An inquiry doesn’t have to be a test. Rather, simply a matter of curiosity.
Here goes: What is the place of sermon[s] in your religious journey? Even more generally, in your life journey?
Can you remember even one sermon?
To myself, what first comes to mind are two sermons from William Sloane Coffin…heard them and was more than informed…I was influenced in my behavior and my ministry. The first was the Sunday after John Kennedy was assassinated. Coffin said the primary test of faith is when life crumbles and presidents lie dead. We need to ask ourselves in that instance, “Can Faith not be lost; rather, can it be an occasion for strengthening.”
That has led to my mantra, perhaps overstated in blogs, “Faith is not for protection; faith is for endurance.”
The second sermon was also after the reality of death. His son, Alexander, 22 years old I believe, got drunk and drove off a Boston Harbor. Coffin’s words indicated much…when an aunt told him it was God’s will that his son, Alexander, had drowned, Coffin exploded, NEVER accepting that as part of God’s biography. Even more he quoted Hemingway that the world breaks everyone and some get strong in the broken places. But what rivets me in every moment is Coffin’s declaration, “When Alex drowned God’s heart was the first to break.”
So, to the beginning: What is the place of the sermon?
Probably the case sermons have little seminal value when it comes to the faith. Oh, maybe the moment on a particular day…but to last longer…and deeper?
I have learned a few practical things, then experienced when I haven’t been preaching. I find a push-to-total turn-off when the preacher, well fixed in the pulpit reads the sermon manuscript, only to look up before the Amen. Really? If I cannot see your eyes and your eyes see me, then it’s blanksville. A parishioner once advised me that, “Mark, quit reading your sermons; wing it, you’re better that way.” I follow that advice, have since 1997 when I became Conference Minister, preaching in a different church each Sunday. I refused for the sermon to be a conference newsletter, petitioning for more funds to support my salary. Rather, I did what I could to ask and then give some speculation to this: What is needed and celebrated in your church’s ministry here…in this place and community?”
It also may be totally out of sync with other preachers, but I do not like the pulpit. Generally it’s elevated and distant. I want to be in the sanctuary, with the people. Okay, maybe silly, but hey, this is a personal blog.
A next question…what triggered all this…especially since lay blog readers couldn’t probably care less. The catalyst came this morning from Tom Ehrich…so I share the perception…
“Later, when it came time to be a preacher myself, I adopted a different lead-in prayer: ‘O Lord, open our eyes that we might see, open our ears that we might hear, open our hearts that we might love and our hands that we might serve. And take our souls and set them on fire with love for you.’
Emphasis on the word OUR. It mattered what I said, but it mattered even more what people heard. And it mattered most of all what we did in response to God’s word. Did anything change because we had spoken and listened? The measure of all ministry is whether lives are transformed.
Time will tell. But one thing is clear: what the preacher says, no matter how much he or she prays and prepares, matters less than what the people hear. And what they hear matters less than what they do. Jesus was about doing, not orating.”
So, for this Sunday, if you are in church worship…and you’re preaching…what’s that about…in terms of form and content? And if you are listening to the preacher, do you not text your grocery list during the sermon?