Sunday, 19 November 2017  
 
 
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  HOMILETICS INTERVIEW: Thomas H. Troeger  
   
 

If you get the congregation to God, sit down!

 

Thomas H. Troeger is the Ralph E. and Norma E. Peck Professor of Preaching and Communications at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and director of its Doctor of Ministry program in homiletics.

Ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1970 and in the Episcopal Church in 1999, he is dually aligned with both traditions. He served for seven years as a pastor, and then taught homiletics for 14 years at Colgate Rochester Divinity School/Bexley Hall before coming to Iliff in 1991. He is one of the associate clergy of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver.

Author of more than a dozen books in the fields of preaching and worship and a frequent contributor to journals, he is also a flutist and a poet, whose work appears in the hymnals of most denominations. Much of his teaching and scholarship has focused on the function of the imagination in the life of faith. His books include The Parable of Ten Preachers, (Abingdon) and Borrowed Light: Hymn Texts, Prayers, and Poems (Oxford University Press), Ten Strategies for Preaching in a Multi-Media Culture (Abingdon), Preaching while the Church Is under Reconstruction (Abingdon), A Preacher’s Commentary on the Common Lectionary New Proclamation (Augsburg Fortress) and his most recent work Above the Moon Earth Rises: Hymn Texts, Anthems and Poems for a New Creation (Oxford University Press).

Considered by his peers as the dean of American professors of homiletics, he was the obvious choice for an extended look at how preachers learn and hone their craft.

HOMILETICS: How do you take people who’ve never preached a text in their lives and transform them into preachers?

TROEGER: First of all, I don’t transform anybody. In Ephesians, there is that wonderful doxology about the power that is at work within us and how it can transform us, far more than we can think or imagine.

But my task is to set in motion a lifetime process. What I have observed about all fine preachers and in my own life is that you’re forever becoming a preacher. So what I need to do is to get some basic principles and methods and make those available to someone. It’s just too large a task if you don’t give people some clear methods.

One of the things we start with in my classes is a “mini-sermon.” We don’t ask someone to preach a full-length sermon right away. They don’t get graded on it. Often we will take a specific text, usually from the gospels, or we’ll allow the students to choose the passage they most love in the Bible, because, of course, that engages their passion and their faith. They’ll preach two to four minutes, and then we will look at it — what’s strong and what needs work and why, and that leads to the principles. So, we try to set off a process.

One of the most important things in teaching preaching is not only having people get up and do it, but hearing their peers try it.

HOMILETICS: Wouldn’t it be cool for the pastor to have a few people who could engage him or her in that same process?

TROEGER: On a limited basis, that could be very helpful. Where we’ve discovered that works very well is in our Doctor of Ministry program.

Let me tell you why I don’t think it should necessarily be a constant thing. People go to church not to make homiletical judgments; they go to church to encounter God and to develop their faith.

It is an appropriate act for people who are in full-time ordained ministry to look at the technical aspects of homiletics: How does communication work well? Why doesn’t it work well? How can I make a transition from a biblical text to the contemporary scene — or back? Those are technical questions about how to put a homily or sermon together.

But people don’t come to church to learn homiletics; they come to know Christ and encounter God. So if you overdid that kind of thing, you would skew the focus.

That doesn’t mean that it can’t be very helpful now and then, especially with a group that has been trained to do it. If you don’t give people training — even in the seminary classroom — it won’t work.

HOMILETICS: When students enroll in your classes, are there certain misconceptions that need to be cleared up?

TROEGER: All of us carry with us the memories of the preachers who shaped us. There’s a great question in a book that’s a little dated now, but a fine book called Preaching the Story, and the authors have a question in there as an exercise, “What is the sound of a sermon for you and who put it in your ear?” It’s a terrific question, because people have sometimes had wonderful preachers in their background.

But I am sorry to say that there are many who come, and what they heard were very angry preachers who had not done the work they needed to do on their own souls and in the name of God had harassed people and had turned the gospel into moralism. In some cases, they have come because they couldn’t stand it and they wanted to truly preach the gospel and be more gracious to Christ. In other cases, they have adapted that harsher tone, and it’s very hard on the class. You can feel the resistance in the room.

HOMILETICS: How has preaching changed over the past 25 years?

TROEGER: As we become aware of the Third World, the importance of being inclusive of women, the fact that we’re a pluralistic society, homiletics itself has changed. If you were to look at the bibliographies, there’s a much broader inclusiveness.

Generally, sermons have become shorter. Second, people have become keenly aware of the power of narrative and story. Certainly, good preachers have always known that. But the number of books that take that seriously and ask what kind of theology is going on has increased.

Certainly another major change is the number of women who have come into the field — the amount of women’s experiences in preaching has gone up. And it’s had an impact in the preaching of sensitive male preachers who make a self-conscious attempt to make sure women are included in illustrations and so on.

And certainly there has been the impact on biblical scholarship in terms of why, for example, liberation theologies have paid so much attention to the oppressed in the Bible; and how the Bible speaks about a God who cares about justice; and likewise a lot of feminist interpretations — which have impacted all preachers, but I’ve even seen it impact people who might identify themselves as more conservative theologically.

HOMILETICS: I noticed in your book Ten Strategies for Preaching in a Multi-Media Culture that the “sample” sermonic material is written in poetic form. Is there a reason for this?

TROEGER: Yes there is, and that relates to a major shift in the teaching of homiletics.

We’ve come to see that preaching is not a written art. That doesn’t mean that someone might not write a manuscript. Preaching is actually an event, and it is an event in which the Spirit of God is using the entire human being that is up there. We hear it and we see it (in the way the body is used, gestures are used, even the way the person stands can convey a message to us).

I never write out my sermons. I always work out my sermons in my head, which is an ancient art taught by the rhetoricians and which we believe many of the early Christian preachers normally used.

But when I write a book, all of a sudden I’ve got to put it down in a manuscript. So I deliberately write as a poet, because poets try to capture the oral inflection in the way that they write. So I write my sermons down in my books the way I would preach them.

For example, one of the most common conjunctions that preachers use is “But.” They’ll say something and then want to modify it. It’s a classic rhetorical device. Well, the word “but” will sometimes get a single line. But. Because when you speak, it’s a sentence. When you write regular prose, it’s awkward.

It’s very interesting to hear from so many preachers who read my books and respond, saying, “I love this. It’s so easy to read. I can almost hear your voice” — especially if they’ve ever heard me preach before.

We actually teach our students how to preach without notes, but if they must have a manuscript, we teach them to write this way. It’s called the oral/aural style.

HOMILETICS: You also write hymns. Is there a connection between who you are as a hymnist and who you are as a preacher?

TROEGER: There are a lot of profound connections. One is that I am an Anglican priest. Anglicanism has long honored the poetic and the aesthetic as one of the dimensions of God’s glory and presence. So I’m deeply immersed, say, in people like George Herbert, John Donne, Christina Rossetti. So I feel that I’m working in their tradition both when I preach and when I write hymns.

I also enjoy writing hymns because it involves an extraordinarily precise discipline. You have to write to strict meter. You have to think very carefully about the music of language. I work with as many as 45 composers who have set my material to music around the English-speaking world. I’m also a professional flutist. So all these things sharpen my ear as to what language really works.

Also, hymns, in order to be powerful, have to be extremely concise, with vivid imagery, clearly presenting the gospel. A good hymn forces me to do in the most compressed possible way what I have to do in a sermon. Often, after writing a hymn, I’ve found my preaching improves as a result.

The other thing is the liturgy. I was raised a Presbyterian, and now I am both a Presbyterian minister and an Episcopal priest. And the thing that drew me to the Episcopal church was the beauty of the liturgy and the way the presence of God and the risen Christ is known from the beginning to the end.

I don’t think everyone needs to be Anglican by a long shot, but whatever their tradition, they need to pay as much attention to the worship and how it is a witness to God and Christ and brings us into the presence of God as they do to the sermon.

So hymn-writing is my way of doing that. Hymns are the prayers of the people if you think about it. At least for all of us in any Protestant tradition, hymns are a major part of that tradition and often record important things about our history.

In order to be fair to the Catholic tradition, it’s important to remember that some of the greatest hymns ever written were the Latin hymns.

It’s also important to remember that the preaching in the Bible, especially in the epistles, often quotes hymns — Philippians 2, or Colossians. And then the book of Revelation which is really a hymnal held together by a loose narrative. So I see myself rooted in a great tradition here. This is not new with me.

HOMILETICS: What’s your take on the worship wars?

TROEGER: I think that the way that people talk about them and have set them up as direct oppositions is not particularly helpful. In my work with many churches, we’ve discovered that often they are able to draw upon great tradition and the best of the new stuff that is coming out in contemporary worship — if they don’t overpolarize themselves.

For example, I sometimes use words like “contemporary worship” because it’s a catch phrase, but I don’t think it’s a particularly useful phrase. I have discovered in my travels that it means so many different things that it’s too amorphous a term — just like “traditional worship.” Sometimes when people say “traditional worship,” I ask, “What tradition do you mean?”

So, I alert people to the tragedy in the phrase “worship wars.” The church, which is to be the body of Christ, and worship in which we give ourselves to God — it’s unfortunate that we should be “at war” about all this. What must that mean for a world that is already so sick of war? What kind of witness are we making to the gospel if we’re having worship wars?

Of course we’re going to have disagreements, but why can’t we have “Christian Conversation”?

HOMILETICS: What can a pastor do to train, nurture or stimulate his or her imagination?

TROEGER: There are a couple of things people need to be aware of. One is that there has been, in certain strains of Christianity, a severe bias against the imagination — for example, Luther and Calvin, especially Calvin, who thought the imagination was a “factory of perpetual idols.”

So there has sometimes been this feeling “I mustn’t be imaginative — I must preach straight from the word of God.”

I like to say I preach crooked through the word of God — the light gets bent when it comes through me as it does through anybody.

So we’ve got to be aware of that, because I do find in ministers when I go out and do workshops that some are delighted and go right along with it, but others have this reserve that is an inherited reserve.

It’s very interesting that in the 19th century, Henry Ward Beecher, in his lectures on preaching, said that imagination is the single most important gift for a preacher. So first, you have to deal with resistance to imagination.

The second thing you have to do is develop something of a theological conviction about imagination. I think that to be imaginative in a faithful way is to be more faithful to God, because I consider God the must imaginative of all Imaginers.

Who else would think of a universe with 50 million galaxies and billions of stars and putting chocolate and broccoli on the same planet? [laughs heartily] Right? Okay?

God is just wildly imaginative. And really imaginative when you think of who God has called to be preachers! [laughs even louder] It’s really a crazy act!

So if God can be this playful and also this mysteriously complex, one of the ways I can be faithful to God is to use the imagination that God has placed in me.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a deep theological thinker, profoundly influenced by Immanuel Kant. He calls the imagination “the recapitulation of the Great I Am in the human soul.” So when the imagination is at work creating something that is beautiful, it is then actually recapitulating the creative work of God.

So when one overcomes resistance, and one has a theology (I call preaching “imaginative theology”) — then there are some things a preacher can do. You can watch cinema and the way things are put together visually. I am not opposed to using Power Point and the like, and I’ve done it myself, but one of the best ways to develop a good imagination is to read the geniuses of imagination, and those are primarily the great poets. That’s why I have immersed myself in the poets, because they really know how to put images out in front of your mind that are extraordinary.

HOMILETICS: If a sermon is imaginative, what role does reason or rationalism have in the sermon? Is reason shoved aside — and should it be?

TROEGER: Because people like poetry and my imaginative work, they sometimes misread me. So I point out to them that if they read carefully they’ll discover there are portions of the sermon where I am reasoning very tightly — and then I will move back into something that’s more fantasy or narrative. The reason preachers must use reason, emotion, imagination, scientific thought, et cetera, is because the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul, mind and strength, which is the biblical way of saying: The sum total of human faculties is to be brought to God.

Therefore, if a preacher uses only some of those faculties, the witness to God is not as thorough as the Scriptures require. I am interested in using the sum total of the gifts that God has given me to give witness to their Source, namely God.

That is the moral obligation that preachers have — to develop those aspects of their being which are in there but which they may not have used. We need to remember that there are going to be all those different kinds of listeners out there. Some are especially hooked by a story; others are hooked by tight reasoning.

So it’s a communication strategy, but it’s also for me a theological issue. There’s a recent trend now in homiletical literature — it’s becoming more theological.

HOMILETICS: There used to be a bromide floating around that suggested that for x number of minutes spent in the pulpit, you should spend x number of hours in study and preparation. Does the burden of that axiom continue to weigh upon us today?

TROEGER: The reason I do not say to people “This is the way to do it” is because people’s creative processes vary immensely. I do say this generally that the earlier one gets started, the better, because that gives your subconscious and your conscious mind time to work on it.

However, preachers often have to preach on the spur of the moment, and we do this as an exercise in class. I am much more interested in this: the complete spiritual life of preachers — meaning some daily, practiced way of reflecting on Scripture, or praying, of waiting on God. I don’t say that everyone has to do this the way I do, but I have discovered that if I keep that going, then I am prepared.

So the amount of time that goes into creating a sermon is not just the actual creation, but is that wonderful stream of spirit that I’ve been immersing myself in over time. I think that is the more important thing. I don’t do it in order to create sermons; I do it to cultivate my relationship to God. As far as I’m concerned, if anyone neglects the cultivation of their relationship to God, I don’t care how skilled you are, sooner or later people will pick up on the hollowness of it.

HOMILETICS: Young pastors, as they go into their first church, often carry with them from the seminary a strong passion for preaching. And then somewhere 2-5 years out, the passion wanes — perhaps because of the many demands placed upon a parish pastor. Should preaching be the number one priority for pastors? And if so, how can that be protected?

TROEGER: First, I think preaching is extraordinarily important. It’s a means of grace and salvation for people. But it’s not the only one.

A better way to think about this is that the number one priority is God and what is God calling us to do and how is this church being faithful to God.

Often I discover when I am doing workshops with preachers, that we’re talking about the culture of the church. The church is talking about all these details, and someone has to take care of the details. But the thing is, we need to remember the ambiguity of the human heart about God: We want God and we don’t want God. It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, the Scriptures tell us. At the same time, God is love, and our hearts hunger for God as the deer hungers for the stream.

So there is this ambivalence in the human soul, and then you put together a human institution that is supposedly centered in God, and now you have an institution that is ambivalent toward the divine. So when confronted with the holy or the fear of God, it is much easier to deal with the details.

I’ll give you a stunning example I’ve never forgotten. I once met with this worship committee; they were having trouble getting their worship together. I said, “Well you have a monthly worship committee meeting. What did you talk about at the last meeting?” Someone put up his hand and said, “We spent 35 minutes talking about who would put the pew pencils in the pews.”

I understood what had happened. I brought in an exercise to help them identify who God was in their lives and how they needed to celebrate that. And I can remember — and this not to point to me but to point to God — a few people actually broke into tears. “This is why I come to church and we never deal with this.” People come to me and ask “Tom, can you teach me how to do what you did?” And I can help them because I’ve been teaching for years and I have systematic ways of doing things. But that is not the real issue. The real issue for me is God. Who is God? Right now, especially after 9/11, the great issues for me are, “How are we all going to relate across religious boundaries without killing each other?”

When I’ve preached on that in recent times, the response I get from all kinds of people whether they agree with me or not is, “I am so happy to come to church because that’s what I want to deal with.”

There are things that are dated and sexist about St. Augustine, but I love some of his basic insights, particularly that God made us for the love of God, to love God and that until our hearts rest in God they are restless. This is my way of dealing with the details.

If pastors find themselves overwhelmed in that, they need to meet with their ruling bodies. In most churches the ruling bodies are not just about budgets; they are also given pastoral care responsibilities. I would even change business meetings, even when I had a lot of business to do. I would put at the top some time to study a passage of Scripture, to pray or to talk about the spiritual health of this place.

And if we are getting so inundated that God is getting squeezed out by our business, we ought to talk about it and how we can change it. If you change the culture of the church, then a pastor will feel that he or she has the time and space to give to their spiritual life and their preaching.

HOMILETICS: Can media and techie gizmos make a poor preacher into a better preacher?

TROEGER: No. Absolutely not. I’ve seen preachers who have depended upon that, and I’ve seen some pretty glitzy presentations, but at the end it rang hollow for me. And I wrote a book about what the media can teach us.

If you read my book carefully, it is not about using the media directly in the sermon, but I go back to what Phillips Brooks said, “Preaching is truth through personality.” There is nothing, nothing, nothing that any electronic wizard can design that will be as powerful witness to God as a human being speaking to another human being in a convincing way about God.

I don’t want to know that an electronic chip can give me a spectacular image; I want to know that my fundamental human beingness is being redeemed by a Power that I can rely on. And the only witness that can tell me that is another human being. That’s why preaching will never die.

HOMILETICS: Do the brothers and sisters on the “mainline” and “evangelical” sides of the aisle approach preaching and practice homiletics differently?

TROEGER: I’m not sure that the structure differs. I have heard preachers from both camps who have used similar structures that were just as profoundly moving to me and very effective. So that’s the technical issue. As you’ve already indicated, the terms “evangelical” and “mainline” are somewhat problematic, but generally speaking, students who self-identify as evangelical preach sermons that are much more personalistic; they tend to talk about one’s personal relationship to Jesus Christ.

The mainline sermons will certainly have some of that, but they will also add a social, cultural, psychological milieu to the sermon. So that would be one difference in the way they go.

Frankly, when people ask me where I am, I am interested in a fusion of those, because I care very deeply about the cultivation of a personal relationship with Christ. That’s at the core of the Episcopal tradition where every time we receive the sacraments, which is every Sunday, we are told “Take these in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith” — very evangelical.

But to preach only on the personal relationship with Christ is totally inadequate biblically. Like the Colossians hymn talks about the cosmic Christ, and the gospels talk about being present to the naked and the hungry. The breakdown between personal Jesus and social Christianity is a complete distortion of the biblical witness.

By the way, it is also a distortion of the social gospel as it originated. Walter Raushenbush was a most misunderstood person. He was a devout evangelical, pietist. The reason he got so interested in changing social and political structures is that he said, “How can I accept this love from Jesus and believe Jesus loves individuals as well and allow these horrible structures to go on?” That sounds to me like really good theology.

HOMILETICS: Have you ever preached sermon series?

TROEGER: Yes, especially when people ask me to do them. I tend to do them less now, because the church I am related to is the Episcopal cathedral, and they follow the lectionary.

The difficulty with series is that, quite frankly, in many churches people aren’t regular attenders anymore. That’s what I like about the liturgical year, that with Advent and Lent and so on, they have some orientation with the themes of the season.

It’s not that I’m opposed to them in principle. Of course the great reformers, you know, would preach right through a book of the Bible which I think has a lot to commend it, and with the common lectionary you get, at least to a certain extent, the same thing.

HOMILETICS: What do you mean by the “infinite translatability” of Christianity?

TROEGER: It is based on the Oxford History of the Christian Church, which has a number of essays in it. It is based on one of those essays, and I can’t remember the name of the author. What I loved in that essay is that he pointed out that here is Christianity that starts in the Mediterranean basin, and spreads around the shores and then up into Europe, and then you have the world mission movement.

Every culture has its unique way of interpreting Christ to the culture. For example, I love getting Christmas cards from around the world — Christ with an Asian face, Christ with an African face. There’s a profound truth in those cards. Jesus was a particular Jewish baby who was born in a particular historical place.

But the Christ of all creation does have all those faces. The gospel by its very nature is infinitely translatable. That is not a function simply of our creativity, but of the creativity of God.

Calvin said once that we’ll never know God, at least in this life, as God is and God’s self, but he talks about the accommodation of God to us in Christ. We know what we need to know about God, namely that God is loving and gracious and seeks us out in Christ. That tells us something about the nature of God, that God knows that, hey, “I’ve got to translate this so you can understand.” So for me that infinite translatability of the gospel is a function of the character of God.

HOMILETICS: One of the temptations preachers are exposed to is that their preaching often doesn’t seem to make a difference.

TROEGER: First, preaching is an act of faith, and I really go along with Isaiah’s great statement where God says, speaking through the prophet, “My word is not going to go forth without it accomplishing the purpose for which I sent it.” I have trust in that because the Word is more than just my spoken word. It is the Word “through whom all things were made.” So if the Word can accomplish creating everything, I will have some trust in that.

The other thing you want to remember is the extraordinary guard people put up around the human soul. I think it relates to the ambivalence toward God of which I spoke earlier. So I never ignore or discount it when someone says, “Nice sermon, pastor.”

Not always, but I can think of times when someone said that and I later learned that they had gone and done something extraordinary in their community. Or I learned that they had been going through a terrible tragedy, and they were thinking of committing suicide, but all they said was, “Nice sermon.”

So I teach my students to never, ever discount any response whatsoever. The response may be perfunctory, but in many cases it may not be; it may be the little signal that the soul dares to send to you: “You got to me.” And if you can get your congregation to God, sit down! You can’t do better than God!

Every human communication from one person to another should be taken seriously that way.

HOMILETICS: Most embarrassing sermon?

TROEGER: The first sermon I ever preached. [laughs] A woman came up to me afterward, and I can’t describe the rise in her voice, but she said, “That was a sermon?” [laughs again — longer]. I was in seminary and became absolutely entranced with Rudolf Butlmann and existentialism. And that was what my first sermon was about [laughs hard and long]. When I tell this story, I laugh so hard, but most ministers say, “Oh I remember — ” and then usually tell about one of their early ones when they were hooked on something during seminary.

HOMILETICS: What about your call to ministry?

TROEGER: The call sort of assembled itself to me over time. My mother read the Bible to me every single day from the moment I could understand English. Every night I would sit with my father and listen to Bach cantatas and Haydn symphonies. And these were very holy things. And my mother would pray with me.

Now my father would not pray with me. He was a great man of science, and he talked about God as the Ordering One of the universe. And the same order and deep feeling came to Bach and Haydn, and there were certain pieces that would come on, and he would say, “Ssssh! The music will get very beautiful — God will come now.”

These are unbelievably powerful experiences because I had two fabulous parents, both strong personalities and exceedingly loving. So over time, anyone who is raised like that is going to be sensitive to God.

Then, a really momentous thing did happen in my life. I was studying to be a professional flutist, and preparing for Julliard School of Music, and a very great preacher came to our town as our pastor, and his wife was also significant. She taught our high-school Sunday school class, and she was a fabulous teacher. She taught us how to use biblical commentaries, and then we’d go to church and hear the sermons — of course this was back in the ’50s and early ’60s. But I was so thrilled that my own mind could be illuminated this way, so then I went off to Yale and heard William Sloane Coffin preach, and of course we were in the throes of Vietnam in those days.

I have no problem with the word “call.” I did feel called. But some of my students will speak of a particular experience when God called them. I believe in that kind of thing, because I’ve seen wonderful ministers who have been called that way. My call was just as authentic; it just came in a different way.

HOMILETICS: Your final word to preachers?

TROEGER: “Hear, O hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one; and you shall love the Lord thy God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Amen.”

 

 

 

Thomas H. Troeger

 

 

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