Preachers sometimes find themselves saying the same thing over and over again. Regardless of the text or day, they feel like they are running the proclamation of the Word through the same theological ringer week after week. Yearly celebrations of the same festival can magnify that feeling: I’ve preached Easter and Resurrection 15 years in a row—what is there left to say?
If the preacher feels that way, you can imagine what the congregation is thinking …
Heresy has killed its thousands; boredom its tens of thousands.
How, then, do preachers tell the old, old story in new and engaging ways not only when the theme varies from week to week, but when the primary focus stays the same from year to year? How do you preach Easter or Good Friday or Transfiguration or Christmas or the Baptism of Our Lord again and again and again without feeling like every liturgical festival is Groundhog’s Day?
One primary answer has to do with sermon structures.
I preached the two sermons below at St. Luke, Ann Arbor on consecutive Easter Sundays. While the primary texts differ, the focus remains the same: the resurrection of Jesus and the reality of death and resurrection in the lives of the hearers.
Although both sermons say some of the same things, they feel very different. The emphasis of the content has changed because the presentation of the content has shifted. In spite of very similar themes, the difference in sermon structure changes the experience of the sermon.
Easter Sermon 1: Four Pages Structure
In 2013, St. Luke was just coming to grips with the fact that one of our long-time and well-loved staff members was not going to recover from his recently diagnosed brain cancer. Such a sudden and public terminal illness in the congregation made the law of our own mortality a very palpably part of our life together.
When I went to write my sermon for Easter, I began with this experience of the hearers: I wanted to use the text and the day to speak Gospel into that lived experience of Law.
David Schmitt suggests that every Lutheran sermon will weave four threads together to make the work of art that is the preaching event: Textual Exposition, Theological Confession, Evangelical Proclamation, and Hearer Interpretation. (You can read Schmitt’s excellent article “The Tapestry of Preaching,” here.)
While we regularly begin the preaching task by considering the text, there are times when we start with the experience of the hearers and work our way back into the text, our theological framework, and the preaching of the Gospel. In this sermon, I began with the experience of the hearers and wove the other three threads into the sermon.
So the people are facing the death of a loved one in a very real and tangible way. Easter is the answer to that experience of the Law. But how to make sure this Resurrection sermon doesn’t sound like a reheated version of last year’s pancake breakfast?
To keep that Easter sermon fresh I borrowed language from a new song we were just learning as a congregation; and I paid close attention to the structure of the preaching event.
In Lent of 2013 we were just learning Kip Fox’s compelling song, “This Dust.” The refrain captures the essence of what I wanted the Easter sermon to do.
Death is all around us;
We are not afraid.
Written is the story:
Empty is the grave.
That refrain, repeated throughout the song, served as the hook for the whole sermon. It shaped the way I phrased both Law and Gospel. It helped add connective tissue and thematic unity. It named two of the worst enemies of God’s people—fear and death—and provided the antidote to both—Jesus’ empty grave.
Armed with this phrase, I still had to decide how I would structure the sermon. In the end, I decided that the trouble and grace expressed in this refrain matched well a structure that expressed the trouble and grace in the text and in the lives of my hearers.
This dynamic sermon structure is often called the Four Pages, not because it’s limited to four sheets of paper, but because there are four distinct moves in the sermon. You can read more about Paul Scott Wilson’s The Four Pages of a Sermon here, but the four basic moves are:
- Trouble in the Text
- Trouble in the World
- Grace in the Text
- Grace in the World
These four movements can come in any order within the sermon for different effect. Weaving together Fox’s refrain with Wilson’s structure, I got this sermon outline:
- Trouble in the Text: death was all around the disciples and they faced fear.
- Grace in the Text: the disciples learned the end of the story—empty is the grave!
- Trouble in the World: death is all around us and we face fear.
- Grace in the World: we know the end of the story—empty is the grave!
The words from the song provided unity, but these four movements structured the sermon as a whole. The structure, in turn, shapes and enables the experience of the Law of death and the Gospel of resurrection. The theme is certainly not unique, but the structure expresses the theme in a unique way.
Easter Sermon 2: Metaphor Structure
Easter of 2014 came at the end of a Lenten sermon series called The Season of the Cross. We were just finishing a look at different crosses (Anchor Cross, Jerusalem Cross, Ankh Cross, etc.) and we wanted to keep with the theme by talking about the meaning behind a symbol for Easter.
Our preaching team decided to focus on the Easter Lily as a symbol for resurrection. Preaching on that symbol connected Easter worship to the Lenten series on the symbolism of different crosses.
In terms of the Four Threads, the sermon began with Evangelical Proclamation: because I knew I wanted to preach the Gospel in terms of an Easter lily, I shaped the Textual Exposition, Theological Confession, and Hearer Interpretation accordingly. Of course, the Easter Lily connects directly to themes of death and resurrection, so it fits well with the theme for the day.
Notice that this second sermon deals with some of the very same themes as the first. Perhaps every Easter will deal with death and resurrection as part of the Law and Gospel proclamation. But changing the structure that gives rise to the preaching event changes the experience of the hearers.
Instead of working with the Four Pages structure, I chose to take advantage of the metaphorical potential of the Easter Lily symbol and structure the sermon according to the Metaphor Design. You can read up on this design here.
Briefly, the Metaphor Design takes the basic dynamics of metaphor interpretation and uses them to structure the experience of the sermon. The four moves of this kind of sermon are:
- Evoke the Source
- Map to the Target
- Test the Limits
- See Through a New Lens
Using these basic dynamics of metaphor, I crafted the sermon that explored the dynamics of an Easter lily and its relationship to a bulb and used that dynamic to look at both the text and the lives of the hearers. All four threads of the tapestry of preaching are present; the structure of the loom as changed.
This Easter sermon felt very different because it was shaped in a very different way. The structure of this Easter sermon was something like this:
- Evoke the Source: bring the experience and knowledge of bulbs and lilies to mind.
- Map to the Target: the dead body of Jesus is like the bulb, the New Creation, Resurrection body of Jesus is like the full-grown flower.
- See Through a New Lens: interpret the text through the logic of bulb/flower (continuity and discontinuity; hard to believe if you didn’t know better; end result is much more alive).
- Map to the Target: our bodies/lives are like bulbs, our New Creation, Resurrection bodies/lives will be the full-grown flower.
- See Through a New Lens: interpret our lives through the logic of bulb/flower.
- Test the Limits: Unlike a lily, we already experience the promise of the New Creation flower even as experience life as a bulb.
The logic of the image is central in this design. The contrast between the bulb and the flower and the inherent relationship between the two is the primary dynamic of the image and of the sermon.
You can watch the final product here:
Though both of these sermons were preached on Easter and both dealt with the dynamics of death and resurrection, the experience of each sermon is very different. This variety of expression arises from the diversity of structure: shaping the progression of the sermon over time will shape the way the hearers experience the sermon.
If two sermons on the same festival with the same theme can end up sounding so different, it stands to reason that changing the structure from week to week will also allow for a variety of expression and experience. Conversely, using the same structure week after week will lead to stagnation, even if the theme and focus change from Sunday to Sunday.
The more sermon structures you are aware of as a preacher, the greater potential for variety you have available.
If all you have is ketchup, everything tastes like a hamburger.
The tale of these two Easter sermons is simple: changing the structure of the sermon changes the experience of the hearers. Preachers can use that insight to help their preaching ministry stay fresh and engaging for their hearers. (And sermon variety is a lot more fun for the preacher, too!)