The Meaning of a Sermon: Some Wisdom from Flannery O’Connor

I’ve had the privilege of spending this week with the Doctor of Ministry cohort at Providence Theological Seminary leading them a week-long intensive course entitled “Thinking and Interpreting Theologically.”  While not large in size, the members of the cohort manage to represent both coasts of Canada, the province of Manitoba, and the country of Nigeria.

I was working through some material with them this afternoon that I had entitled “The Formative Practice of Preaching,” which I admit is not the sexiest title, but it did gesture toward my desire to think about both how preaching forms the congregation and how the practice of preaching needs to be recovered as the primary spiritual discipline for preachers.

As often occurs when I find myself in contexts where I’m discussing preaching, I found myself lamenting the often prevalent conception that sermons should be reducible to a single statement.  Now, I’ll admit on the one hand there is something right about this – every sermon should be able to be summarized by a single sentence.  But that single sentence is the same for every sermon:  “Jesus is Lord!”  But that is not what people have in mind when they ask for summary sentence of the sermon.  However, if a sermon truly can be reduced to a single sentence, then the preacher should really respect the congregation’s time and simply give them the sentence and not burden them with all the extraneous material!

This evening, I was reminded of this wonderful quote about short stories from the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor that in many ways resonates with what I was saying earlier in the day about sermons:

“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one.  The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it.  A story is a way to say something that can’t be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.  You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.  When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.  The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience the meaning more fully.”  1

Perhaps the proper answer to the question, “What is (or was) your sermon about?” turns out to be, “Listen to the sermon!”


  1. Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), 96.

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