Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

8/13 2015

Sermon Tips: Art as a Tutorial to Scripture

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Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent posts on preaching without notes, dealing with writer’s block, and 12 questions for effective preaching. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.

Words are a preacher’s joy, delight, and challenge. But at best, words are just one of the many tools of the blessed Holy Spirit. As a lover of words I give my best to each word, but I realize the real sermon is the one going on in the hearer’s heart and mind, touched by the Spirit of God, not necessarily my words. So whenever possible, I enjoy offering two sermons—the words so carefully prepared as my prompt and a visual with an artist’s interpretation.

The journey from commentary, blog, and library as guide to scripture to listening to artists, liturgical and otherwise, was not an easy one in my case, but the Holy Spirit is relentless. My conversion to listening to art and the artist began with the story of Joseph and Mary. With simple pen drawings of a reluctant Joseph traveling with a pregnant Mary on a lonely road, and a framed window where Mary might have looked out to the glowing night sky, which anticipated the magnificent Glory to God in the Highest, to the transformed Joseph holding his Christ Child, I watched fabric artists bring scripture to life. It helped that I had been part of the audience in a fabulous production of The Black Nativity, a dramatic musical set to Scripture’s deepest beats. My tutorial in hearing Scripture through art has continued for years.

By engaging with art a sermon is given the opportunity to explore multicultural images. We think and visualize in images that mirror our own reality. Imagine, “A man walks into a room . . .” what does he look like, what does the room look like, is this sinister (and why?), is this a threat (and why?), is this comforting? Where are the lights and shadows in your imagination? An artist provides these interpretations by which our assumptions may be challenged.

My favorite image of Abraham used during a sermon from Genesis, is a poster advertising for a film about Abraham, the name of the film escapes me. The poster had Abraham’s face, lined, aged, seasoned, hardened, and softened with experience—a man of great sorrow and equal joy. His head was draped in the fabrics of his time and place. The face was that of the Disney actor Dean Jones, a face I remembered well from my childhood. Dean Jones played fun characters, good stalwart characters, enjoyable TV movies for a Sunday evening. What crossed my mind as I saw him portraying Abraham was, how could Dean Jones ever commit to killing Isaac?? The picture gave voice to “how could Abraham have done that?” Art has the blessed ability to challenge our basic assumptions.

My reluctant journey into art’s interpretation of Scripture brought me into contact with dozens of liturgical artists. No image may be printed or projected without the artist’s permission—which gave me the opportunity to meet several artists. Most are thrilled to hear how their art helps you interpret God’s word. Most liturgical artists merely ask that credit be given where due. Friendships developed and I am the richer for it.

One liturgical artist is Gwen Meharg. For years she managed www.drawneartogod.com. Her joy is to interpret Scripture through art, often on a Sunday morning during the sermon, during the hymns, or the child wiggling in the back of the sanctuary. Gwen writes on her blog, sometimes she has a plan, other times God drops ideas and pictures into her heart and she paints. *

The Exchange

As an example, in Jesus’ crucifixion she paints just the end of one cross beam, with Jesus’ lifeless hand. Reaching toward Jesus’ hand, really his finger, is the very finger of God in the same style of Michelangelo’s famous painting of God touching Adam at Creation with new life, but this new creation is reviving the new Adam, Jesus the Christ. Gwen writes that in the cross beam of Jesus’ cross she sees a bridge between God and humanity. To this Gwen adds, of all things, a curious little sparrow. The viewer sees the sparrow long before recognizing the cross of Jesus. It draws down our defenses; it gives us, the preacher and congregation, a point of contact because the finger of God also seems to be reaching for the sparrow to cross the gap into life. The sparrow is not intimidated by God, but free and accepting. Gwen writes, “(I) represent Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as being our bridge to God. Of course, the sparrow is us. The little sparrow is resting on Jesus—oblivious to His condition—and about to hop over to stand on God’s hand. Seeing His Son suffering, God still reaches out for the sparrow.” The Exchange has helped me see and live the life-giving cross, provided by the God of the sparrow, God of the whale; God of the swirling stars, (and with all creation we sing) how does the creature say awe? How does the creature say praise?** Amen.

*Used with permission www.drawneartogod.com

** Thank you Glory To God: Presbyterian Hymnal #22

Jane Esterline is new to the PTS community this summer. She is a minister with a heart for the congregation who served a mid-sized church in rural Illinois before moving to Pittsburgh to join President David Esterline. Together they served as mission co-workers in Cameroon and Fiji Islands. Her focus was on building bridges through solidarity.



8/5 2015

Sermon Tips: 12 Questions for Effective Sermons

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Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent posts on preaching without notes and dealing with writer’s block. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.

George-Whitfield-preachingTo ensure that you’re delivering the most effective sermons, consider these 12 questions about your preaching. They relate to both particular sermons and the overall sermon.

  1. Are you preaching both the Old Testament and the New Testament? Both need to be preached if you are going to give your people the full testimony of preaching.
  2. Are you helping people know and do? Sermons need to be about both practical living and theological insight. Some sermons might be more one or the other, but your people need both on a regular basis.
  3. Are you only preaching what people want to hear? If everybody loved every one of your sermons then there is probably a problem. If they hate all your sermons there is probably a problem too. People need to be both convicted and encouraged.
  4. Are you using the right number of stories and examples? There is a problem when you tell too many or too few examples and stories. Too many and people can actually lose the point. Too few and people won’t remember the point. Some points require more or less examples.
  5. Are you too point driven? People don’t remember points. They don’t think in points. They think in stories. They remember images. Gone are the days when your sermon should be jammed into a three- or four-points system.
  6. Do you have too much or too little energy? If you are monotone and never get excited then people will sleep. If you are too bubbly and wild then people will be scared. You need variety and to avoid extremes.
  7. Do you have too much or too little tradition? I like tradition. I like history. I like the creeds. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. People live today, not 500 years ago.
  8. Are you too focused on biblical themes or particular passages? There are times when certain large biblical themes need to come up in sermons. There are other times when a particular passage needs to be mined for all of the precious nuggets in it. Both are important.
  9. Are you preaching the same message every week? So many pastors have their hobby horse like evangelism or social justice. You are not just preaching what you like. Not every sermon and topic can come back to the same idea.
  10. Are you preaching to your congregation? This sounds dumb, but many pastors preach with little or no regard for where their congregation is. Is your preaching understandable? Does is speak to real issues in your congregation?
  11. Are your conclusion too open ended or too specific? The best sermons have guidance on what to think about and how to apply them but also leave room for the message to haunt people throughout the week.
  12. Who is the hero in your sermons? It should be Jesus. Our faith is not about self-help. It is about God-help and how we turn around and help others.

What would you add to the list?

Jordan Rimmer ’12 is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in New Brighton, Pa. He earned his Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently working on getting his Doctor of Ministry. Before moving to Pittsburgh, he was the director of outreach and youth ministries at Glenwood Methodist Church in Erie, Pa. He is a husband and father of four children. Jordan blogs at jordanrimmer.com and tweets at @jrimmer21. His sermons are available for download on iTunes or at http://jordanrimmer.podbean.com.


7/30 2015

Sermon Tips: Dealing with Writer’s Block

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sermon-writers-blockAs a service to our readers, Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. This is our second post and we hope you find it helpful. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent post on preaching without notes. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.

The irony is not lost on me that I’m sitting down to write this blog post on sermon writing tips and writer’s block because I’m currently spinning my tires on my actual sermon for this Sunday and I’ve decided the best course of action is to simply avoid it for a while. I’ve done everything I usually do – everything that my homiletics professors and my field education instructor taught me was good practice. I’ve translated the passages ground up from the Hebrew and Greek. I’ve read the commentaries. I’ve thought about it, talked about it, prayed about it. I even came up with a clever title. And here I sit. . . Friday afternoon – late afternoon at that – with about 1200 words of complete drivel. I suppose I should take heart that at least it’s well exegeted drivel with a clever title.

Sermons are elusive like that. Some of them come pouring out onto the page on Tuesday and by Sunday morning are polished and shiny, lovely and poetic, complimented at the narthex door by little old ladies and teenagers alike. “Great story you told, Pastor!” “Reverend, I’ve never understood that passage until today!” “Wow. That really spoke to me.” Other sermons – like the one I’ve just put into time out for a few hours – are a bit more obstinate. They show up on Sunday morning ruffled, dirty, and rough around the edges. Even as I’m delivering these ones on Sunday morning, I’m doing so while subconsciously cringing and thinking of all the edits I should have made.

My sweet, gracious congregation always tells me it was a “Good sermon, Pastor.” even if we all know quite well that it was far from my finest homiletic accomplishment. But every so often, when I have just preached what I’m convinced is a complete stinker, someone will stop me in the hall or come into my office the next day, maybe send me an email, and they will tell me how deeply the message touched them. The only explanation I can come up with for this phenomenon is that God is keeping me humble. “You might think you’re clever, sweet daughter, but remember whose words these really are.” I can just hear God saying, with a kind chuckle.

Before you start thinking that I’m saying we should forget the original languages and ignore the commentaries and just wing it every week, let me state emphatically that I don’t think that at all. In fact, I truly believe that the Holy Spirit works through good planning just as much as the Holy Spirit moves spontaneously. What I’m saying is that the heart of writing sermons, week after week after week, is humility. You can and should plan and read and study. But be prepared for those disciplines to feel empty or fruitless some weeks.

I’ve started to take weeks like this as signs that I’m supposed to do something a little bit different. Maybe more prayer time is just what we need this week. Maybe we’ll take some time to anoint people for healing. Perhaps we’ll lay rocks at the foot of the cross to signify giving Jesus our burdens and sorrows. Whatever it is, it will be a teaching moment for me too. It’s a chance for me to develop my ability to lean on God in the preaching moment. It’s a lesson from the Holy Spirit that I dare not miss or take for granted. I have a feeling that just grunting through this so I have something to say is the wrong approach.

In the spirit of blog posts that are supposed to give some sort of helpful tips about sermon writing, here is my list of sermon writing tips, in the light of my struggles in sermon-land this week:

  1. Have a rhythm/routine. It’s good to play with the different things that your homiletics teachers taught you in seminary. Figure out what works for you and get into a groove.
  2. Be prepared for that rhythm to be upset by the Holy Spirit. I find that these upsets tend to happen just when I’m cocky enough to feel comfortable in my sermon writing routine. God leads me (or sometimes drags me kicking and screaming) to try something new and different: a hands on thing, audience participation, a different sermon structure, etc.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Take the job seriously. Take God seriously. Take Scripture seriously. But you? You’re a mess – just ask Calvin. Be willing to laugh later about how awful that joke you told was. Don’t sweat it if nobody said anything about the sermon this week. When your routine gets bounced around – as I’ve promised it will – roll with it. That stuff is all you and you are just the mouthpiece.

Fun post script: This week’s wacky sermon involving rocks and audience participation was in fact one where it was clear the Holy Spirit was working. Point taken, God.

Charissa Howe graduated with her MDiv from Pittsburgh Seminary in 2014 and is currently working on her ThM. She serves as pastor of Liberty Presbyterian Church in McKeesport, Pa.

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