A good sermon needs a sprinkle of salt. The exemplum — a story which sustains the argument and points to the moral — is always the right seasoning.
Any preacher who stands in the pulpit and categorizes commandments, or makes hair-thin theological distinctions, or flourishes with downhome rhetoric, wears me down until I am lost, daydreaming about some story in my own life. But if he or she makes the point with an anecdote, one which tells, for example, of a man who stood silent before his accusers, and because of his faith suffered the pain of public humiliation and a slow death, only to win a more significant spiritual crown, then I listen.
I am a hero worshipper, not a moral theologian. The story of the hero might become the salt of my life.
Where do we find these stories? Scripture, of course, first of all. It is especially important now — in times when the stories of the Bible are no longer the stories that young people grow up with — that ministers work hard to educate us to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is simply a shaker full of exciting, significant stories.
Then there are non-fiction stories, the best ones about saints, missionaries, martyrs, theologians, and the common people of God. Tell the story of Annie Armstrong the Baptist mission leader. Or of Perpetua, who was baptized in a Carthage prison and throughout her martyrdom by savage beasts in an arena kissed her companion Felicity and praised God. Or of Thomas Aquinas, who on his deathbed, faced with the prospect of heaven, compared his great theological works — perhaps the most significant theological work of the church — to straw. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While the allies bombed Berlin he led his fellow prisoners and the Nazi guards in hymns, and eventually was killed in a concentration camp because he felt that as a Christian he had to resist his government’s policies.
There is also fiction, which for many years was considered tasteless and even evil by the Puritans (how the imagination can sometimes lead us away from moral law). In every culture there is a great body of fiction which can help lead a person to God. In these times, when most of the examples we hear come from a television show like “Dallas” or an unsavory movie or the most recent best selling self-help book, isn’t it crucial that ministers elevate the stories of their people’s lives?
Shouldn’t ministers encourage people to find heroes with more complicated lives? Ivan Karamozov, for example. In “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter of The Brothers Karamozov he wonders if the Church, in satisfying on earth Satan’s temptations of bread and power, has actually abandoned Christ. Or three characters in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, all of whom must face in revolution-torn Mexico the question of the unforgivable sin: utter despair.
Let me mention only one more example out of hundreds of possibilities: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” At the end of the story a grandmother, staring into the barrel of an escaped convict’s gun, realizes that even though this man is evil, they share a common, fallen humanity. He shoots her, and about this final realization, which she has only because she is face-to-face with death, the convict says, “She would have been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Telling the story, whether it comes from Scripture, history or fiction, is as important as choosing the right example to preserve the argument. Let me emphasize a few important techniques of narration.
Begin with a conflict. Make the struggle between opposing forces clear: the Israelites versus the Philistines, for example. They are fighting each other because they have conflicting religious beliefs and they relish each other’s land. Then tell the events of the story – the action. The characters will come alive when they do something, not if they are endlessly described. Explaining that David is a courageous, rather naive young boy is not as appetizing as narrating his steps to the front of the Israelite army, his choice of the stones, the sound of his slingshot and the bull’s eye knock-out of the giant Goliath.
If possible, keep from telling the audience some crucial details in order to sustain suspense. Instead of explaining who the young boy is, David’s name might be left unmentioned until the final blow. Or to liven up the excitement, dress the traditional story in contemporary clothes: make David a devout young boy faced with a gang of bullies. And finally, consider working one image throughout the story, if not the whole sermon. Salt is such a possible image. It adds flavor.
Vance Wilson is a novelist, English teacher, and currently Writer-in-Residence at The Ashville School, N.C. He is a member of the historic All Souls Episcopal Church.

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