Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rip 'n' Read

The title of this post comes from the olden days of news broadcasting when the announcer would rip a page off the teletype and read it on air. There was no preparation in advance, so, as you might imagine, it sounded like the reader was not familiar with the story, and mispronunciations and other goofs were common. Rip-’n’-readers were not held in high esteem by their peers.

I was reminded of this term recently while having lunch with a friend. He was reporting on worship in a neighboring church where he had attended. According to him, the preacher stood up and announced that the morning’s homiletical offering was taken from the bountiful resources of the internet. It had been ripped bodily from one of the many sites offering packaged help for desperate preachers.

Unfortunately this kind of shenanigan was not news to me. More than once I’ve been witness to sermons lifted from some on-line pulpiteer or torn from the pages of a volume of preachments by some notable cleric.

In those cases also, the offender brazenly confessed and proceeded to commit the crime. Yet the candor of such confession does not absolve, much less forgive, the error of the so-called preacher’s ways.

Knowing about only a few situations where this effrontery was perpetrated upon an assembly of the faithful is small comfort. One begins to wonder and worry about others who may not be so shameless as to let the truth be known. Perhaps it’s best not to know how often this happens—it could be very depressing.

I’ve heard sermons where a paragraph sounds out of character or in a different voice from that of the proclaimer. I suspect a section has been filched without benefit of quotes or citation.

Well, the temptation is there, of course, when writing a sermon to see what someone else has come up with on that text. It’s a temptation to be sternly resisted. The preaching of the word comes from roots of prayer and study through the heart and soul of the preacher. There is absolutely no substitute for that.

Every sermon is one of a kind, a one-time-only event. Every sermon preached is out-of-date immediately.

If one uses the lectionary, the opportunity to preach on the same text comes up periodically, and the temptation is there to pilfer from oneself. I resist looking at old sermons, avoiding the temptation even to quote myself. I once, and only once, preached the same sermon twice—the second time around it was so stale that I learned my lesson.

At the same time, I think it’s healthy for aspiring preachers of whatever age to read and listen to other people’s sermons. There are some preachers in print who are worthy of reading and re-reading. I have my favorites to whom I return from time to time who are my prompters and examples.

(In case you’re interested in a couple of my choices, Frederick Buechner’s sermons are solid both in terms of content and style. His book, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, should be required reading for sermonizers and listeners as well. Another is Paul Scherer, one of the great preachers of the twentieth century. The Word God Sent presents a combination of his sermons and guidance. Both Buechner and Scherer are worth frequent consults just to see how conversationally they write in plain English, yet manage to be poetic at the same time.)

Yet this reading of other preachers’ efforts is not for the purpose of finding quotes much less passages to incorporate in a sermon. What I was taught long, long ago holds today: “Avoid quoting anyone else, unless you absolutely cannot by any stretch of the imagination express the thought in your own words, and it is absolutely necessary to have that quote verbatim in your sermon.” Which is to say, don’t quote—period.

Having done the exegetical homework, practiced prayer and pondered God’s present activity and hopeful promises, the preacher can get the sermon underway. Background reading of masters in the field can help a preacher develop a personal style, and learn how to write and speak as ourselves. Stealing quotes or passages from someone else is not just cheating the congregation, it is discounting one’s own faith, one’s God-given ability, and the calling to preach the Gospel.

If you’re a preacher, whose work do you read and learn from? Do you use quotes in your sermons?

1 comment:

  1. Don, this is an excellent contribution. I agree with you. And I can’t imagine the embarrassment when one is confronted with a violation, such as I generated as I left a worship service and thanked the preacher for the George Buttrick sermon.

    But I was also responsible for a presbytery Commissioned Lay Pastor training program. Some of the aspiring lay pastors were facing some difficulty. I suggested that when you have “preached yourself out,” it would be appropriate for you to tell the congregation that they deserve a really good sermon on occasion, and that this Sunday you would share a sermon by, George Buttrick, for example. But it would be credited and out in the open, though with the implication that the CLP is faithfully working on his own sermons, and not snitching, either this Sunday or any Sunday.

    Arlo Duba


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