Unexpected Blessings: Festival of Young Preachers 2012

2–5 January 2012 • Off-campus Event

Read Seminarian Jason Ketz's sermon "I can't imagine paradise without you" here.

3rd-year seminarian Jason Ketz delivers his sermon at the National Festival of Young Preachers.3rd-year seminarian Jason Ketz delivers his sermon at the National Festival of Young Preachers.

Unexpected Blessings: My Experience at the Festival of Young Preachers 2012

By Seminarian Jason Ketz

This past autumn, about the time that students hit their post-midterm academic lull, I was presented with a curious opportunity. One of my professors, Fr. Sergius Halvorsen, invited members of his homiletics class to apply for an all-expense-paid trip...to Louisville, Kentucky...over Christmas recess...to attend the Festival of Young Preachers!

Now to some people, this sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime, while for others this doesn't quite make their "bucket list." Myself? I was somewhere in the middle. It would be Christmas break—perhaps my last career opportunity for three consecutive weeks of holiday. And, at 29, I would be the oldest "young preacher" at the Festival. I was also wary of the subject. We all know that homilies, even when divinely inspired, can occasionally be a bit drab, so the prospect of hearing 30 homilies in three days was not without its own risk. On the other hand, I hold preaching in very high regard. And I had a hunch that this conference might be a little more dynamic than a typical Orthodox Divine Liturgy homily. Many participants were from denominations or persuasions that had little structure to their worship beyond scripture and preaching. This was their bread and butter, so to speak. 

So in an audacious (if scriptural) fashion, I replied with those famous words "Here am I. Send me!" (Is 6:8).

And so, I was sent.

The faculty of St. Vladimir's seminary very graciously provided for my traveling, meals, accommodations, and the festival registration fee, all so that I could preach a brief homily to my peers and listen attentively to their sermons as well! I would like to thank Fr. John Behr and Fr. Chad Hatfield, and the SVS Board of Trustees for making my attendance at this conference possible, and also Fr. Sergius Halvorsen for accompanying me on this journey. I will not soon forget this wonderful experience!

The Festival of Young Preachers is organized by The Academy of Preachers, and is billed as the largest and most ecumenical gathering of its kind in the country, with its 120 young preachers representing over 30 denominations of Christians from over 30 states and Canada. The gospel message upon which we were to preach was Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew, chapters 5–7. From this text, we could preach on any section or subject that we considered appropriate.

So as a young preacher, I was asked to preach on the preaching of our Lord, to a room full of preachers! "Curiouser and curiouser..."

And where does one begin with the Sermon on the Mount, anyway? Even after acknowledging that it takes a life lived faithfully to do this passage of scripture justice, the text is so rich that it is hard to get a foothold. I figured that several of my peers would take the Beatitudes and ideas of faith in God, prayer and what-not, so I thought I would try to unravel some of the features of the Sermon that have always puzzled me.Fr. Sergius Halvorson, assistant professor of Homiletics at St. Vladimir's (left), served as Seminarian Ketz's mentor.Fr. Sergius Halvorson, assistant professor of Homiletics at St. Vladimir's (left), served as Seminarian Ketz's mentor.

I found myself struck by a brief passage near the beginning: Matt 5:17–20. Christ explains that he is here to fulfill the Law, telling us "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:20). What fascinates me is the seeming contrast between this appraisal of the Pharisees' legalism (which our righteousness must exceed), and Jesus' famous rebuke shortly before his Passion, which we hear each year at the (Bridegroom) Matins of Holy Tuesday. "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees..." (Matt 23:13-39). What is "exceeding righteousness"?

So I prepared my homily as best I could, drawing on the advice of my 'coach' Fr. Sergius and all of studies and life experiences to date, all while trying to imagine what, precisely, was in store for me in Louisville this winter.

The conference began on Monday afternoon with a workshop on the "first line" of a sermon. Was this exercise to set the stage for the whole conference? Twenty-five of us gathered with two professors of communications and spent two hours practicing and discussing and rehearsing first lines of speeches and sermons. The workshop was technical and theatrical, and (deliberately so, according to its leaders), somewhat awkward. At one point, we were deliberately saying each others' opening lines like movie stars, just to see if we could convey different messages with our tone of voice. While my understanding of the value of the first spoken line in an oration deepened considerably, my expectations for the festival were thoroughly confused by some of the memorable one-liners of advice in that workshop. At one point, we were told to "take a good breath before you start preaching, because that's the last good breath you'll get." OK, I guess. But don't all speakers (and preachers) pause to take a breath if they need to? I soon learned otherwise. 

The festival began with an evening worship service, the main feature of which was scripture and a homily, followed by a reception. I was introduced to 12 of my peers, whose homilies I would hear in coming days. The group was an incredible cross section of America—people from all walks of life in all regions of the country. Most people were (undergraduate) college students, though there were two high school students and an itinerant minister who had been preaching for 14 years (he started at age 12)—all in this small group. High church, low church, non-denominational. We were quite an unlikely group of friends.

We continued the next morning with another worship service. After this, five rooms were set up for concurrent preaching. It wasn't possible for all of us to hear everybody, so they organized things as best the could, giving us each 15–20 minutes, along with an introduction, scripture and prayer as appropriate, and a brief evaluation by a professional in homiletics or communications after we were finished. The first day was reserved for return students, presumably to give the first-time guests an extra evening to polish up our sermons based on what we saw and heard. 

And nothing could have prepared me for the variety of preaching that I heard in just three short days!

The preaching I have heard throughout my life is all variation on a single theme: the paced, pointed, crafted message designed to engage the intellect. Most of my experience as a listener is in the Orthodox Christian liturgy, but even in the occasional wedding or funeral I have attended outside the Orthodox Church, the preacher's style has had a familiar (slow) pace and gentle guiding tone. Apparently this is only a single type of flower in the garden of Christian preaching.

Here at the festival, the first thing that struck me was the repeated confirmation of our workshop coach's advice on breathing before speaking! Though I don't think I'd attempt it, many preachers are able to talk for three or four minutes before pausing for a dramatic breath. Several preachers controlled the emotion in the room with all the skill of a professional musician. Volume. Pitch. Punctuation. Crescendos, rhyme, meter, repetition, alliteration. I myself had never seen such deliberate speaking on a Sunday morning. None of these preachers let themselves get in the way of their message, but they used their public speaking abilities in ways I had never even considered! On the other hand, many preachers handled their homilies like rhetorical bible studies, asking deliberately paced questions, and inviting us all to walk through the scriptures together to find answers. There was such diversity in preaching that I can't hope to describe it!

Yet for all the variety, these sermons shared a common ground. The soil from which these homiletic flowers grew was the gospel: our Lord's call to repentance, and his promise of salvation. In fact, a point on which Fr. Sergius and I both mused was that, with only the slightest bit of theological editing, the texts of many of these homilies could be preached at any represented denomination's Sunday service. But what would my homily sound like if it were offered by the preacher at a Southern Baptist or AME Zion church? And how would I deliver their homily if they gave me their manuscript? Preaching is so much more than words on paper! Even an attempt to describe my experience falls flat.

The festival continued with an evening worship service at the local Roman Catholic cathedral, and many more homilies on the Sermon on the Mount the following day. My predictions on content were only partially correct. Many preachers I heard discussed the Beatitudes, but never exclusively. And there was not a moment in these four days that I had the sense of "wash, rinse, repeat." Every sermon was as unique as the preacher giving it, and I benefited from hearing every one.

We concluded our festivities with a wonderful banquet recognizing all of us who preached, all of those who help us preach, and especially  those who organized the conference. There seemed to be unanimous agreement that the breaking of bread (and other great food) together at a meal was the appropriate way to seal the friendships we had each begun over these few short days; to recognize the common roots of our diversity. 

My last great question heading into the conference was whether I'd be burned out on the Sermon on the Mount. After 30 homilies, how would I feel about the "salt of the earth," or the Beatitudes, or "lilies of the field," or "turning the other cheek"? To my surprise, I am more excited than ever, and because of this excitement, I'm also a bit saddened. This festival has forced me to confront a strange reality within the Orthodox Church. Our lectionary seems to give Christ's great lesson from the Gospel of Matthew "second billing." The sermon is read in the first weeks after Pentecost, and almost entirely on weekdays. Almost nowhere in the Orthodox Christian world is this incredibly powerful portion of the Gospel read liturgically and then preached. This is not a critique of our lectionary—by no means!—but it is our loss that we don't all read these verses of scripture together and rejoice in them as a community of believers. Realizing this, I am all the more thankful for this opportunity to attend a festival of preaching in which the Sermon on the Mount was the selected text!

Sadly, I will not be able to return to the festival next year, but I hope and pray that our seminary and Church will continue to send representatives to this Festival of Young Preachers. St. Vladimir's Seminary was a welcome presence at the assembly, as was Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. I hope that we will all see this festival as an opportunity for us to embrace the fullness of our faith, to share our joy with the world, and to be, as individuals and as an Orthodox Church, the trumpets of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ.