I preach every week, often more than once, and it takes me over 18 months to get to every one of my 82 parishes. Preaching is a highlight of my week, something that energises me and challenges me. I try hard to fit the expectation of length of sermon (between 12 and 35 minutes) and I have enjoyed the challenge of preaching shorter than I used to. I now use a stopwatch when I preach as it helps me keep to time better.
Maybe 60% of my parishes use the lectionary readings, which I fit into, preaching just one of the readings rather than something on them all. The remaining parishes are roughly split between asking me to fit into a sermon series or I have free choice.
My aim has been to write twelve new sermons a year, a low bar but the extreme busyness of the role, plus the ability to reuse older sermons, means I do not always succeed even to achieve this goal. In reusing older sermons, apart from adjusting the length of the sermon, I am trying to reshape the introduction and application to be more relevant to this particular congregation.
WHAT I MISS FROM BEING A VICAR
I have been an itinerant preacher for almost fourteen years, the last 6.5 as a bishop. I still miss two key things. Preaching to people I know. I always want to preach with love, and that was easier with people I pastored week by week. In addition, preaching to people I knew meant I could be more accurate and deeper in application.
I also miss preaching a series, building week by week through a portion of scripture. Each sermon now for me is very much standalone, and to a different congregation week by week. I miss the personal growth from working through some consecutive portions of scripture. I miss the more frequent opportunities to preach from the Old Testament. I have tried to create a few opportunities for additional preaching, with Lenten series on Sunday or midweek nights, a winter midweek Old Testament series, and the occasional camp or conference.
Being itinerant has advantages but also challenges. I am more explicit about Christ, especially in Old Testament passages. When I was a Vicar preaching a series, I could hint and suggest, I could anticipate the next week and build up to a series climax. Now, in standalone sermons, I have to be more explicit and make sure people see where the passage fits and leads to.
Being itinerant means that when preaching on a passage that has developed from earlier passages, I often have to do more unpacking of those earlier passages as I cannot always assume people see the passage in its literary context.
The other challenge is not knowing my people well. At least as bishop I return after a couple of years and get to the know the parishes gradually. However inevitably the application is broader and perhaps weaker. I rest comfortably with that, because I see other priorities in my preaching, which I come to below.
When I was consecrated, I pledged to ‘maintain the Church’s witness to the resurrection of Christ from the dead, to protect the purity of the gospel, and to proclaim Jesus as Lord’. I take this seriously. My priority in preaching whichever passage in whatever church is to do exactly this.
I want people to have confidence in the gospel and an enduring commitment to Jesus. Many in our churches are uncertain in faith, inarticulate in theology and wearied in discipleship. In a societal environment increasingly hostile to Christianity, and in a global church environment that is conflicted on doctrine, I want above all to affirm Jesus, his sufficiency for salvation and his cosmic Lordship. By and large I do not seek to do that combatively or adversarially. Lifting up the glorious gospel of grace, highlighting the splendour of Jesus, in as compelling and attractive way as I can, is confidence-building, comforting and, I hope, convincing. It is what our church needs.
I stick to one Bible passage. Indeed I always have done. When I have taught preaching, I have argued that using other biblical references should only be for adding clarity or conviction. But I also stick to one text because I believe that people need confidence to read the Bible.
Cross-references, including floating through three or four lectionary readings, can erode confidence, as most people feel inadequate jumping round scripture. But as people see one passage opened up, being shown what is simply there, then my prayer is that they begin to see that the Bible is comprehensible.
I do not use my Sunday preaching in parishes to be about pragmatic issues or ministry, compliance, governance, mission action plans or diocesan priorities. They are primarily for preaching scripture, bearing witness to the risen Jesus that people may be drawn to him in faith, love, discipleship and witness, for his glory.
Bishop Paul Barker
Assistant Bishop, Diocese of Melbourne.