I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s delightful book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. If you are interested in writing short stories, novels, or even memoirs–in other words, any writing that is less expositional and more dependent on character and plot–you really need to get this book. It will demystify the writing process, while still leaving lots of room for you as a writer to lean into the real mystery: people’s lives, folks’ souls.
I happened to get to Lamott’s section on plot the other day when I should have been writing my sermon. I decided to try and redeem my procrastinated time by trying out Lamott’s counsel for developing a good plot in the writing of my sermon.
Lamott shares a trick she learned from one Alice Adams on plot-making. It follows an ABDCE pattern. Action, background, development, climax, ending.
You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, and what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot–the drama, the actions, the tension–will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?
My experiment in sermon-plotting
I was assigned Exodus 5:22-6:12, the story of Moses confronting God for failing to deliver Israel from slavery under Pharaoh, and how God responded. Here’s how I ‘plotted’ my sermon:
Action: Easy. Moses actually says what so many of us are thinking lots of times. “God, are you on our side, or have you teamed up with our enemies?” How will God respond to this accusation? What will God do? Incinerate him? Turn his staff into a serpent and have the serpent bite him? But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. That’s enough action to pull us all into the story.
Background: What’s the history of Moses’s relationship with God up to this point? It’s had its highs: being saved from an infanticidal Pharaoh, getting a Harvard education, enjoying Egyptian courtly privilege. It’s also had its troughs: being exiled into Midian and demoted to a lowly shepherd, almost being struck down by God along the roadside for not having circumcised his son. We’re rehearsing the twists and turns of this relationship that have brought us to the current action and dialogue. The action was at first introduced as raw action. Now, each bit of background shows how the present action is freighted with significance, and shows how the stakes are higher than we would have assumed with the action alone.
Development: Development is the part of the plot that sets the stage for the big climax. In Marylynne Robinson’s Gilead this is where we feel the feel the tension in the room when Jack and Rev. Ames say 10 words with their lips and 100 more words with their tone, body language, and with all the words that aren’t said. In Exodus 5-6, this is where I want the congregation to feel the sting of Moses’s words as he accuses God (who had promised to deliver Israel) and Pharaoh (who regularly threw Hebrew infant boys into the Nile to drown) of being on the same team. It’s here that I pull my “exegetical goodies” into the story–but only those exegetical goodies which actually help tell the story. Nothing will slow the story down like a bunch of parsed Hebrew verbs at this point.
Climax: Where is the confrontation between a God who is not going to change and a character who therefore must change in one way or another? When you’ve identified this point, you’ve found your climax. What remains is to make the climax of the story the climax of your sermon. In this case, everything hinges on how God reacts to Moses’s accusation. So my climax focused on how Yahweh did not incinerate Moses, but instead reiterated his promises to him, with two particular details:
- Yahweh underscored the intimacy with which Moses had come to know him, based on the fact that God had revealed his personal name to Moses, though not to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
- Yahweh told Moses that for generations to come, Israel would constantly recall the deliverance that was about to happen–that these wild events would become Israel’s national origin story.
Ending: Here’s where you make sure to have Jesus be the real hero of each Old Testament story. The reality is that we’ve all been where Moses is from time to time: convinced that we’d answered the call of God to obediently follow his lead into some difficult task, only to begin to wonder if God had sadistically sent us on a fool’s errand. But from the cross onward, we know at least 2 things that Moses himself wouldn’t even come to know:
- God isn’t just God (his title). His ‘first name’ is Jesus, and this Jesus has drawn far nearer to us than Yahweh did to Moses. We have a God who invites us to call him by a personal name–a name which means what that same Jesus did: “God saves.”
- Jesus was sent on a ‘fool’s errand’ to fight a losing battle at the hands of sin, death, hell, Satan, Judas, the Pharisees, Sadducees, the crowds, Pilate, and the Romans. But in walking the plank like this, he saved us, and by rising again, he raised us. No matter what happens on the apparent ‘fools errands’ we seem to find ourselves on in obedience to Jesus, we can know, only because of the the cross and resurrection, that our labor in the service of Jesus is not in vain.
Let’s thicken our plots
The preaching of Old Testament narratives, in my opinion, doesn’t just lend itself to story-shaped sermons; it almost requires it. If anything, we should be taking the so-called expositional and doctrinal parts of Scripture and thinking about how to bring the impact of the text to our audience through the conventions of good storytelling. But what we’re prone to do is strip mine ready-made biblical stories, full of dramatic intrigue, for doctrines and principles. This is one of these instances in which Dorothy Sayers’s criticism of churchmen rings sadly true: Christianity is often boring through no fault of Christianity itself.
Remember, the point of preaching is not to teach doctrines. The point of preaching is to confront us with Jesus in such a way that we, like the characters after the climax of a dramatic story, are changed in a lasting way. If we’re aiming to reach a spiritual climax by preaching, why not make a plot out of our sermons?