A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching
by Leonard Sweet
“There’s no blood on the pulpit this morning.” This is what Mabel Boggs Sweet, mother of Leonard Sweet — the author of Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching (Zondervan,2014)– would say if she were listening to a poorly preached sermon. Mabel Boggs Sweet was a preacher herself and therefore had earned the right to make such an assessment. But don’t all of us who listen to a Sunday message make a judgment every time we hear a sermon? What makes a sermon bad or good? Why is it some preachers can make us levitate with joy as we listen to them, and some make us want to leave the building through the closest exit? And especially in this visual age, how can a preacher deliver a dazzling, image rich message? Is there a way to preach to and reach this generation of sermon participants?
Giving Blood (2014 Zondervan), was written to offer a fresh transfusion of life to those who have been called to write and deliver sermons. Leonard Sweet, one of the most creative and engaging preachers today, has written over 1500 sermons and understands the process, pain and passion of this vocation. He also knows that the time is far overdue for preachers to be equipped with skills to interact in the TGIF – Twitter, Google, Instagram, Facebook – world. Drawing on his background in semiotics, preaching and teaching, and the use of narraphor (narrative + metaphor), Sweet invites preachers to review, rethink and renew their approach to telling the story of Jesus. “Semiotic preaching differs from traditional sermon building in its insistence on seeing the sermon itself as an incarnational medium…In semiotic preaching we return to the roots of our faith, and to a form of conveying truth favored by Jesus himself.”
Even the title of Sweet’s book, Giving Blood, has a strong image associated with it. Choosing to use “blood” as the unifying symbol in his book was not an easy decision for Sweet, though, since many people consider the word “blood” to be extremely offensive. Sweet mentions in the Introduction to Giving Blood that he did his best to come up with another more suitable, less controversial metaphor for preaching, but could not find one. “Something kept pulling me back to this biological symbol for life and the organizing symbol of the Christian faith. The metaphor kept me in its grip no matter how hard I tried to wrestle free. What you hold in your hands is my surrender and my limping free of that street fight.” I believe the reader will recognize that using blood as the metaphor for preaching in Giving Blood was not only a suitable choice, but its use brings unity to many facets of the book in an imaginative way.
Sweet’s manner of sermon writing is also imaginative. Here is his definition of a semiotic sermon: “A semiotic sermon reads the signs of what God is up to in the world, connects those signs in people’s lives with the Jesus story, and then communicates the gospel by connecting people in relationship to Jesus through stories, images and gestures.” Stories, images and gestures are the medium and the message, writes Sweet, and he quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer with this statement which dates back to the 1940’s: “The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over.”
So what must a preacher do, then, to effectively share the message of the scripture with today’s listeners? Sweet writes, “The semiotic sermon begins by identifying and creating stories and images that fuse into our memories and allow for sensory experiences of a different world–not a world of fiction but a world of greater truth. [Together] images and stories create what I call “narraphors,” extended metaphors. And they are the hallmark building blocks of semiotic preaching… When we combine the images/metaphors with the narrative (story), we create a narraphor. Like a parable, a narraphor contains the power of a metaphorical image with the accessibility and approachability of the story.”
Sweet likens semiotic preaching to the type of storytelling that Jesus did: “Jesus was a master of this kind of storytelling. His use of parables, narratives and metaphors can be seen as a subversive strategy. Narraphoric preaching breaks down resistance, enters the unconscious quickly, and causes the participant to fall into the lap, or the trap, of truth. Narraphors…force us to look at life in new ways, and they outwit our reasoned defenses.”
An illustration of narraphoric preaching is included in Giving Blood. Sweet writes about Jonah, whose tale he identifies as “an inverse mirror of the Noah story, [as] Jonah flees onto a ship, (not with innocent children and animals, which God reveals are back in Nineveh). Unlike Noah, Jonah thinks only of himself. He does not want to be bothered or responsible for the lives of anyone else, especially those he does not deem as special as he is. And off he goes. But his soul cannot escape the turmoil. If we see God’s “metaphors” within the story as physically created reflections of Jonah’s own inner turmoil, we find that God is showing us that we cannot save ourselves. The tempest on the sea may well reflect Jonah’s (and our own) anger, the struggle and the panic that he takes out on everyone around him.” Sweet continues his narraphoric treatment of Jonah’s tale through to the end, pointing out metaphors within the text that expand and illuminate the bare bones of the story and help the listener to see that Jonah’s story is also our story.
In Giving Blood, Parts 1 and 2 give the “Why” and “What” of semiotic preaching; Parts 3-7 present the “How.” All the Parts have Interactives meant to immerse one in the practice of semiotics and prepare the preacher to begin doing Experiential, Participatory, Image-Rich and Connective (EPIC) narraphoric preaching, or what Sweet calls “blood work.”
A word about the organization of the book: Sweet uses medical nomenclature associated with blood as the framework for the contents of the book. The title, sections, chapters and “labs” are all identified with functions that are linked to the life sustaining fluid. Here are some examples from the Table of Contents: Blood Streams: Scriptures; Blood Transfusions: Infusing Creativity; Blood Clots: Preacher’s Block, etc. Imaginative and memorable, yes – and helpful tags for those trying to change former habits of proclamation into a new style of preaching.
For anyone who is interested in sermons and preaching for any reason, including critiquing a weekly sermon, I recommend reading Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching by Leonard Sweet. Even as a layperson, I found it to be a fascinating and enlightening book, and one that will certainly be appreciated by those who are called to “give blood” every Sunday.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1971, 279