Plotting The Course

by Fr. Sergius Halvorsen

Professor of rhetoric and homiletics at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT, Fr. Sergius is a founding member of the Preachers Institute. In this article, he gives some effective guidelines for sermon preparation in this article on the function of Orthodox Christian preaching.

The sermon that is preached in the context of the Divine Liturgy should lead the hearer on the path of sanctification and theosis. According to Holy Scripture, the way of sanctification and theosis is a journey that begins with the fall of our first parents in the garden, and culminates with the passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

For each one of us, our personal journey follows an identical trajectory: it begins with our personal recognition of our fallen sinful way of life, and by the Grace of God, we turn away from sin, and follow Christ to the Cross, trusting in His Power, and in the hope of His Resurrection. Baptism is the sacramental expression of this journey. It begins with exorcisms and renunciations of Satan; then we are washed clean of our sins in the water of Baptism in which we put on Christ; we are then sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit in Chrismation; and finally we partake of the broken body and spilled blood of Christ as a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. Every time we gather as the Church to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we retrace the fundamental life-giving journey of sanctification and theosis, which is a journey from repentance to salvation. By God’s grace we are called to turn away from sin and self-centered living, and embrace the saving way of the Cross of Jesus Christ, a journey that is made anew every time we partake of Christ’s broken body and spilled blood. This essential message of the Gospel is most perfectly summarized in the preaching of Christ,

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17)

This trajectory, or journey, from sin to salvation in Christ, is quite obvious in the traditional Orthodox prayers before communion. As we prepare to receive the Body and Blood of Christ we acknowledge our sins; we confess our commitment to turn away from sins inasmuch as we are able by God’s grace; and we affirm the infinite goodness and mercy of Christ who gives us Himself as spiritual food to nourish and strengthen us in our apostolic work of doing God’s will and being witnesses of the Gospel. This same basic pattern of repentance and salvation is even evident in the prayers after communion; as though the Church is saying,

“Having received the Body and Blood of Christ, please do not forget what this is all about!”

The liturgical tradition of the Church is simply echoing the basic pattern of the way of theosis evident in Holy Scripture. This pattern of repentance and salvation is apparent in the overall narrative structure of the Bible as a whole, which begins with the fall of our first parents, and culminates with the second coming of Christ in the book of Revelation. The same pattern is repeated again and again throughout Scripture: people turn away from God, He is merciful, calls them back, and they are given hope for new life in Him. The saving drama of this “holy narrative” is perhaps most evident in our celebration of Holy Week and Pascha. The Bridegroom comes for his bride—the people of God—who reject Him, betray Him, and hand him over to be tortured and killed. Yet, even in the midst of such horrific blasphemy, the Word of God triumphs in love, and offers forgiveness to the sinners who betrayed him.

Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand!

Thus, when we preach in the Divine Liturgy, the basic message of our preaching should be “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” However, just because the basic narrative shape of our preaching is defined by Scripture and the Liturgy, does not mean that our preaching is boring, abstract, or irrelevant. Far from it! Even though it has been played out countless times in the lives of countless men and women—known and unknown—the “holy narrative” of the Gospel is always dramatic, concrete and relevant. Consider the stories of the Exodus, the prophet Jonah, and the conversion of St. Paul. The basic plot is essentially the same each time, even though each story takes place in a different generation, with different specific details, involving the lives of different people. The saving narrative of repentance and salvation is always dynamic and engaging.

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Thus, by using the basic pattern of a journey from repentance to salvation in our preaching we gain two significant advantages:

  1. Our preaching will conform to the essential narrative structure of Scripture, and it will be in accord with the liturgical tradition of the Church.
  2. We have a basic template for our crafting our homilies and sermons.

A sermon always needs to “go somewhere.” Even though a preacher may include a bunch of wonderful material in a sermon, it may not hold together and if the hearers lose interest, are confused, or bored by what is being said, the preacher has fundamentally failed in his task of pastoral leadership. Preaching that has a single narrative trajectory is much more likely to maintain the attention of the hearers because it moves from a crisis to a resolution. This does not mean that every sermon is merely a story about a saint, or about the life of Jesus. Rather, preaching leads the hearer on this saving journey. It begins by identifying a real challenge facing the members of the community, and it leads them on a saving journey of repentance, to the Cross, culminating in the Kingdom of Heaven.

To craft a sermon that leads hearers on a journey from repentance to salvation requires that the preacher know where the journey will begin and where it will end. Broadly speaking, this starting point is sin and the intended destination is ever more perfect communion with Christ: the Kingdom of Heaven. However, from week to week, and from community to community, the aspects of sin and hope that are most important will vary considerably. In faith, we confess that God is speaking to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is the task of each preacher to discern the Word which God is speaking at any particular time in each particular place. However, this discernment of the Word of God is not made in a vacuum.

The Orthodox liturgical tradition places us in obedience to the Lectionary, so it is the lectionary readings that fundamentally shape and guide our preaching.

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The first thing that a preacher should do is to select one reading to serve as the foundation of the sermon. There is a school of thought among preachers which says that the preacher’s task is to discern the unifying theme or themes that link together the lectionary readings, and then preaching is simply an unpacking of these connections. While this is an interesting, and possibly edifying, way to reflect on the lectionary texts, it is not helpful in terms of charting a path from repentance to salvation. In fact, an exposition of the logic that underlies the shape of the lectionary rarely provides any kind of pastoral guidance. While this kind of reflection might make for an interesting lecture, it does not constitute a liturgical sermon. Thus, to make matters as simple as possible, the preacher should always begin by focusing on one reading. This does not mean that the other reading/s are necessarily ignored, because as the sermon is developed, it may be possible to include material from multiple lectionary readings, and indeed, one should always feel free to include as much relevant material from Holy Scripture as possible. However, focusing on one lectionary reading will allow you to better focus on how the Word of God is speaking to you and your community today.

Once you have selected one lectionary reading, you ask two fundamental questions:

  • What is the call to repentance in this reading?
  • What is the word of hope and salvation in this reading?

Sometimes you will not be able to find a clear answer to one of these questions in the reading. For example, in the so-called parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), there is no clear word of hope and salvation. Will the older brother ultimately enter into the feast, or will his anger and arrogance keep him out in the cold? This is how parables work, they do not give us clean tidy endings. Rather, they are designed to put the hearer on the hot-seat: asking the hearer to decide,

“Will you stay outside of the Kingdom with your own righteous indignation, or will you enter the Kingdom in humility and rejoice in the repentance of your brother?”

So, if you are preaching on this parable there are a number of answers to the first question, but the second question is not really answered by the reading. This is where you will need to employ your own biblical and theological knowledge. If, for example, the reading is calling us to repent from arrogance, then the implied word of hope and salvation could be that Christ accepts all who embrace humility and forgiveness. Likewise, there might be a reading where the word of hope and salvation is very clear, but the call to repentance is not. Similarly, one would discern what the implied call to repentance is, based on the word of hope and salvation.

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Ultimately, the goal is to come up with a call to repentance and a word of salvation that are well matched; a pair that have an obvious and logical connection so that the sermon—just like the prayers before communion—might call us to conversion, lead us out of sin and death, and into a more perfect communion with Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Once you have identified a clear call to repentance, and a word of hope and salvation based on the reading, the next step in the process is to identify how these same dynamics are at work in your life and in the life of the community.

For example, if the lectionary text speaks of the pride of a son who refuses to accept the fact that his father has forgiven his prodigal younger brother, the preacher needs to explore ways that he and members of his community participate in the same kind of destructive behavior. In other words, we may not have prodigal younger brothers who are dramatically welcomed back by our fathers, but all of us are guilty of standing in judgment of others, and believing that our notion of justice is the only valid one. So, if the journey is from pride to humility, then you would need to think of concrete examples of how we—preacher and the community—are tempted to be prideful, and likewise think of concrete examples of how a life of Christian humility allows us to experience the kingdom.

By clearly establishing the call to repentance and the word of hope and salvation, you will establish a definite starting point and an ending point for the sermon. Not only will this allow you to focus and simplify the overall message that you are presenting, but it will also add considerable focus to your homiletic process.

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