Preaching is an exercise in inflection, one that involves much more than pitch, volume and tone. In the sermon the preacher makes God’s written word incarnate by speaking the biblical author’s words into the contemporary context. This is an inflection not merely of the preacher’s voice but of the text itself. The task of inflection places a dual responsibility upon the preacher. One area of responsibility is to the text itself.
The preacher’s aim in the sermon is to animate the text without altering it. The written word has been detached from its original context but is not freed from it. We who preach must speak to circumstances that the biblical writers did not originally envision. But this does not give us liberty to wrest the Scriptures from their original context and make them say whatever we please.
The other area of responsibility involves the audience. An uninflected text is a dead text as far as the listener is concerned. “Somehow or other, every other agency dealing with the public recognizes that contact with the actual life of the auditor is the one place to begin” Harry Emerson Fosdick chided. “Only the preacher proceeds still upon the idea that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.” Fosdick’s point has been heeded, perhaps too well, by contemporary preachers. But this does not make his assessment less true.
Inflecting the text requires application and application is local in nature. Despite this, preaching cannot afford to ignore what happened to the Jebusites any more than it can afford to overlook those who are actually present. A sermon which focuses only on the concerns of the contemporary audience and pays no attention to the historical and literary context of Scripture also removes the biblical text from its living voice. Such preaching co-opts the text instead of inflecting it, turning the living and active word into a ventriloquist’s dummy, a caricature whose hollow voice merely echoes the preacher’s own (or that of the audience).
Question: Do you think the preacher is important to the sermon? Why or why not?
2 thoughts on “On Preachers and Preaching-Inflecting the Text”
The challenge I have wrestled with in preaching is the tension between following sound rules of homiletics while at the same time just being myself and speaking in my own voice and through my own life.
Many come to hear the message with more of a critical ear than a teachable ear. Some of the more learned listeners often judge on the basis of whether or not I communicate in terms they approve of. So I have to know how to listen to their feedback with a critical ear and with plenty of confidence in who God has made me as an individual.
I prefer to preach to the more teachable ear as they are not as hung up on my style and are more prone to over look my imperfections and search for the eternal meaning of the message….Not to mention the fact that they often express more appreciation and positive feed back after the service!