Monday, October 1, 2012

Great Sermons

My experience on Saturday got me to thinking about the other sermon moments that have sent me running out of , the sanctuary, either literally or figuratively.  I have not, sadly, forgotten any of them, but perhaps, now that it's happened again, a full four years later, that's a good thing.  Perhaps it will encourage me to apply a litmus test every time I speak in public, or every time at all: What kind of pain might I be about to cause?

The answer won't necessarily prevent my moving ahead.  But it might, or it might enable me to change some of the wording, or to try to make a space for the experience of others. 

Yesterday, for instance, my sermon title was "Consult Not Your Fears," words of Pope John Paul XXIII which had come my way via Michelle Francl. I was preaching about Jesus telling his disciples not to be afraid of those who were unknown, and about the Book of Esther, in which Esther has to overcome her fears to save her people.  During Saturday's RevGals' Preacher Party, Martha directed me to a post on the topic of fear, which caused me to make a change on Sunday: to ensure that I acknowledged that we all have fears, and that we are not called to repress them in unhealthy ways.

I think that was an excellent check.  I hope that if there were people in the congregation contending with great fear, they were able to hear both sides of the story.

Of course, I could have totally screwed it up. 

A few days ago, Questing Parson wrote an intriguing column about great sermons, which you should read for yourself.  The gist of it has to do with the degree to which you remember a sermon ~ which has nothing to do with whether you agreed with it!

I'm not sure that his standard works entirely.  I do, sadly, remember the four that have caused varying degrees of torment for me.  

But I also remember those on the other end of the scale.  And here they are:

A sermon which Barbara Brown Taylor preached at Chautauqua (and most likely elsewhere) about the treasure in the field.  The man in question buys the whole field, she suggests, because the treasure is all over the place, glittering right there on the surface.  I think it would be fair to say that her interpretation informs my thinking just about all of the time, even when I am too wracked with grief to access it.

William Sloan Coffin's sermon after his son died in 1983.  I was aware of that sermon long before Josh died ~ it was preached the year before my sons were born ~ and I've thought of it often during this first year of pastoring ~ my Year of Listening ~ as I have been inundated with claims for God's will for events which I am sure were not God's will.  I did not realize, until looking for a link just a few minutes ago, that it may have been William Sloan Coffin who gave me the words, embedded deep in my subconscious, that whereas the death of a parent takes away a a portion of the past, the death of a child steals the future.

The sermon preached by Edwin van Driel at my ordination service: resurrection  life has begun.  Jesus speaks in the present tense.  I am the living water. As I've mentioned, I've listened to it several times in the past few days.  My dear friend Karen responded to a previous post by stating that for those of us who have lost children, his words are hard to comprehend.  I totally get that.  The way we have to live now, it's hard, a lot of days, to care about the treasure of the kingdom of God sparkling in the sun, or to recognize God's heart breaking when a young man's life is lost, or to see the in-breaking of the kingdom in a world flooded with sorrow. 

On the other hand, it's kind of easy to see bits and pieces of the kingdom of God arriving in the friendship and work of the bereaved mothers I know.  We would, every one of us,  chose otherwise, but there it is.  

Bewildering, isn't it?

I suppose my own test for a great sermon has to do with whether it stakes a claim for God in all things in a way that offers hope for the transformation of all things, most especially all the terrible things, in our lives.


  1. I remember the living water sermon...and I think your test of a great sermon is a good way of expressing what happens when the Word is broken, so that we might be fed. It's not just bread, but life.

  2. You know, he doesn't say "I am the living water," but that he has living water to give her. Sigh. Maybe the test of a great sermon is: can you get the words right?

  3. I gotta say I love all these women doing the sermons and this post gaVe me chills. Thank you!