Butchering the Sermon: The Canon of Arrangement

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The goal of Arrangement is to make the proclamation of the Gospel clearer and more compelling for your hearers.

Carving up birds is not my forte. I prefer my poultry pre-cut and, perhaps, already in tender or nugget form. Be that as it may, once again this Thanksgiving I was called upon to slice and dice the turkey. As with most years, my first stabs at cutting up the bird were not much more than that—stabs, with some hacks thrown in for good measure. But I am happy to report, after some initial miscues, I performed serviceably.

Plato can relate. Though he predated the celebration of Thanksgiving by a couple of millennia, the ancient Greek philosopher and rhetorician was no stranger to butchering birds. He invokes the practice in order to illustrate the second canon of rhetoric, Arrangement (Dispositio).

The first task of the preacher is to suss out by the power of the Spirit what he has to say. This, as we saw in the previous post from the series, is the burden of the canon of Discovery (Inventio). The next task for the preacher, the Dispositio-task, is to arrange things in a clear and cogent form. Here is where Plato’s bird comes in.

In his Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates asking us to think of a butcher carving up a chicken.[1] A clumsy butcher (or yours truly on Thanksgiving Day) mutilates the bird. He hacks the thing all to pieces, cutting against the grain of the meat and sawing through bone. The clever butcher, on the other hand, recognizes poultry has natural carving places. He deftly divides the bones at their joints, cuts the meat with the grain, and ends up with a much more satisfying meal.

The Blessing of the Well-Ordered Sermon

I suppose it does not sound quite right to say preachers want to “butcher” their sermons, but you see the point of Plato’s analogy. The goal in Arrangement is to divide and order the movements of the message so it flows naturally for the hearers and the different parts of the sermon fall satisfyingly into place.

David Schmitt, professor of homiletics at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis and fellow contributor here at Craft of Preaching, speaks in this vein of the importance of sermon structures, which he defines as, “The purposeful ordering of ideas and experiences in the sermon.” Such structures are essentially tools of Arrangement.

Ultimately, Arrangement helps to facilitate the function of the proclamation. It is hard enough to follow a disjointed, garbled argument when it is written on the page; even though you might be able to re-read a paragraph or two, but still struggle to find the thread. However, when a speech or sermon is disorganized the poor hearers have almost no hope of following along. At best, they will look for a little nugget of wisdom, knowing the sermon lacks a larger coherence.

On the contrary, a well-ordered sermon (like a well-butchered bird) is a service to the recipients and better ensures the message hits home. Or as the author of the Rhetorica Ad Herennium puts it, changing metaphors once more, “This Arrangement of topics in speaking, like the arraying of soldiers in battle, can readily bring victory.”[2]

On the contrary, a well-ordered sermon (like a well-butchered bird) is a service to the recipients and better ensures the message hits home.

Practicing Arrangement

So, how does one practice Dispositio, Arrangement, intentionally integrating a variety of structures into the sermon preparation? Let me first point the readers again to Professor Schmitt’s invaluable resource on sermon structures at Concordia Theology; this will provide ample grist for the arrangement mill.[3]

An exercise I practice in my preparation each week is inspired by Daniel Overdorf in his book One Year to Better Preaching, an exercise I call the One-Sentence Sermon. It works like this. From your work in Discovery, the first stage for preparing to preach, you should have a theme or focus for the sermon. Try to distill this to a single word or phrase and put it at the top of your page.

Next, you will want to run the focus through several different structures, preferably some from each of the different classes of structures (Schmitt has them organized according to thematic, textual, and dynamic classes). For each structure, you write out a “one-sentence sermon” employing each and pointing-up how the theme might be developed using it.

These “sermons” do not have to be exactly one sentence, by the way. The idea is for the theme to be very briefly sketched in a way that suggests how it could be further developed using a specific structure. Here is an abbreviated example for a sermon whose focus is reconciliation:

Analogy (thematic): Reconciliation is like a truce between warring parties.

Compare/Contrast (thematic): Christian reconciliation contrasts with worldly reconciliation in its source, depth, and aims.

Verse-by-Verse (textual): In 2 Corinthians 5, Saint Paul sets out the motive for reconciliation (vv. 14-15), the message of reconciliation (vv. 16-19), and the ministers of reconciliation (vv. 20-21).

“Lowry Loop” (dynamic): If Jesus came to effect reconciliation, why does He say He did not come to bring peace but a sword?

In each of these instances, one can imagine (if only in an inchoate way) how the sermon might be arranged using that structure. To be sure, some texts and themes better lend themselves to some structures (or classes of structures) than others. The purpose of the exercise is simply to break out of the rut of using the same structure over and over—especially the notorious Lutheran “structure” parodied as, “You are bad, Jesus is good, Amen.” You might even employ it to challenge yourself to use a variety of different structures, seeing the same text in various ways.[4]

The goal of Arrangement—as with the use of rhetoric generally—is not to show off your homiletical virtuosity. The goal is to make the proclamation of the Gospel clearer and more compelling for your hearers. Who knows? You may start butchering your sermons yet.

This is Part 4 of a series about employing classical rhetoric in preaching.
Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

[1] 1 Plato, Phaedrus, 265e.

[2] Pseudo-Cicero, Rhetorica Ad Herennium III.X §18.

[3] If you are feeling saucy, you can go back to Book II of Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, where he has no less than 28 different structures.

[4] As the pastor of a church that uses the lectionary, I find this especially rewarding. One year I may preach on a pericope using a thematic structure, while the next time it comes up, I use a dynamic one. In this way, the lectionary’s appointed texts continue to stay fresh and, Lord willing, so does the preaching.