The dance of the 26

Preaching as rearrangement

When writing the foreword to my Preacher’s A to Z, Professor Mike Graves described a sermon as “just 26 letters, strategically arranged”. The phrase has haunted me ever since.  I imagine them now, all those sets of 26 letters, tipped out on the table before me like brightly coloured fridge magnets. Here, in the quiet, I can move them around. I can push this one to the side and that one to the end, like plotters moving models of planes and warships on a chart table in a war room.

Out there, though, in the place where sermons come to life, placement really matters.  Put too many harsh words together, and challenge takes on the hectoring voice of anger. String too many questions one after the other and they will sound like a burst of rapid fire, whizzing over the congregation’s heads like warning shots ‘don’t mess with this preacher – he has questions, don’t you know’? Put too many poetic words together and what was meant to be edgy verbal graffiti – a Banksy of the pulpit , becomes instead a soppy Victorian postcard.

Maybe if words had colours, like a kind of synaesthetic vocabulary, I would arrange them in some tasteful progression through the spectrum – like a sunrise on life outside the church when the worship is done.

In the end, all I can do is trust that a God who created the world through his spoken word can create something new, or fresh or life-giving through those words spoken in his name.

‘The word arises out of the Bible, takes shape as the sermon and enters into the congregation in order to bear it up’ – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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