Sunday, August 11, 2013

Shelf Life of Sermons

After the service a couple of Sundays ago, at which I was the featured guest preacher and presider, a kind gentleman came up to me and said to me something like, “That was a good one. You ought to give it again.”

Coincidentally, a few minutes later someone else tugged at my sleeve with a smiling suggestion that the sermon should be printed up and distributed.

In spite of the fact that flattery will get anyone farther than criticism, I balked at both notions because I’ve learned better.

There was a time, back in my young and foolish days, that I did actually try to pass off a used sermon on a different congregation. After all, they hadn’t heard it before, so for all they knew in their pious innocence, it was the latest and greatest.

The problem was, I’d heard it before, and spoken it before. Even though I preach from a written text in semi-outline form that allows leeway for adlibbing, it had all the freshness to me of yesterday’s mashed potatoes served with last week’s steamed broccoli.

Old sermons, even if they are only as old as yesterday, have a very short shelf life. They go stale quickly, losing zest like a Coke with the cap off. That loss of flavor and sharpness for the preacher inevitably leads to an insipid sermon for the people who hear it.

The rule that I learned, a few times the hard way, is, Don’t bother trying to resurrect an old sermon.

The corollary is, Don’t bother to print them up either, especially if you’ve taped it and want to print a transcript.

Printed sermons are read out-of-context—away from the sacred space, the gathered community of faith, and the sounds, sights and smells of Christian worship. Rather they are likely to be scanned in a setting with none of the supporting atmosphere, all of which makes the sermon less sermonic and more distant.

Besides that, if one is to print a delivered sermon, it needs a complete rewriting. A sermon to be read from ink on paper is very different from the conversationally spoken one. The labor invested in editing and re-writing is almost as much as crafting a fresh homily.

Not that sermons printed up are without value. They can be. I like to read sermons—by other people. It’s educational to see how someone else is touched by a passage, how the Spirit works in that person’s mind, soul and spirit, and how the Word speaks in that particular time and place.

Perhaps my sermons could be educational, even challenging to another person. In which case, some may be of sufficient value to reprint. Printed sermons, however, are clearly out-of-date, not current, and not local. All of that must be considered whenever you read sermons in print.

All of this brings me back to the main point: preaching happens in the here and now. Sermons are not to be written for publishing in books or preserved for the ages—they belong to a particular time of worship and the folks then gathered. There is a mighty arrogance to assume that a sermon prepared for this congregation on a particular date will “work” for anyone and everyone, wherever and whenever. If a sermon is aimed in that direction, it’ll fall flat in front of the pulpit.

In this sense, sermons are disposable items. They are good for one use and then should be discarded. To use a sermon more than once is to borrow trouble.

Given the rule (Don’t resurrect an old sermon) and its corollary (Don’t print a transcript of a sermon without editing), there is another rule: Don’t go back to read your old sermons on the same text you’re working on for next Sunday.

Should you go dig out parts of old sermons for the current one, you’ll likely start thinking like you did last time, and not be as open to the Spirit as you should be. What the “Good Word” was a year or three ago probably doesn’t sound quite right today.

Recycling preaching is a short-cut leading to a dead end street.

The preacher’s task is to listen before speaking, to “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” and then, only then, speak promptly and plainly.