Baptism, Speech, Craft
is a gift. When I settle down each week to craft a word for my congregation, the process is uncertain, slow, often frustrating, but riddled with moments of joy. It is like waiting for an idea for the next art project, combined with the tedious work of ripping out seams. People often ask, “How long did it take you to make that?” I can’t help but think, “About ten times longer than you could ever have imagined!” Crafting is time consuming. So is preaching. The text begs a thousand questions of us. What does this text say to my community? What might that look like? And for the skeptic visiting my church today, why does this Scripture even matter at all? There is rarely a straightforward answer to these questions, and so the artist slowly sets to work, unsure of the result. But as the text is run through the loom of people, life, and community, suddenly a pattern emerges, an image comes to mind, a story is recalled. The seamstress weaves together text and context, heaven and earth, until the sermon is formed.
In an era of cheap furniture, the beauty I find in a hand-crafted, mahogany dresser is often unappreciated by others. The tools and techniques of my grandfather’s woodshop were simply never passed down, and much has been lost. And I so often find this true in the church. Few members of my generation in North America appreciate the beauty of the gospel, for its riches were barely passed down or poorly connected with our lives. Many of my dear friends have no faith commitment, and I long to communicate the Christian story to them. I want to strip away our veneered ideas of Christianity, run our fingers again over the grain of Scripture, and invite young people into the apprenticeship that makes real disciples. Preaching is an opportunity to present the Christian gospel in all its complexity and beauty, to finish the board of wood until its grain shines.
Artists are some of the most thoughtful, visionary, attentive people in our communities. They probe the depths, ask hard questions, seek beauty, and cultivate imagination. Craftspeople are not afraid of mystery or messes, and preachers have much to learn from their creative engagement with the world. So, the next time the “sweet torture” of sermon writing besets you, try the approach of the craftsperson. Use your imagination, play with the text, expand your palate, paint a picture with words, ask hard questions, or just keep sanding. And if all else fails, try running a jigsaw in the living room.
Bonnie Scott Delivers the 2010 Orientation Sermon at Duke Divinity School: