Preaching: What’s the point?

empty-pulpitOften on a Sunday afternoon, after I’ve changed out of my church clothes into jeans and a sweatshirt, after I’ve had a wee nap in the comfy chair, after I’ve unwound from All Things Sunday Morning, a creeping doubt comes into my head: what difference does a sermon make?  I’m not fishing for compliments here.  I’m pretty realistic about my sermons and I, like everyone else, I am an above average preacher.

About ten years ago I let go of worrying that every sermon I preached had to be Wonderful and Inspiring.  I’d learned that a lot happens between my lips and the congregation’s communal ears, that people hear things I never said and don’t hear things I thought I said quite plainly.  Silly old Holy Spirit, interceding with sighs too deep for our words.

I’ve preached sermons that teach (I hope); sermons that lead (I hope).  I’ve preached and heard sermons that are challenging and inspirational and sermons that are sheer poetry. I have also preached my fair share of dogs but always try, in the advice of my preaching professor, to walk those dogs proudly.   A lot of us preachers spend a lot of time at our craft, and a good quarter of our time is spent planning worship, writing liturgy, coordinating music with the musicians, and writing the weekly sermon.  Some weeks it feels positively prodigal to spend so much time on something that will only play out in a hour.  But like a drama or a symphony, the preparation is as much as the performance.

Lately, though, I’ve wondered if it makes a difference, if good, faithful people don’t hear a decent sermon and then go home and go about life as usual.  When I do a sermon series, how does that help when less than half the folks are there to hear the whole series?  And really, if every sermon is exhorting people to go out and be faithful in some way, might that not lead to some spiritual schizophrenia?  Fifty-two ways you can be faithful in today’s world?  Maybe three ways would be enough, and we could dispense with the sermon altogether for the other forty-eight Sundays.

The world is a mess.  A big fat mess.  People are dying from cancer.  Children are drowning as they flee with their parents in search of a safer home.  Religious extremists of all faiths give God and God’s followers a really bad name.  We imprison people for the crime of being poor.  Black lives matter and people don’t get it. How on earth could one 10-20 minute sermon make a dent in the mess?

It can’t.  Fifty-two sermons can’t make a dent.  Ten thousand sermons can’t.

But fifty-two people can make a dent.  Ten thousand people can make a dent.  Maybe that’s the part I forgot.

As the congregation settles in on Sunday morning, I think about all the hidden pain people bring in with them – irreconcilable differences, living paycheck to paycheck, enduring treatment, shredding away from loneliness or addiction or ostracism.  Worry about kids.  Worry about parents.  Worry about friends.  Secrets and lies and shame.  But I also think about the strength they bring in – perseverance, presence, advocacy, grace, hospitality, hope.

So maybe if for one hour a week, these wounded wonders come in and are soothed by music or a prayer or even a sermon, maybe it was worth it.  Maybe if something I or another says in a sermon helps them to hang on for one more week, or gives them that kick in the proverbial pants, maybe if that tricky Holy Spirit intercedes and whispers something perfect that they then attribute to the preacher, maybe then there is a point to preaching.

Or three points and a poem.  But hopefully not that.

 

A Century-Worthy Sermon?

future wesminsterThis week, our congregation is celebrating the 100th birthday of the dedication of our sanctuary.  It should be a festive day with a few fun extras planned, but since it’s the anniversary of a building, and not of the congregation itself, we are limiting the festivities to just Sunday. A task force has been at work planning this, and we had the opportunity to watch some stonemasons dig around behind the building cornerstone to unearth the time capsule (actually, a lead box) that the congregation had set in one hundred years ago.  We weren’t sure what we would find.

In it were papers, photographs, and a Bible – a little damp and moldy but all still very much readable.  They included the roll of the church,various rolls of Sunday School departments, a list of those who were on the planning committee, a list of the founding members of the church, the history of the Women’s Missionary Society, the Oregonian from the day they placed the time capsule, and photographs of the previous locations of the church.  What was not in their time capsule was interesting:  no program from the service of dedication of the sanctuary or laying of the cornerstone (we have those elsewhere) and no remarks by any pastor.

So our task force has been thinking about what we will put in the new time capsule that will be set in behind the cornerstone, hopefully to be opened in the year 2114.  A membership directory, which is about as close as we can get to the official church roll.  The bulletin from the 100th anniversary worship service.  A book about our needlepoint pew cushions.  A copy of tomorrow’s Oregonian.  And a copy of my sermon.

I’ve wondered all week what the people of Westminster in 2114 (if there is a Westminster in one hundred years) will think of my sermon.  Will it be one for the ages?

Probably not.  I can count on one hand the sermons I’ve read that are for the ages, at least for me: John of Chrysostrom’s Easter sermon.  Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Fosdick’s “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”  C. S. Lewis: “The Weight of Glory.”  James Forbes “The Battle of Bethlehem.”  Frederick Buechner’s “The End Is Life.”  Yes, it distresses me that there is not one sermon by a clergywoman there and I promise to work on that.

For the most part, I think sermons, or at least my sermons, are for the moment. They might have impact in the hour that they are delivered, or maybe for the day  or even the week, but after that, their “use by” date passes and it’s best to let them go like old mayonnaise.  I’m fine with that – truly – because God is always doing a new thing, so why should last year’s sermon matter in the context of a new day?

But I think too about language and images and metaphors I use today, and how they will be received in one hundred years.  I quote two people: John O’Donohue and Winston Churchill.  I refer to two anthems the choir will sing.  I make a joke about bikram yoga.  Will anyone still be doing bikram yoga in 2114?  Will everyone be doing it?  Will they think the sermon is awfully long or inadequately short?

It’s one thing to write a sermon and picture various people you know responding to it; it’s another thing altogether to imagine people who aren’t born yet, who live in an unknown future, responding to it.

In the end, I suppose the audience that most matters is God, whether yesterday, today, or tomorrow.  I wish that caused more fear and trembling in me than it does.  Fortunately, God has better preachers – many of whom never use words – to get the message across.  That will be true a hundred years from now, so Amen and Amen.photo-2

Not an epic fail, but maybe a holy one

this pictures captures what the story was about

this pictures captures what the story was about

Yesterday in my sermon I committed the cardinal sin of pastor-parents: I told a story about my child without getting her permission.  Rookie mistake for this pastor of 20 years, but there you are.  It just fit so well into the sermon, and we had talked about it but in my mind we had not settled the matter.  But as it says in Galatians 6:7 (part of the passage I preached on) “you reap what you sow.”

So I’m in the first third of the sermon; my husband is sitting on the chancel near me and our daughter is sitting by herself in the front pew, as she usually does.  She hears me telling the story and she begins to cry, prostrating herself on the lovely needle-pointed pew cushion, weeping for not all but many to see and hear.  Crap.  Just the word the preacher wants to hear in her head while she is delivering the beautiful word of God.

I can handle a lot in worship.  I can handle crying babies, coughing parishioners, people who live on the streets wandering up and looking at the offering plates, fainters, barfers, organ ciphers, mangled liturgy, and laryngitis, but what absolutely does me in is when I have to be pastor and mom at the same time.  It doesn’t happen very often but when it does I become completely unglued – maybe because I suspect I’m not particularly good at either one, or maybe because it feels like both demand so much of my being.

So in the first third of my sermon, while my daughter is crying, I break the fourth wall of sorts, interrupt myself, and ask my husband to sit with her, which he does.  I then resume preaching, talking about accountability when we do something wrong, and being in community in our suffering, and reconciling with brother or sister before coming to the communion table.  And did I mention we celebrated communion yesterday?

At the end of the sermon, I issued this invitation to the congregation:

“I don’t know if gathered here this morning are people who are at odds with each other; sheer numbers would suggest that there are. I’m not going to ask  that we now pause for a minute for reconciliation – that would be putting all of us on the spot. But perhaps in the silence after the sermon, we might think of those we are at odds with. We might think about them, and about bearing their burden, about carrying our own load, about forgiveness and grace. We might imagine, as we all say the Lord’s Prayer during communion, sitting next to that person, and saying the prayer with them.”

It was so nice of the Holy Spirit to provide me with an opportunity to practice what I preach, and during the silence after the sermon I thought about how I could check in with my daughter before going to the table.  My husband/co-pastor came back up and said she was fine, mostly because one of her friends sweetly came up and sat with her and got her out of her funk.  During communion, my daughter passed by all the other celebrants to come receive the bread from me, and gave me a hug, and I told her I was sorry and I love her so much.

I thought it was a mediocre sermon that was made worse for the wear by my embarrassing my daughter.  As it turns out, what the congregation heard and saw were opportunities for grace, and realness, and empathy, and kindness, and grace again.

But if I ever tell a story about her again, I will get her permission in writing.

The Easter Sermon

azaleaEaster Sunday is thirteen days away, no small thing for those of us in the profession of ministry.  It’s time to start thinking about the Easter sermon, and it helps that one of my colleagues is preaching this week for Palm Sunday – my brain has a little more space to jump ahead to resurrection, skipping the wine and the bread and the cross bit.

Oh, Easter; Christmas too, but we’ll just face Easter for now.  It’s hard to describe the odd weight of both expectation and indifference about the Easter Sunday service, at least from this pastor’s perspective.  I am always greeted first with a sense of inadequacy – how can I possibly convey anything close to the awe, wonder, amazement, fear, joy, miraculousness of that event?

After inadequacy greets me, I meet doubt; not doubt about the story, which I choose to believe as true (maybe not factual, but true.)  It’s trying to figure out the counter-arguments those in the congregation will be forming in their minds as they hear the gospel story and the sermon that follows.  Can I anticipate their questions and address them in the sermon?

After inadequacy and doubt, indifference saunters in.  I really don’t think that many people come to Easter services for the sermon.  I just don’t.  They come because it’s Easter and their mom is making them go to church.  They come because the music really is spectacular.  They come for lilies, although all of our indoor lilies are fake because of allergies – they will have to make do with azaleas.  They come to sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of the service.  But I’m pretty sure that less than 1% come for the sermon, and I’m okay with that.  Sort of.

Sort of, because in one way it takes the pressure off.  If very few really care what I talk about for ten to fifteen minutes, perhaps I don’t have to write The Best Easter Sermon Ever of All Time this year.  But sort of because then I get challenged.  Then I start thinking, but if I only write The Perfect Easter Sermon That Captures the Hearts and Minds of Believers and Doubter Alike, then maybe they will realize that the sermon is one of the many reasons to come to worship.

Oy vey.

I do take comfort in the details of the Easter story itself.  In Luke’s version, the women went to the tomb, saw two angelic figures but no Jesus, then ran to tell those male disciples that indeed he had risen.  The disciples dismissed their story as nothing more than an idle tale.  Good heavens, if the most incredible news for the followers of Jesus was heard as an idle tale, then why on earth should I worry about my Easter sermon?

Here’s the thing: a lot of us pastor types really do take worship seriously.  We love planning  worship, we love leading worship.  We love the poetry of worship, and the prose, and music, and the silence, and the sacraments, and the kids dropping their hymnals and the old people with their walkers and buzzing hearing aids.  We love to be translators between for the human and the holy.  We love to look out at the congregation and see the beloved community gathered, and realize on any given Sunday that there are people we’ve never seen before who have come to be a part of the beloved community, at least for an hour that particular Sunday.  We love God, and we want to share the love.

And for us pastors who love worship, Easter is weird and joyous at the same time.  It is our most high, holy day.  It commemorates the event that makes Christianity Christianity.  It also commemorates the event that people most question, or get turned off by, or laugh at.  And the service(s) is full, which is a nerve-wracking joy, but it ups the ante.  Why are these people I’ve never seen before here?  What are their expectations?  And should I even worry about meeting their expectations?

Here’s my goal for the next thirteen days: to let go of the expectations.  To picture the beloved community that will gather on March 31, to see familiar, dear faces and faces I’ve never seen before and may never see again.  To wrestle in my mind and heart about this idle tale upon which a religion has been constructed, this idle tale that sprinkles dollops of hope upon some in the world still.  To write well, clearly, leaning more toward the poetry than prose.  To not feel responsible for anyone’s faith but my own.  To allow joy and mystery, and to make room for doubters and believers.  And to have fun with it.

That’s my goal for the next thirteen days; that, and maybe a dollop or two of inspiration.