Mt. Pleasant Lutheran Church

The Music of Preaching

December 30th, 2010 by Pastor David Echelbarger

A while back, a pastor was asking me about how I did sermon preparation.   I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  Initially I responded that I read the texts for the day early in the week, study them, and then let them steep in my daily/spiritual life.   Then, like a seed planted, ideas, images, stories sprout.  Eventually I have all of the elements of a sermon and then it is a matter of keeping, ordering, developing or discarding those elements.

A word about studying the text.  This is a crucial part in any serious preaching: to research what the text has to say in itself.  Throughout my ministry, I’ve made it a point to always do fresh research.  Biblical insights and study methods have changed dramatically over the years and if preaching is to be relevant and accurate, it must benefit from study.  I enjoy this.  There is a scholarly side to me which affords me the joy of developing all of my own adult educational programs.  If preaching is a coming to be, it will not arise from stale preparation. 

 How things have changed.  Somewhere along the line, probably in the early 1990’s, preaching changed for me.  Previously, I’d study the text, get an idea and then look for ways to illustrate the point.  I no longer do that.  I don’t know exactly why things have changed for me.  Perhaps it is because the whole idea of biblical scholarship has evolved away from looking for a kernel type point, to addressing the whole story of the text.  The story involves all of the people in the narrative, their feelings, their hopes and dreams, their thoughts and makes natural connections to our stories as well.  When I shifted from looking for “ideas,” and looked for ways to tell “The Story,” I also stopped seeking illustrations.  Perhaps I had just lived long enough to have enough inner and outer experience, but looking for illustrations became too light a thing.  The story is the point.  And the stories about the story, are also the point.  Even though it may seem like an illustration, what is happening in preaching is that the biblical story is addressing our stories and reshaping them (and in so doing – reshaping us).

 So, I no longer seek illustrations.  I respond to the text with my whole being.  That’s why I give it days to sprout.  This is something you can’t force.  It is a coming to be.  Stories that are in me, or those that I have known, or other elements, arise in response to the text.   

 So, when it came to preaching on Christmas, for instance, I didn’t go looking for stories – but they came looking for me.  This time they came through three pieces of music. 

 In my early morning spiritual reflective time, I had been listening to music that harmonized with the voice of the biblical Christmas message.  Those pieces were Jonathan Dove’s 1999 Christmas carol:  “I Am the Day Soon to be Born.”  The whole experience is that Jesus is THE DAY! is something that has been shaping me ever since.  The fullness of God has come in Jesus and therefore in us.  Consequently, the title of my sermon was: I Am the Day.      

 The other pieces of music that were awakened by the biblical texts were by David Lang: “The Little Match Girl,” and “I Lie.”   Arvo Part’s music was also evocative.  The point is, with the study of scripture and proclamation, we don’t find the point so much as it finds us.  The only reality that is “illustrated,” is our response.   Some would call this the work of the Holy Spirit — and I am such a person.

Space Ship Church