Sunday, January 16, 2011

Intimate Conversation

Not long ago I heard a sermon that reminded me of myself many years ago. It was really an essay disguised as a sermon.

When I started out, that’s pretty much what my sermons sounded like. I always dutifully did my homework, and it showed proudly in the workmanship of my sermon. Congregants could recognize diligence in every word. I remember one woman telling me that she could tell I was a scholar by my preaching.

Maybe that’s what set me to thinking about sermons in a different direction. Essays, no matter how scholarly, are not necessarily good sermons.

So a few weeks ago I was listening to “my kind of sermon,” a really excellent essay, by the way, covering all sorts of things relevant to the scriptural message. In the fifteen minutes or so the preacher held forth, there must have been a dozen or so citations, quotes or references to someone else by name who had something to chip in on the theme. It was an essay with footnotes—but the footnotes were not at the foot, they were inserted regularly throughout.

I don’t remember exactly when it was I quit using quotes or referencing someone else in sermons, but it was a good idea when ever it was.

Footnotes in a sermon are not only intrusive, but they also create a distraction in another way. When I say, “As John Jones, the great theologian said…” and then proceed to speaking John Jones’s words, we have a third party to the homiletical dialogue, making it a trialogue.

The problem is further exacerbated if John Jones doesn’t say precisely what I want him to say to fit in with what I’m saying. It’s easy to leave a wake of confusion by bringing outsiders into the discussion.

If I should read or hear something that strikes me as insightful regarding the biblical text or a particular issue, I do best to translate it into my own language. If I take the thought or concept and roll it around in my own thoughts for a few days, invariably it becomes my own and sounds authentically me.

Mulling over Scripture and issues and commentaries is one of those activities preparatory to preaching that looks to others, my wife included, like I’m just sitting there and not working. But mulling really is hard work, as is pondering and meditating.

Only on rare occasions will a quote be so on point, so powerful, so pertinent that it cannot be abandoned but demands to be used verbatim, with reference.

The rule, as far as I’m concerned, is that the Scripture must speak to the heart and soul of the preacher before he or she will find anything to say from the pulpit. The message has to be owned and internalized, not borrowed from someone else. When it has taken up residence in the preacher, then the conversation can begin with the congregation.

Sermons are dialogues, in spite of the fact that only one person is speaking. Any preacher can tell you that just by looking at the people in the pew, he or she can tell if folks are listening and hearing, or not. Facial expression, body language, attitudes all speak volumes in response to the word proclaimed.

Someone once said that sermons are “intimate conversations with people you love.” Not all conversations with people you love are sermons, obviously, but sermons are intimate conversations between preachers and people bound together in the love of Christ.

It is the intimacy of the conversation that allows the preacher to speak from the heart, from the soul’s depth, to touch the listener deeply as well. This transaction takes place in the confidence that the Spirit is at work in the dialogue, making connections between God’s Word, the speaker’s words, and the listener’s life. The sermon is not superficial fluff. It is not even a diligently crafted essay. It is ultimately important, life-and-death material.

Preaching, then, is a pastoral activity. It is shepherding born of caring. For the preacher has discovered God’s grace, and must tell those she or he loves about that biblical treasure. It must always be a most intimate conversation.

Do your sermons have embedded footnotes? When you listen to a sermon, is the other half of the dialogue taking place in your thoughts?

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