The Nature and Function of Preaching

Preaching stirs up a holy story, in the preacher, and in the congregation: a story already written, a story alive and unfolding, a story not yet imagined.

That is to say, it is rooted in tradition.  There can be no preaching without inheritance.  In this way, preaching forms us in our faith, and can offer continual opportunity for ongoing conversion.  In proclamation and praise, it offers the good news, those critical words of assurance in a difficult world.  And in lament, it acknowledges the weight of long-held burdens and seemingly inescapable brokenness.  We learn of our saints and our stories; we learn of the dreams left yet unrealized that we must pick up and carry forward.  We learn how we came to be – as a faith, as a congregation.  We learn of the covenants we inherit, the story we have stepped into.  And from all of these, we come to know ourselves as a people.

Yet, preaching remains urgent and immediate.   It speaks to the real life of the real days of the gathered community.  It is here where I find Kay Northcutt helpful, with her notion of preaching as spiritual direction.  By offering up concrete language and imagery, preaching orients our daily lives towards that which is of worth, towards the holy and the sacred, towards Ultimacy.   It addresses the realities we face as we awake each day, and calls our attention to God’s presence.  Perhaps even more, it calls our attention to our own presence, to the possibility of wholeness, and integration, of living full and awake, in our real lives.  With a posture of prayer, preaching enlivens our spirits, and teases out our hidden longings, offering an invitation to live each day, as a people redeemed.  Yet this is not an act of the imagination, but rather relentlessly connected to the reality of life as it is – with alarm clocks and grocery store runs, strip malls and ski passes, the tedium of congregational administration and the poison of politics, the ongoing presence of illness and the shadow of violence, ongoing acts of grief and repair.   It is here, among us here, that preaching calls us to know ourselves as already healed, already full of grace.

Still, preaching is not only an act of the past, and of the present, but must always be connected to the call of our future.  It dares to invite transformation – the transformation of persons, the transformation of communities, the transformation of the world.  It calls us to change, to grow, to leap into the unknown abyss.  Preaching engages the true danger of dialogue, in that it risks the possibility of change through open, ongoing relationship.  It is an ongoing conversation between preacher and congregation, congregation and the larger community, the community and the wider world.  And all of these might be changed, are changing, by way of offering themselves to one another in honest dialogue, as reflected in the preached event.  So that, by the time the preacher arrives at the charge, the call to action, it is not a surprise to anyone, but rather a most obvious conclusion – since each layer of the community has walked the path with the preacher.   To say it another way, the transformation made possible from preaching comes about like a change in the weather, like the dawning of a new day, like the setting down of one book and the picking up of another.  Which is not to say there is not pain, or struggle. No truly dissolving/creative act can occur in ease.  And letting go of who we are and calling ourselves to a new world, we can only expect resistance.  But perhaps paradoxically, preaching engages this resistance by helping us to see our change as a return, our total transformation as the path of solace.  And as it is an act that makes no sense without community, preaching fundamentally reminds us that our journey is shared, and we are held in lovingkindness by the Spirit of Life, by one another – past, present, future.

Based on my understanding of preaching, I envision the preacher in four primary ways.

First, I understand the preacher as storyteller.  The preacher holds and offers the stories of the community, stories of faith formation and religious tradition, stories of wisdom and of prophecy.  Of course the preacher must not only offer the stories, but also a hint of ways to interpret and apply these stories to our lives – especially as connected to the traditions and good news of the faith.   The preacher sees connections across time, and space, and finds words to illumine these connections in the midst of the gathered community.

Second, I imagine the preacher as spiritual director.  Which means, I value highly the spiritual life of the preacher, the spiritual practices of the preacher, and the ways the preacher maintains a relationship with Spirit.  The preacher remains humble, and receptive, to the mystery, and then calls the congregation to this receptivity.  Though the act of preaching might appear the opposite, much of the preparation for preaching must make room for silence.  Even in the midst of this humility, however, the preacher is not shy in offering guidance, or in encouraging the community in its relationship with God.

Third, I imagine the preacher as pastoral caregiver.  The preacher must carry forward the real concerns and the celebrations of the human persons into every part of preaching – the preparation, the construction, the performance.  This means two things: first, having their own real life; and second, being a part of the congregation’s lives.  As to the former, preaching about life and its struggles and joys is simply impossible if you have not had a life yourself.  And the latter, though it may work at a certain level to carry with us the theoretical struggles of the community, it seems to me that deep connections are possible only when we address the people as they actually show up in this particular time, this particular space.

Finally, I imagine the preacher as prophet, calling individuals and the community towards radical repair.  This requires courageous love, offering wise council and gracious vision.  This too requires humility, and a willingness to start with self-reflection and confession.  At the same time, we must be careful not to paralyze ourselves in our self-indictment.  Preaching does not require perfection, but only a willingness to engage in the struggle, to risk something of ourselves, and our privilege, to take action, to acknowledge all that remains unfulfilled and unfinished, and with this humility and courage, to act with our community in doing all that we can.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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