Over the last few days it seems the whole world has been talking about a 14 minute sermon. This should encourage those of us who are called to preach. The next time you think sermons can’t make an impact in this world remember this week and how a passionate message on God’s love touched the hearts of millions.
In addition to being encouraged by the world’s response to this gospel message, I believe we as preachers can learn a great deal from Bishop Curry’s sermon. There are important homiletic elements to Curry’s message that made it so effective. Below you will find the full transcript of the sermon along with my commentary. Bishop Curry’s sermon is in italics and my comments are in bold.
From the Song of Solomon in the Bible: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
Bishop Curry chose not only an appropriate text for a wedding but also for an event on an international stage. He took advantage of this huge opportunity and proclaimed a message we all desperately need – the power of God’s love will change this world.
The late Dr Martin Luther King Jr once said, and I quote: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”
It is always effective to begin a sermon or speech with a profound quote from a respected source. This quote set the impassioned tone of the entire message.
There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love.
Here we find Curry’s first use of repetition – “there’s power, power in love.” Repetition can be a powerful rhetorical device and we will see it used throughout the sermon.
If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved.
Oh there’s power, power in love. Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love. There’s a certain sense in which when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it – it actually feels right.
Above we find Curry relating to listeners by sharing the profound human experience of feeling loved. This endeared him to the crowd at the very beginning of the sermon. He bonded with his listeners and they wanted to hear more.
There is something right about it. And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love, and our lives were meant – and are meant – to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here.
Ultimately, the source of love is God himself: the source of all of our lives.
There’s an old medieval poem that says: ‘Where true love is found, God himself is there.
The New Testament says it this way: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God, and those who love are born of God and know God. Those who do not love do not know God. Why? For God is love.”
In the paragraphs above notice how Bishop Curry cleverly moves from talking about the human experience of love to God as the source of love. He first related to listeners with the experience of love and then lifted up God’s love. He established common ground before he began to “preach,” which is always wise when speaking to a diverse audience.
There’s power in love. There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can.
There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will.
There’s power in love to show us the way to live. Set me as a seal on your heart… a seal on your arm, for love is as strong as death.
Bishop Curry uses the repetitive refrain again “There’s power in love…”
But love is not only about a young couple. Now the power of love is demonstrated by the fact that we’re all here. Two young people fell in love, and we all showed up.
But it’s not just for and about a young couple, who we rejoice with. It’s more than that.
Now Bishop Curry makes the critical transition from talking about love and the special occasion to setting himself up to proclaim the gospel message of love. Listeners have given him permission to do it because he has related to them.
Jesus of Nazareth on one occasion was asked by a lawyer to sum up the essence of the teachings of Moses, and he went back and he reached back into the Hebrew scriptures, to Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And then in Matthew’s version, he added, he said: “On these two, love of God and love of neighbor, hang all the law, all the prophets, everything that Moses wrote, everything in the holy prophets, everything in the scriptures, everything that God has been trying to tell the world … love God, love your neighbors, and while you’re at it, love yourself.”
Someone once said that Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in human history.
A movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world – and a movement mandating people to live that love, and in so doing to change not only their lives but the very life of the world itself.
I’m talking about power. Real power. Power to change the world.
Bishop Curry brings together the Old and New Testament commands to love. He also establishes that the central command of Jesus is to love God and neighbor. This was extremely important for many listeners who have the wrong impression about the Christian faith.
Curry also underscored again how God’s love is transformative.
If you don’t believe me, well, there were some old slaves in America’s Antebellum South who explained the dynamic power of love and why it has the power to transform.
“They explained it this way. They sang a spiritual, even in the midst of their captivity. It’s one that says ‘There is a balm in Gilead…’ a healing balm, something that can make things right.
“‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.’
“And one of the stanzas actually explains why. They said: ‘If you cannot preach like Peter, and you cannot pray like Paul, you just tell the love of Jesus, how he died to save us all.”‘
Curry used the powerful example of slaves who demonstrated God’s transformative love and sung about it. We all know how effective examples and illustrations can be in getting a message across to listeners and we see it here.
“Oh, that’s the balm in Gilead! This way of love, it is the way of life. They got it. He died to save us all.
“He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He didn’t… he wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life, he sacrificed his life, for the good of others, for the good of the other, for the wellbeing of the world… for us.
That’s what love is. Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.
This was another important move in the sermon when Curry introduced the demonstration of God’s transforming love through Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross. For you atonement scholars, notice how Bishop Curry is lifting up the “moral influence theory of atonement. ”
“If you don’t believe me, just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way.”
Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way.
Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where this love is the way.
Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way – unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.
Above we find Curry combining the rhetorical power of repetition (using the word “imagine”) with the power of imagination. He allows listeners to reflect on the implication of the message in their contexts.
When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.
When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.
When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.
When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.
When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children.
“Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family.
When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.
Bishop Curry shifts to describing concretely what God’s transformative love looks like. He has moved from the abstract to the concrete, an important move all preachers must make in any sermon.
My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.
And let me tell you something, old Solomon was right in the Old Testament: that’s fire.
Here Curry has returned again to his opening scripture text by using the metaphor of fire to describe the power of God’s unquenchable love. We think visually so the use of fire as a metaphor for love is a powerful one.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – and with this I will sit down, we gotta get you all married – French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was arguably one of the great minds, great spirits of the 20th century.
Here Bishop Curry does two key things. One, he lets listeners know he is coming to the end of his message, which eases the anxiety of those in that unique setting who were unsure how long he might preach! It also probably caused listeners to focus even more on the sermon because we instinctively pay attention when we are told a presentation of any kind is about to wrap up.
Two, Curry used humor with his statement, “We gotta get you all married.” That struck folks as funny in that formal setting, endearing himself even more to his listeners.
Jesuit, Roman Catholic priest, scientist, a scholar, a mystic. In some of his writings, he said, from his scientific background as well as his theological one, in some of his writings he said – as others have – that the discovery, or invention, or harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history.
Bishop Curry expands on the metaphor of fire using another credible reference in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And below we see him building on the power of fire as a metaphor of love to clinch the climax of his message. Notice again his use of repetition, “Fire made it possible.”
Fire to a great extent made human civilization possible. Fire made it possible to cook food and to provide sanitary ways of eating which reduced the spread of disease in its time.
Fire made it possible to heat warm environments and thereby made human migration around the world a possibility, even into colder climates.
Fire made it possible – there was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no Industrial Revolution without fire.
The advances of fire and technology are greatly dependent on the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good.
Anybody get here in a car today? An automobile? Nod your heads if you did – I know there were some carriages. But those of us who came in cars, fire – the controlled, harnessed fire – made that possible.
I know that the Bible says, and I believe it, that Jesus walked on the water. But I have to tell you, I did not walk across the Atlantic Ocean to get here.
In the above two paragraphs Bishop Curry relates to his listeners again and uses humor once more to connect with listeners.
Controlled fire in that plane got me here. Fire makes it possible for us to text and tweet and email and Instagram and Facebook and socially be dysfunctional with each other.
Fire makes all of that possible, and de Chardin said fire was one of the greatest discoveries in all of human history.
And he then went on to say that if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love – it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.
Above is the climax of Bishop Curry’s message. When we discover the power of God’s love it will be like we have discovered the unquenchable power of fire.
Dr King was right: we must discover love – the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.
My brother, my sister, God love you, God bless you, and may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love.
Bishop Curry comes full circle and restates his opening quote from Dr. King, neatly tying up his message.
A sermon is meant to be heard, not read, so I encourage you to watch and listen to Bishop Curry’s sermon. In addition to his skillful use of scripture, repetition, metaphor, examples, literature and references, Bishop Curry is authentically passionate in his delivery and truly knew his sermon by heart. He did not rely on his notes and made wonderful eye contact. Also notice how he prepared this sermon for the ear, not the eye. Sentences are shorter and direct, which made the content easier to say and hear.
Lastly, remember the sermon lasted a little less than 14 minutes. He packed a punch in a short amount of time. His sermon had one developed and bolstered point. If he had gone on for 30 minutes the sermon would not have had the same impact. Less is usually more, a good lesson for us preachers!