Anyone who’s read my blog for long knows that I am committed to preaching texts. Put more accurately, I am committed to the performance of texts. I think as important as the question, “what does this text say?” is the question, “what does this text want to do?” Some think of the burden of a text based sermon as teaching. I think of it more as helping people experience the text. I’m concerned about what the text says and hope to do a little teaching along the way, but I hope more to draw them into the experience of the world the text would create. I’m always asking, “what in this text wants to perform, and how would these elements perform best for this audience?”
From this standpoint, this makes the sermon similar to a cover. It’s a new performance of an original performance. Sometimes the original performance is so well known and carries such timeless elements, that the cover has to keep close contact with the original. Sometimes, however, the settings are so divergent and the themes so closely tied to the original performance that a more creative approach is called for–an update is in order.
The 2002, Concert for George, marking the one year anniversary of George Harrison’s death, was a concert of covers. Familiar songs like, Here Comes the Son, Something in the Way She Moves, and My Sweet Lord, stayed close to the original (with the exception of McCartney starting Something with the ukulele). My favorite song of the concert, however, is Sam Brown’s version of Horse to Water. A less well known song, it more easily tolerated a very different sounding version. This is more of a guideline than a rule. I also love Patti Smith’s transgressive cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit, or the Milk Carton Kid’s performance of Pink Floyd’s, Wish You Were Here. In cases like these, the familiar thing can once again surprise us and offer new life.
My favorite “cover” preacher is my friend, David Fleer, a rhetoric and homiletics professor at Lipscomb University. David uses the language and metaphors of the text to do the work of the sermon, hoping to get us for a few moments to inhabit the world the text would create. I heard him preach a few weeks ago on the story of David, Nabal, and Abigail. He never left the imaginative palate of the text, but at the same time we knew this text was being performed in Trump’s America, and in the aftermath of episode after episode of gun violence. It was a great cover. A true performance of the text, but with a contemporary audience in view.
I sometimes hear sermons that are content to “sample” the text–to take a riff or a loop and build an entirely new “song” around it. There is no rhetorical “world of the text,” and in turn no effort to draw listeners into the imaginative landscape of the text. A hip hop song might give you a sense of recognition or connection to the “text” of another song, but it is not a cover. Similarly, a sermon might strike a biblical chord of recognition, but leave the rhetorical setting of the text in the rear view mirror. This is not always wrong or bad, but we should be clear that it is not “preaching the text.” It’s sampling, not covering.
Sermons are an obvious place to use the analogy of a cover, but I think it can be applied to ministry as well. More on that to come.