When sermons take on lives of their own

When sermons take on lives of their own

“Your sermon from two weeks ago really hit home for me.” Hers was the kind of response that every preacher wants to hear. Being the attentive and alert preacher that I am, I responded, “Tell me about that.”

When she finished telling me how my sermon had “hit home,” I wasn’t certain that she heard the sermon I preached. Alas, this is not a new experience—for me or for any other preacher who has dared to hear how his/her sermon was heard.

The late Dr. George A. Buttrick was the best of my preaching teachers. He retired from his Presbyterian pastorate and moved to Louisville in the 1970s. He was invited to teach at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he was welcomed as the giant he was. Dr. Buttrick was opposed to sermons being recorded; and he was not too sure that manuscripts should be printed for reading by others, though he certainly thought the preacher should write. It clarifies thinking, he told us. Sermons, he told us, exist only in the context of preaching, in the meeting of the preacher and the congregation.

Through more than three decades of preaching, I have expanded on what Dr. Buttrick taught me. It seems to me that the sermon is more than the meeting of the preacher and the congregation. In the mix, from the preparation to the delivery to the hearing, the Spirit is also at work. Given that we preachers fail often at this all-important task, we should be grateful for the role the Spirit plays.

For a long time, I’ve known the role the Spirit plays in both my preparation and my delivery. How many times have I faced yet another Sunday coming, have studied the text, and wondered what in the world I was going to say. More often than not as I have given myself to the task, the sermon has emerged from the chaos of my mind.

Thankfully, the Spirit doesn’t take a holiday once I’ve typed the final word of my manuscript. (Yes, I still follow Dr. Buttrick’s admonition to write the sermon. It does clarify my thinking and my delivery.) Stepping to the pulpit to deliver the sermon over which I’ve labored, I’m often surprised by what ends up being the sermon delivered. On many Sundays were my congregants to have a copy of the manuscript, they would be surprised by what they hear. The sermon delivered is often not the one written. It has taken a while for this preacher to trust the ongoing guidance of the Spirit; but to the extent he does, his preaching has improved.

So, given the fact that the sermon delivered is often not the sermon prepared, why should I be surprised by a congregant who heard a sermon different from the one delivered? Actually, I’m not; and with a few years of maturity under my belt, I’m not even bothered by it—well, most of the time I’m not. Some years ago when a congregant told me that he liked hearing me as much as he did Jerry Falwell, I did wonder if my sermons were being clearly delivered or heard!

Sermons have a life of their own; and because they do, there are congregants who gather for worship who hear more than “a word from God.” They hear “a word from God for them.” Dr. Buttrick said that the sermon is always a dialog between the preacher and the hearer. It is; and when it is a real sermon, it is a dialog between the hearer and the Spirit.

What could be better than to gather for worship to offer our praise and thanksgiving to God, to make our confessions, and then to discover the God to whom we’ve spoken is speaking back—speaking back even through the cracked vessel of the preacher’s sermon!

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