Back in the days before that interwebby thingy, busy pastors, could, for a modest fee, subscribe to a “sermon service”. These enterprising companies would send, probably weeks in advance, a sermon for every Sunday of the year to pastors who were just too stressed to work on their own sermons. I’ve got good (not very much) money that says that these sermons by mail had special emphasis placed on the Hallmark Holidays.
I’m a strange person, and I keep things that no one else should, so for nearly 30 years now, I have kept a sales brochure from one of those sermon selling services. It is prominently taped to the glass in my office door. It is bright yellow, emblazoned with fire engine red letters, all very large, and it boldly proclaims, “Prepare Exciting Sermons in Half the Time!” Cool! Who wouldn’t want that? I have kept this brochure because it addresses every bit of fear and shame and guilt that I have ever experienced when it comes to the craft of preaching. It is perfect advertising. It acknowledges that I don’t really have much time between Sundays to be putting effort into sermon preparation. Like most of us, I am often struggling in that murky space between responding to the urgent and focusing on the essential.
The advertisement comforts me and assuages the guilt that I feel about sermon preparation. And, thanks be to God, it gives me an option. In addition to sending me an entire sermon, sugar sweet and ready to eat, it also offers to provide a sticks and twigs outline that I can “customize to meet the spiritual needs of my congregation!” (I’m sorry about the breakfast cereals metaphor, but I’m writing this pretty early in the morning),
But the best part is that I can do all of this in half the time! But wait, there’s more! These sermons that I am going to be “preparing” in half the time are going to be exciting! How good is that? Who doesn’t want to preach an exciting sermon? I’d be happy with the “not boring”, “non drowsy formula”, “not sleep inducing” sermon. Years ago, I saw a cartoon with a smiling pastor preaching to an extremely alert congregation, the members of which were all holding open Bibles, note pads and recording devices. The caption simply read, “Pastor Bob has that dream again.”
With the advent of the internet, I suspect that sermon services have become quite irrelevant. Anyone, even old, unconnected me, can find thousands of sermons on line that are, as far as I can tell, free for the taking. Our own church website has hundreds of mine on it, also free for the taking. With that vast resource available to us, there are probably even some exciting sermons to be had, out there, somewhere.
And yet, an essential part of our calling as pastors is to conscientiously engage ourselves in the task of preaching to our congregations. But even more important than preaching to our congregations is the business of tending to our own spiritual well being and maturation. We must immerse ourselves in the Scriptures. We must struggle with them, and fight with them even if it means that we emerge from our engagements bruised and bloodied. I am fundamentally nothing more than a shallow well that is constantly in danger of drying up. Run a little breeze over me, and I’m in a hurting place. I need to drink deeply from the Scriptures, and I need to drink often. Dry wells have very little to offer in terms of preaching and in terms of pastoral care. All of ministry is mysteriously connected and all of it is dependent on our experience of God’s word. We cannot be effective pastors unless the living word is living within us and is bleeding out of us. This is a journey with Jesus that flows out of us when we step into the pulpit. This is where the proclamation of the Gospel finds its source.
We pastors know that it is quite likely that many of the members of our congregations encounter the Scriptures only on Sunday mornings when they come to church. This makes our constant personal struggle with the Scriptures all that much more essential. Like us, the people in our pews are busy with distractions that are legion. I’ll not list them here, but none of them were present in the Amish community that my wife and I recently visited. There will, however, always be opportunity for distraction. I am currently using a distraction that will be uploaded onto another distraction, and then it will be sent to other distractions. Nobody would be reading this if not for the helpful participation of some pretty amazing distractions. Preaching then, is how we pastors enter into the world of many distractions. It is how we connect to the saints who come faithfully week after week seeking some hope with which to fill up their dry and shallow spiritual wells, and to connect them once again to their Lord and Savior. Preaching is an intimate, loving and sometimes troublesome connection with our congregations that cannot be duplicated in any other medium.
I have found it helpful to preach the Lectionary because it drags me to places in the Scriptures that I would not ordinarily visit. I have found that I really need this kind of motivation. So much of God’s word is easily avoided when I have much of a choice. Preaching the Lectionary, in addition to being a forced system of self discipline, also serves to drive me to my commentaries. I need to know what others, brighter than me, have been thinking about a particular passage. Exegesis, at whatever level we practice it, is an important step. Often, one of the writers will make a point that sends me off on my own process of prayerful rumination. It is not my place to teach a preaching class here. There are as many different methods of sermon preparation as there are preachers, all of which display the vastness of the image of God within us. But I have discovered that prayerful rumination (I think the fancy term is “Lectio Divina”) works best for me, and that it often leads to a moment of insight. The insight, however, is almost never mine. I am not the source. This is where I believe that the Holy Spirit enters into the sermon preparation process. We preachers are part of something that is far bigger than we are, and certainly far more majestic. Insight into the Scriptures is nothing that we can ever take credit for. We are sort of along for the ride. We listen and the Holy Spirit speaks. I’m pretty sure that this gives some dignity to the wearisome practice of taking down notes from the pages of a commentary.
Finally, a word about the great mystery involved in all of this. I’m one of those strange people who preaches from a full manuscript. (Gasp! Where is the Holy Spirit in that?) Oh sure, I try to memorize it, and I practice it out loud a bunch of times so it doesn’t always look like I’m reading it, but I’m a full manuscript kind of guy. The manuscript is a security blanket that keeps me on track, helps to deter me from blurting nonsense, and it prevents me from rambling on and on. Otherwise, I can usually talk until I think of something to say. Two of my favorite preachers, however, my Episcopalian neighbor, and our own beloved Executive Minister, bring not note one into the pulpit with them. This is God’s work.
Every preacher however, has experienced a most profound and blessed mystery that I think is what makes sermon preparation and preaching a true work of the Holy Spirit. And it does not matter whether we are hiding behind a manuscript, or if we are preaching like Peter at Pentecost. The service is over. Someone in the congregation, as she or he goes out the door says, “When you said such and such in your sermon this morning, my heart was really touched. It was just what I needed to hear. It gave me the strength to face this week with new courage.” When this happens to me, I usually manage to blurt out some confused words of thanks and appreciation, all the while knowing with a certainty, that those words never once crossed my lips during the sermon. I did not in any circumstance utter the words that apparently seemed so helpful.
Some of you have experienced this for your whole preaching career, and you understand the dynamic well. It should be the goal of every sermon that we preach, that at some point during the time of our speaking, that everyone will have stopped listening to our words. I am fully aware, though, that some people are so amazingly stubborn that they can tolerate listening to an entire sermon. This cannot be helped. We cannot force them to stop listening. Only the Holy Spirit can convince them to give it up. But herein lies the mystery. Something that we say triggers a thought in someone’s mind. That thought moves into their heart, where it blossoms and grows. From that point on, they’ve stopped listening to us, and they’ve become engaged with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is doing the preaching and the teaching intimately and personally and individually, deep into the listener’s heart. Our words have gloriously become totally irrelevant. God’s word has prevailed in spite of us. And that’s why good preaching is so important.