Textual Presence and Sermon Preparation: A Visual Feast

"The Annunciation" by Caravaggio (ca 1608)

This past Thanksgiving, we were watching The King’s Speech and someone sat on the DVD remote. The screen froze, which only added to the king’s problems. While the award-winning drama stopped on the screen, a more mundane drama unfolded in the room. We were getting up, turning on the lights, and looking for the remote. In the midst of this commotion, however, something funny happened. Someone started looking more closely at the screen and soon we were all taking notice.

Without the forward progression of the movie, we began to see small details of the scene. The period costuming. The way the light fell from the window. Instead of passing over these matters as we watched a story progress, we were beginning to meditate upon a moment, examining its rich detail and discovering a new drama unfold. The drama of presence, of being in the moment, of taking time to meditate on what we see and what it all means.

Something similar can happen as we read the texts of Scripture in sermon preparation. Let’s call it textual presence. The ability to pause the forward progression of our reading experience and meditate upon what is before us. To enter more deeply into the nuances and details of God’s word and discover what it all means.  Unfortunately, this type of reading does not come naturally to us.

Our daily life immerses us in words. So many words that we have a hard time keeping up. We become adept at scanning an email for something important, sifting through junk mail to find the bills, quickly reading a blog post before moving on. Rapid reading, rapid securing of relevant information, becomes a normal process of approaching texts. Unfortunately, this reading practice can shape how we approach the texts of Scripture. We need to have a sermon ready by Sunday and we only have a limited amount of time to read a text. We are tempted to read it rapidly, find a word, a phrase, something significant that we can preach on and pull that out of the text in order to give the secretary a sermon title, the organist a hymn selection, or the worship committee a theme. Our reading practices prepare us for quantity rather than quality. We read for information rather than formation.

A theory of textual presence encourages us to slow down the reading process and meditate upon the words. Rather than quickly get to the end of the story, we stay for a moment in the middle and contemplate what it means. The forward progression of time is suspended as we stand there with the disciples and think about our Lord’s question, “Who do people say that I am?” Or, we wait with the angel Gabriel for Mary’s answer and slowly begin to realize how all of salvation history is woven into this one moment, this conversation between an angel and a young girl.

Why am I bringing this to your attention? Partly to encourage you to slow down in your textual study. To listen. To observe. For some, this could happen through a tool like Lectionary at Lunch+, where professors will slowly take you through the original language of Sunday’s reading and help you meditate upon its words. For others, it might happen in a more creative, visual way.

In case you didn’t notice, we have added a new sermon resource on The Pulpit: A Visual Feast. This resource provides a way to stop and meditate upon the texts of Scripture through the visual arts.

Art has a way of freezing time and asking us to see. It could be a representational painting that freezes time for us so that we meditate on only a moment. Caravaggio’s The Annunciation holds us in the tension of one moment, the time when a messenger from heaven speaks to a humble servant on earth. It could be an abstract painting that asks us to see, to really see the nuances of a single color or the beauty of a simple form. Simply put, art freezes time.  It stops the progression of daily life and invites us into a moment of meditation, a time to truly see.

A Visual Feast seeks to join the visual arts with God’s word. Artists and writers, poets, pastors, and parishioners are composing brief meditations that join an image with a scriptural text for a moment of holy reflection. If interested, feel free to read about the intentions of the site.

For now, however, I simply want to inform you of the resource. Of course, you are invited to join the conversation, to submit your work for possible publication on the site.

But most of all, you are invited to meditate. To set down the pen, to stop turning the pages, to take a moment to see, to read, to meditate, and, we pray, to behold the gracious beauty of the Lord.

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  1. Rev. David Tilney November 30, 2011

    Dr. Schmitt,

    Thanks for your encouragement to slow down in our reading of the Holy Scriptures. In a related note, today I introduced a bit of silence for worshipers to meditate on the Scripture readings in our Advent Midweek Morning Prayer Service. One fellow got up and told the organist to wake up and get on with the service. HA! He apparently did not read the note in the bulletin.

    Thanks to you and Concordia Seminary for continually engaging WORD and world.

    Christ’s Blessings,
    Rev. David Tilney

  2. Mike December 1, 2011

    Thank you for these words, it completely changed how I looked at this week’s Gospel reading from Mark 1 and made it come alive.

  3. Pastor Roy Olsen December 1, 2011

    As always brother, your words continue to inspire. (Only problem here is we miss your impassioned delivery which continually helps to bring out your text.)

    “We read for information rather than formation.” At a glance, if I were to break down this article, you seem to place this square in the middle as if this were the point. I am taking these words not only into my own Scriptural reading personally and for sermon preparation, but the comment deserves full attention to my congregation and to the classes I teach, whether adult or Day School Confirmation.

    In a world where we are being forced to read for information, quick snips, a glance, a short tweet, etc. we are losing not only the passion that comes from reading the Word(or any word), but also losing the ability to be able to listen to the Word. In a recent discussion with our youth group, I think they are actually looking for what you are saying here. They want more. They are craving more, craving to actually suspend time and look into His powerful words and find God speaking to them. Once again, spot on.

    • David Schmitt December 1, 2011

      Thanks Roy (and others) for your comments. I am glad to see that all of your are experimenting with ways in which you can bring the discipline of contemplation into your sermon preparation and into the larger lives of your congregations. I commend you for that.

      At the symposium this year, I noted a recent study from Stanford (at a conference on multitasking) where brain research indicates that multitasking has an effect on human consciousness – primarily making it harder for people to enter into deep reflective thought. When one thinks of the profound spiritual insight that has guided the Christian church through the practice of devotional reflection, this research is sobering (some might say depressing). We, however, have a large tradition to draw on and people hungering for the very practices that tradition encourages – deeper reflection on the word of God – and that’s good news for us in our service to others in the faith. God bless!

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