Sunday, December 29, 2013


During the heady days of the 1960s following Vatican II, Presbyterian clergy were urged by higher authorities to initiate conversations with Roman Catholic priests. When we did so locally, our newly discovered colleagues were more than willing to discuss anything with us, but especially worship.

The concern we Protestants had was to understand the liturgical elegance of the Romans. What did all that mean? How do you do it? In the years that followed we learned a great deal from our colleagues, locally and world-wide.

On the priests’ minds, however, was a question for us about a different aspect of worship: “How do you manage preaching week after week?” Actually, the issue was larger than that. For it also raised the issue of defining preaching for them, and for us. What is it that we do when we go to the pulpit and speak forth?

I like to think that fifty-plus years out of seminary I’ve learned how to preach, but every sermon is a challenge and an opportunity to do it better. It is during my retirement, however, that I’ve discovered new insights on a way of describing preaching, if not exactly defining it. The “view from the pew” has been very informative.

When I was a preaching pastor, I rarely had the opportunity to hear other preachers. Looking back on that lack of experience, I’d now recommend strongly that every pastor regularly (say, four times a year at least) be sent off to other churches to worship. Then they’d listen to sermons in a very different way—as pew-sitters rather than as preachers.

So far, I’ve found that sermons I hear fall roughly into four “categories.” These are not rigid groupings, but sorts of Sunday preachments that I’ve heard, not just from Presbyterians, but from other Protestants, Roman Catholics and Orthodox. Often a sermon would reflect more than one type, yet usually one would dominate.

The Lecture

One preacher I know was especially good at this. He came out of a ministry focused on social issues, and his sermons were loaded with illustrations of the implications of the Gospel in the world around us.

Mind you, these were informative lectures. He could have included an extra insert in the morning bulletin offering footnotes and citations of resources—instead he spoke them, which lengthened the lectures.

From my position in the pew, however, I did not find his lectures relevant in any personal way. Perhaps some were caught up and inspired by his words. My reaction as I left was that it was a good lecture, but it was all about something “out there,” distant and beyond my reach.

The Lesson

Sometimes I’ve been treated to a Bible-study lesson in place of a sermon. The congregation was instructed to grab a Bible from the pew rack, or look at the screen to have the text at hand. Then we went through it verse by verse with homiletical bits thrown out along the way.

On a couple of occasions, a separate sheet has been provided with an outline of the text, and spaces in which to scrawl your notes.

While there were times when this was very informative, and the interpretation of the preacher/teacher was fascinating, this also was a distancing experience. The connection between the speaker and the pew-sitters was not made; on the contrary, it was blocked by the intrusion of printed materials.

The Essay

There are those preachers who offer a theological essay. They may be sharply reasoned, clearly stated, and theologically profound. The diligence of the speaker’s study and depth of wisdom is often impressive. It can be the kind of speech you’d like to have in print to take home and ponder at length.

And therein lies the problem. The distance from the listener is because of the complexity of the thought processes. The theological essay is often too much for most people to absorb in one sitting. To many, it will come off as abstract and remote, maybe making the speaker seem arrogant and aloof.

The Sermon

So if those are the problems, what might the solution be? Someone* once said, “Sermons are intimate conversations with people you love.”

What I welcome as a worshipper is the sense that the preacher is speaking to me, and to everyone else in the room. This means that the preacher really cares about us, has a pastoral attitude, and wants to share something very personal, something of life-and-death importance. What is more, the person in the pulpit speaks from personal experience and is human like the rest of us.

The bridges between preacher and people are crossed and the barriers are broken down in a good sermon. The Gospel is shared, passed along by word of mouth, to be carried out the door and lived.

In the interest of candor, I will admit that I’ve delivered my share of what I’d hoped would pass as sermons, but included some of the stuff of Lectures, Lessons and Essays. When I let the Gospel speak to me, when I heard the Word in my heart, and then boldly let it speak through me to others, then a real sermon was given.

What kind of sermons do you hear where you are? What kind do you preach?

*This was attributed to Frederick Buechner, although he did not own it when I interviewed him for the Reformed Liturgy & Music journal in 1994. If you’d like to have a copy of the interview, drop me an email at

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Is Personal

Canticle of Simeon
Nunc Dimittis; Luke 2:29-32

Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace:
your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel

If there is one person with whom we can identify, especially we older folks, it is the old man Simeon. He just knew in his heart of hearts that he would not leave this life without coming face to face with the Messiah of God.

Sure enough, when Mary and Joseph brought their child Jesus to the temple to fulfill the requirements of dedication, Simeon met them. He recognized the infant as the One he was waiting for. The encounter had an enormous impact on Simeon’s life—in fact, it gave meaning to Simeon’s many years of worshipping God.

The tradition of the church calls us to sing Simeon’s song each night as our day comes to an end. When we give ourselves up to sleep, we surrender our lives into God’s keeping, confident in the promise of new life when morning comes. Like Simeon, we are prompted by the Spirit to recognize the presence of God’s Messiah, remembering how we, too, have prayed and longed for what our Christ will bring us.

Simeon’s Song is a canticle for Christmas, a personal message to each one of us. Christmas is the reminder that God has come to us in Jesus Christ, to each one personally, even in the darkest of times, revealing the brightness of God’s glory.

Sometimes the personal impact of Christmas gets blurred by the busyness of the season. Put Simeon's Song on your list to sing this year. Take Christmas very personally. As Simeon took the child Jesus in his arms, each one of us can embrace God’s gift of grace with joy, and then, wherever God will lead us, we will go in peace.