The Four Pages: Grace in the World

Here I will be covering the last of Wilson's 'four pages', the page which focusses on God's action in our contemporary situation, with regard to the need identified way back when we were working on the unity of the sermon. In Wilson's discussion, it is 'grace in the world'.

My final post on the 'four pages' will be the sermon which I composed following this method, however imperfectly; so you will all have a chance to see for yourselves something of what it looks like in practice.
Returning to Wilson's discussion of grace, we see that preaching about God's action in the world is not easy:
Claims about God's activity are difficult to make, for we need to point to signs of God that are usually ambiguous in the world. God never leaves us without these signs; and Jesus promised, "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28.20). Still, preachers have good reason to avoid making claims about God. ... [R]ight and wrong are often easier to discern than evil, the nature of which is to look good. To make a claim about God's action is risky. We might be wrong: we might claim too much about the wrong things, or claim too little about the right things, or miss God entirely. Even when we are close to the truth, the right nuancing of claims is essential, without which we may still go astray. By contrast, passive claims about God are safe [claims such as the sort made by, e.g., Bette Middler in the song 'From a Distance'; to which Wilson refers on p. 162]: we risk little because they are general propositions and they require little evidence in experience - but they also do little to foster faith. [p. 199]
Nevertheless, concludes Wilson on the same page, 'God will be known. Our postmodern age is in need of knowing God in the first place, and of knowing about God in the second.'

One way in which God is made known as active in our world is through stories; these stories, Wilson reminds us, need not all be about 'religious people':
Such stories are good, but... if used exclusively, they keep God confined to the church. We want congregations to be able to identify God's activity anywhere in the world, and amongst all people, in the mundane as well as the spectacular. The whole world can be the source of our stories. Most important, the stories do not have to be explicitly religious as we receive them in order for us to tell them from a faith perspective. [p. 202]
Telling stories of God's action in the world - remembering to choose stories which answer the need identified for the sermon and which relate to the theme sentence (about which more later) - is the most effective way of communicating what Page Four is all about. Wilson also discusses the theological use of stories on the fourth page at length on pp. 207-8: stories in sermons are used to communicate God's forgiveness, to communicate God's act of overturning the world, and to communicate how God acts through people. Note that such stories do not have to be about religious people or Christians at all. Wilson's point is that anyone who acts on behalf of others out of love is living out what God has called us to do, whether he or she believes in God or goes to church or not.

How these stories are presented determines how effective the sermon's last page is. The stories on 'page four' should conclude those presented on 'page two'; that is, grace should be seen to respond to the trouble in the stories. This grace should correspond to the kind of trouble, vertical or horizontal, which was the focus of the second page. For example, Wilson notes that a man who is homeless (page two; horizontal trouble) should not receive forgiveness (page four; vertical grace); the corresponding grace is pointing to ways in which this homeless man is being or may be housed (pp. 202-3). This grace is held in tension with the trouble of the second page, also (p. 203). We ought not to preach false hope, but in any event, grace is to have the last word (which is why the second half of the sermon is focussed on grace).

Wilson also returns to the topic of mission. In my post on ensuring sermon unity, I had not yet thought of a mission. I subsequently included a reference to mission in my sermon on the fourth page; I will leave it for when I post the sermon to see how effective it was. On the fourth page, mission is not something we should feel is our burdensome duty to do, but should be, Wilson says, 'like suggesting what a child might buy for her mother for her birthday - it does not feel like a burden but a welcome opportunity to express love in a particular way. [pp. 206-7]' It is appropriate to discuss the mission which the sermon invites its hearers to perform on the second page, as well, especially if what the preacher has to say about it there may seem like 'trouble' (in Wilson's broad sense).

Finally, the last thing to deal with is the conclusion of the sermon. Wilson identifies a number of things which can be done in the conclusion to reinforce the unity of the sermon (pp. 210-2). Many of them can (and perhaps should) be done elsewhere, but they can be re-emphasized at the end. At last, Wilson writes: 'An effective sermon is not over when the preacher has finished speaking, or even when the worship service has ended; - it is completed in the reflections and lives of the people during the week. [p. 212]' So the extent to which my sermon (or any sermon, by whatever method it is composed) is effective is the extent to which those who heard it carry it (and, one hopes, the hope it has engendered in them) with them during the week and put its mission into practice, so far as they are able.

My sermon's theme sentence for Page Four was, Jesus chooses us to be his people. This is somewhat passive as an action, but I described it, I hope, in more active terms during the course of the page.

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