1) Read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or Peter’s sermon in Acts chapter 2.
2) Read a famous sermon from a saint, like St. John Chrysostom’s Easter sermon or a sermon by Leo the Great.
3) Read a sermon by a current big time pastor (don’t want to ruffle any feathers here, so take your pick: you know who they are).
Chances are the sermon you read by that big time pastor today read and felt a lot different than the sermons of old. Part of this is cultural. But part of this gets at the heart of what it means to give a sermon. M. Craig Barnes, a seminary professor, has made a case for pastors to recover the poetic in his book The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life. Using the typical week in a pastor’s life as an illustration of art mimicking life, Barnes explores how Eliot’s poetic criticism of the poet’s voice should influence pastors as they preach. This is a movement from knowledge about something to beholding and knowing. Basically, Barnes is saying that many churches are confusing knowledge with worship. But there is a big difference, as Barnes explains:
Anyone who has been to Florence to see Michelangelo’s David knows the qualitatively different experiences of beholding beauty and hearing about it. I had studied Renaissance art at some length, and I assumed I knew a great deal about this masterpiece before I laid eyes on it. But when I finally had the opportunity to stand before it, I wanted never to leave. When preachers think of their sermon less as polemics and more as art, they are allowing the congregation to behold Jesus. Even though few minor poets would want to compare themselves to Renaissance artists, we can still master the craft of creating sermons that beckon those in the pew to behold. (127)
For many of us, we aren’t pastors. We don’t usually preach. But artists do often learn new techniques or teach fellow artists or apprentices, and I think that what Barnes is saying about preaching applies to teaching and learning as well. There is a place for practical application and knowledge―everyone needs a foundation to build on―but eventually there should be a place where the student can enter into a state of beholding.
When we come to a new book or new design or new painting, are we just using the artifact to find new techniques and tips to help us out? Or are we standing in awe of the artifact and letting it wash over us, beholding it and letting it speak to us? Pushing this further, when we are creating art are we doing it so that we can teach or perform or illicit a specific response? Or are we creating so that our creation will be a beholden artifact?
I think we often stay in the comfort zone of the former (from above) because it is easier to control that way. When we have specific applications or ideas it is easier for us to point our art toward a desired outcome, like a preacher wants to present specific facts to lead to specific knowledge. But if we look to the older ways of preaching, the way Jesus and many of the early saints preached, we can find a push toward creating something that beckons others. And isn’t that what we desire deep down for art to do?