com, the first thing featured after the TextAlive section is not “illustrations” but “animations.” You illustrate points. You animate stories and experiences. Through his use of parables, Jesus was more an “animator” than an “illustrator.”
A preacher’s real passion is generating, circulating, and animating stories. Preaching invites people to make their home in a text, to write themselves into the biblical narrative, and to let their new home transform their lives. Preachers are people with a thousand tales to tell … not tales about themselves, but tales about what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do in the church and in the world.
A parable is, by definition, participatory-an animated story whose “points” are left open, trusting the listeners to come to a conclusion on their own. Preaching has always been a collaborative process involving both preacher and congregation. It isn’t a sermon until it’s received, A sermon succeeds or fails not based on the preacher, but based on the congregation.
Jesus called for active listening with the refrain “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen,” and active listening requires participation. So much participation that some homileticians have even argued that the skills of the hearers are more important than the skills of the preacher. But the preacher is also called to be an active listener: A true sermon is written with the ear. Skilled preachers are always listening to the voice of Christ. In this way, preaching gives voice to the church. Consecrated lips require consecrated ears.
But in EPIC preaching the congregation is not a passive consumer of content, but a participant in the creation and refinement of the experience. And increasingly the congregation is part of the act of sermon composition and design. In EPIC preaching it’s less about the dynamics of human absorption than the dynamics of human interaction that shape the homiletic form. Quality is raised by increasing the interaction on every front, especially between the preacher and the congregation. Homiletics professor O. Wesley Allen Jr., describes the intimacy of flesh speaking to flesh in these terms: “Sermons must be dialogical in nature. This does not mean that preachers must invite oral feedback during every worship service… Instead, offering dialogical sermons means that preachers must not hand down absolute, authoritatively pronounced truths [but] they must offer invitations to the hearers to engage the vision of the sermon intellectually, emotionally, and experientially.”
Participatory preaching brings us closer to the way Jesus communicated with others. In a content analysis of the 125 incidents of Jesus’ encounters with people, Ralph L. Lewis has found that “roughly 54 percent of those encounters are initiated by his hearers. Instead of standing up and proclaiming the message he wanted the people to hear, he responded to his audience’s questions, objects, doubts. He allowed and welcomed their involvement.”
In pulpitcentric preaching, great labor was spent on how to write better opening sentences. In EPIC preaching, time is invested on how to create better opening (and closing) interactions. Once again, preachers have much to learn from others within Christianity such as the elaborate call-and-response (or response-and-call) cues and other interactive rhetorical devices that are so well developed in black preaching traditions.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn concluded his Nobel lecture on literature by quoting a Russian proverb: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.” In a postmodern culture, “one image of truth” and especially “one person of truth” tilts the balance of history. Postmodern people are like the Israelites in the desert … they’ll follow pillars of fire and clouds, but not abstract commands and disembodied voices.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is perhaps the most famous sermon in American history. If people know about one sermon, it’s this one. Why do we remember it? It’s not the content. It’s Jonathan Edward’s unforgettable imagery of people as spiders held over the flames of hell.
EPIC preaching is the art of exegeting images. The power of the Word isn’t in the words; it’s in the images, the stories, the “music” of the text. Before there was any matter, there was mind: and the mind was made of metaphor. Genesis tells us that God made “every flower of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew.” Since the mind is made of metaphors (when you dream, what do you dream in … words?), there’s no greater power anyone can hold than the power preachers are given by their people: the power to choose the metaphors. Jesus was history’s greatest master of metaphor. Imbedded in his metaphors is metamorphosis. The metaphors we live in become the reality we live out.
In pulpitcentric preaching, we learned how to exegete words. EPIC preaching exegetes images. To be “stewards of the mystery,” EPIC preachers are first stewards of metaphor. The Bible “thinks” not in propositions and points, but in images, metaphors, narratives, symbols, and so on. Poetry is more the language of biblical faith than prose or philosophy. Thus preachers must take up the poet’s tools… image and imagination, metaphor and story, and metaphor-stories known as parables. Homiletics professor Barbara Brown Taylor said, “The church’s central task is an imaginative one. By that I do not mean a fanciful or fictional task, but one in which the human capacity to imagine-to form mental pictures of the self, the neighbor, the world, the future, to envision new realities-is both engaged and transformed.”
What EPIC preachers look for in a text is less the “main principle” or the “key idea” or the “big point” and more the “master metaphor,” the leading or controlling metaphor that reframes the conversation or concept. This metaphor can be a character, a key moment in the story, even a word that functions as an image. Metaphor is not simply an adornment to critical insight, but a method of perception in itself. Metaphors are not the sermon’s seasoning; they’re the very meat of the sermon itself.
It’s not that homileticians haven’t appreciated the fact that we live in a visual culture that prefers images to words. After all, advertisers spend billions of dollars a year not to bombard us words, but to surround us with images. But our solution has been for preachers to use “charts” and “graphs” and PowerPoint, where the power is still in the point and not the image. When images are used, especially by the two groups that have the most problem with metaphors (fundamentalists and higher-critics), they’re used to get to points and propositions. They break the text down into a thousand parts and microscope each piece rather than see it whole. The images are thus “hijacked” as a means to an end, not the end themselves. However, Christianity begins and ends in an image: Jesus is the image of God. In Christianity, image is everything.
Metaphor is by definition experiential, interactive, and relational. EPIC preaching is at its best when it turns images into props, and when those props become interactive icons that people can take home with them. Jesus was a master at this. In the story of the trap set for him by the Pharisees, the tribute to Caesar, Jesus makes the Pharisees produce a coin with Caesar’s image stamped on it. By producing the coin, Jesus sprung the trap on them. They have already proven that they are willing to employ and deploy an idol, a graven image, which was specifically forbidden by the law. The both/and answer (“Give to Caesar what’s Caesar’s, and give to God what’s God’s”) typifies metaphor’s multiple meanings: Both sides could feel that he was supporting each one of them, while Jesus was telling them both that they were asking the wrong question and pointing them in the right direction.
EPIC preaching is not pulpit oratory, it’s pew connection and interaction. The “command-and-control” model of pulpitcentric preaching is fading, just as “command-and-control” models of informationsharing are fast disappearing. It’s the connections that count. It’s the connected that inherit the kingdom. The greater the number and quality of the connections, the greater the caliber and creativity of discipleship. And worship. That’s why, in many ways, you can’t write an essay on EPIC preaching. Only on EPIC worship. I found this out when I invited cutting-edge preachers from around the globe to address a conference. They wouldn’t come without their worship leaders and other members with whom they connect.
EPIC preaching restores people’s connection to God, to each other, and to creation. A true worship experience is less an individual experience than a community experience. In the modern world worship was sanctuary; in the postmodern world worship is communion. It’s an experience of relationship, of connectedness, of communion. Liturgy is where the individual and the communal are reconceived as a connective. The word “liturgy” comes from Greek leitourgia, which implies an action whereby individuals come together to become something different than they were as lone individuals. True EPIC creates a community where the broken body and blood of Christ pours out to heal our pain, our brokenness, our estrangement, and where the very concept of community gets reinvented: “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). When a small country church gathers, the whole church is worshipping.
EPIC preaching doesn’t make points so much as make connections, and making connections requires nonlinear more than analytic skills. This is one of the most important traits of the EPIC preacher: the ability to connect the dots-the dots between the congregation and the text, the text and the culture, the culture and God. In your research and reading, your moviegoing and your home-coming, Gardner Taylor says that “All the roads lead to God, as they said all the roads lead to Rome.”
To help people make these connections, EPIC preachers are not afraid to use material that connects with the lives of our people. Hence you will find parts of all three levels of culture, in EPIC worship (high culture, folk culture, and pop culture), but the dominant connection to culture is through pop culture: movies, music, cartoons, ads, sports, reality TV, and so on.
E.P.I.C. PREACHERS, TAKE HEART
Very little has been said about the role of technology in EPIC worship. That’s because technology isn’t the issue. You can have no electronic technology and still do EPIC. Just watch comedian Chris Rock.
My favorite way of EPIC preaching? I don’t always get to do it (and don’t make an issue if I can’t), but when I’m invited to preach somewhere one of my first questions is: “Do you have a live Web-feed?” If the answer is “yes,” I then ask the second question: “Can you find me a dancing partner?”
In this type of EPICtivity, I stand in the middle of the congregation, with my book Bible open to a text that is also featured on one of the two screens up front. Together the congregation and I exegete the leading image(s) of the text. The second screen, however, is totally under the creative promptings of my dancing partner. Preferably, this
is a person who’s grown up on Google, and not the word search function.
While the people and I are more and more immersing ourselves in the Word, my dancing partner is Googling the Web for images that are
tossed up by our interactions. And these images are flashed up on that second screen as contributions to and animations of our conversation. The energy that flows from these multilayered connections can only be described as “divine.”
That said, not everyone will “get it.” As far as I know, way back in the mid1990s I preached what some are calling the first Web-based sermon with a live (but very slow) Web-feed. It took place at the Kentucky Pastors’ School for the United Methodist Church. When the organizers sent me the “evaluations,” I was drawn to one in particular. The pastor had written: “Sweet was a total waste of time. Left the pulpit and tried to talk to us while using the Internet. Got nothing out of it.”
But EPIC preachers, take heart. There were many who said the same of Jesus.
The above material was published by REV! November/December 2005. This material may be copyrighted and should be used for study and research purposes only