Wednesday, January 26, 2011

IN THE PULPIT

Yesterday, when I was preparing a sermon for this coming Sunday, a book I had ordered winged in from Amazon, and instead of reworking the sermon, I sat down to read MAKING YOUR WAY TO THE PULPIT by Jerrilee Parker Lewallen (Was this a signpost for me on the road to better homilies?!). Jerrilee is an Episcopal priest who lives on The Mountain in Sewanee, Tennessee where I sojourn eight months of the year. I was curious to read the book she had been working on last year and believed that it would be an excellent treatise on sermon preparation because I had been privy to a sneak preview of the book before she sent it off to Wipf and Stock Publishers in Oregon.

I also knew the book would speak volumes because I had heard Jerrilee preach many times at Otey Episcopal Church where she was interim priest my first year of living at Sewanee. I remember going to an Easter morning service primed to hear a female priest that several of my friends had touted as a wonderful preacher. I wasn’t prepared for the brilliant delivery I heard that morning. Jerrilee not only preached the Word, she sang to us in a clear, unwavering voice that inspired us to feel the kind of joy she experienced when she related the story of the Easter resurrection. For the one year I attended Otey, Jerrilee consistently preached sermons filled with wonderful metaphors, scholarly research, and unmistakable passion. She is undeniably a Jeremiah in the pulpit!

She has done as masterful a job in writing MAKING YOUR WAY TO THE PULPIT as she does when she delivers homilies. Jerrilee’s an enlightened writer and an enlightened preacher, no doubt about it. The subtitle to MAKING YOUR WAY TO THE PULPIT is “Hethcock’s Homiletics Goes to the Parish,” as the book is based on the teaching of the Rev. Dr. William H. Hethcock who taught homiletics at the School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee until his retirement in 1997 and thereafter on semester contracts at the School of Theology and the Virginia Theological Seminary. Often, at St. Mary’s Convent, where I've attended services for the past three years, he is a guest preacher and preaches powerful homilies with memorable take-home messages.

Jerrilee has used Hethcock’s approach to preaching for years and continues to use it when she’s asked to supply preach, now that she’s retired. In MAKING YOUR WAY TO THE PULPIT, Jerrilee explains her “master’s” preaching methods in six chapters that include guidelines to focus statements, methods for employing four sermon preparation boxes labeled Exegesis, The Human Condition There and Then, The Human Condition Here and Now, and Proclamation—four boxes that illuminate a process Heathcock devised by assimilating the methods of his mentors Fred B. Craddock, Thomas Long, O.C. Edwards, Jr. and Eugene Lowry. In addition to developing this method, Hethcock has taught and given feedback on more than 4500 student sermons during his lifetime.

Jerrilee’s explication of the Hethcock method is a valuable guide for neophytes just beginning to grasp the methodology of good preaching, for seasoned priests and deacons, and for those who want to gain a better understanding of the preaching process—who want to know why they enjoy excellent homilies on the Gospel delivered by certain preachers.

When I retired as archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, people asked me why I didn’t compile a book of my sermons, and I repeated an anecdote about my great-grandmother, a staunch Baptist who ran out of missionary tracts when she was forming sixteen missionary societies in Washington Parish, Louisiana. She said that in substitution for the tracts, she distributed old sermons from Baptist ministers she had known, and remarked, “the societies went to sleep and I had a hard time reviving them.” I concur with her as I’ve always believed that sermons are to be heard and not read. In MAKING YOUR WAY TO THE PULPIT, Jerrilee quotes Hethcock as saying: “The purpose of the sermon is not to get something said: it is to get something heard.” Amen.

In MAKING YOUR WAY TO THE PULPIT, we’re treated to a sermon delivered by Jerrilee, using a focus statement and a powerful metaphor (a Barbie doll birthday cake); a sermon by Hethcock on the First Sunday after the Epiphany in 2009; and to a powerful sermon on the prologue to John in which Jerrilee uses three funny stories to illustrate the power of humor in a good sermon.

An important chapter on the subject of feedback (the nemesis of all preachers) provides suggestions for sermon feedback programs. Recommendations for designing feedback groups is contained in Appendix D, appropriately titled “Talking Back to the Preacher.” MAKING YOUR WAY TO THE PULPIT contains Appendices and a Bibliography that includes a list of Hethcock’s writings.

I lay no claims to this blog being a scholarly review of Jerrilee’s work about Hethcock’s methodology, but I couldn’t resist showcasing her new book, the manuscript of which four of us discussed during lunch at an Italian restaurant in Cowan, Tennessee over a year ago. I applaud her work and look forward to her second book. Brava Jerrilee…and, of course, the Rev. Dr. William Hethcock! May you continue to lead the way to the pulpit!
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