Liturgy Series: Part 9 – The Sermon
That's right! This week we've finally made it to the sermon. Thus far this series has highlighted the importance of how liturgical rituals serve to shape the people of God. We've noted how the mere fact of attending to the church's liturgy week in and week out tends to shape the people of God in such a way that the rhythm and cadence of their lives is centered around the church (rather than around some other rhythm: sports, school, etc.).
I've highlighted over and over again that the content focused approach to modern Christianity actually doesn't shape people in the way we'd like to think it does. We've bought in to this form/content divide which believes that content is what really counts and that form is simply the messenger of the content. The consequence of such an approach is to "present" the gospel in any form as long as the content is "true." This, in many ways, is why we now have "praise teams," churches meeting in bars, and online churches.
While I don't want to push back on anything I've said thus far in this post I do want to make a qualification: in emphasizing the importance of liturgical/ritual formation in the life of God's people I in no way want to de-emphasize the importance of didactic knowledge. In other words, having one's mind shaped by arguments and propositions is still vital. In many ways, this is the role of the sermon.
The sermon confronts the stories that we've heard the previous week. The stories of secular liturgies about the way the world works are confronted with the true story of God's world in the sermon. In the preaching of God's word, God's people are being directed toward the telos (end) that God has created them for; they are being directed toward the Kingdom.
This is the way that stories work. Stories present plausible modes of existence to their listeners. The stories of secular liturgies are opening up a world of possibilities to those who participate. The liturgy/story of Western affluence often presents a telos of success and wealth or fame and beauty to those who are listening. These stories are constantly in competition for our desire and it is ultimately the stories that can get us to participate in their rituals/liturgies that win the day.
The sermon stands as a lighthouse to God's people: constantly directing them away from the rocky crags of secular humanism and other such liturgies of death. The sermon tells the story of God's redemptive grace for the world in Christ and calls God's people to (once again) participate in the renewal of the world (the Kingdom of God) with their actions and lives (starting with the next step in the liturgy, the Lord's Supper).
And yet, while the sermon does confront God's people on a seemingly "didactic" or "cognitive" level, it's impact (like the rest of the liturgy) connects and shapes us on a level that is "precognitive." The weekly, monthly, and yearly participation in worship places God's people on a continuing discipline that is very unique. The fact that God's people spend 30 to 45 minutes a week listening to some man teach them and admonish them from a book that is thousands of years old is a profound reality. This is foolishness to many people in our day but to the people of God it is wisdom. Here is what James K.A. Smith has to say in his work Desiring the Kingdom about the sermon's impact on God's people:
Over time, when worship confronts us with the canonical range of Scripture, coupled with its proclamations and elucidation in the sermon, we begin to absorb the story as a moral or ethical compass—not because it discloses to us abstract, a-historical moral axioms, but because it narrates a telos of creation, the shape of the kingdom we're looking for, thus filling in the telos of our own actions. (pg. 196)
It is the end of the quotation that really gives shape to the way that a sermon shapes God's people. The sermon "narrates a telos of creation." A sermon describes the way the whole of God's creation is moving and also explains the role of God's people in that story.
As stated above, just like all stories, a sermon opens up a world of possibility to God's people. Yet, unlike secular liturgies that call us to guilt or transaction, the Christian sermon tells us that Jesus has already opened up that world of possibility; it is already before us, already amongst us!
Food for thought.