I think y’all can tell a sermon that leads toward the foot of the Throne, that has worship as its aim, from one that doesn’t. You can just tell.
It’s like the way that Cleopas and his friend felt on the road as the Risen Jesus spoke to them. When you’ve been preached a proper sermon, you discover that your heart is aflame with love for the One about whom the preacher was talking.
Now, for a long time, I couldn’t tell the difference between my heart being aflame with love (a rare thing) and being aflame with righteous anger at some injustice or other. I thought a sermon that got me all riled up was a good one, too.
I was wrong.
And I preached a lot of those, I hate to admit.
I don’t know if my listeners got all riled up, but I know I sure did. (And I’m pretty sure some of them did, too.)
This isn’t to say that experiencing a taste of the Father’s anger at the principalities and powers that try to separate Him from His children isn’t a good thing. It’s just woefully inadequate by itself.
The sermon that belongs in worship is one that brings the listener into relationship. This sermon, in one way or another, echoes the words of Philip to Nathaniel, “Come and see!” and then leads the listener into the circle where the Master’s own voice can be heard speaking peace and healing into the hearts of those who have chosen to accept the invitation.
This is the sermon that is preached by someone who has a real relationship with Jesus, and can introduce Him as Friend and Savior.
When I was taught to preach, all I learned was how to craft a sermon. I don’t think that’s all I was meant to learn, because I remember my preaching teacher telling us about a famous pulpit in some church or other where you have to climb a lot of steps to get up into it. As you enter the pulpit, the preacher reads the words of the Greeks to Philip in John 12, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”
I learned to paint a good picture of Him. I didn’t really know Him, but I knew a lot about Him, and I knew what He looked like (or so I thought) and I could paint a good likeness. I was taught how to put together a sermon that created a good image, so that the listeners could “see” Him. I hope they meant more than that, but when I think of how many sermons I’ve heard, and how rarely I found myself in His presence, I’m not sure.
Like I said, I was pretty good at putting together a sermon. I was so good that they sent me to a special summer session on “preaching excellence.” It was paid for by some fairly well-to-do Episcopalians who were dismayed at the state of homiletics in the church. A couple of students from every seminary in the country gathered for a week to work with a few of the very best preachers in the country.
We were instructed to construct one sermon before arriving. We could pick the text we’d write on. I polished the best one I’d written for my preaching class. It was *good*. Then, while we were there, they gave us another text, so that we’d have to prepare one under the tutelage of the instructors, and preach that one.
Lemme tell ya, preaching in front of a room full of the best preachers in the US and a bunch of other great preaching students was pretty terrifying. But I did pretty well. I got lots of good comments on the two sermons, and I was pretty pleased with myself.
Then, on the last day, we had a little extra thing. Because it’s not uncommon to discover that someone has messed up the preaching rota, and everybody thought the “other” person was preaching this week, we find ourselves having to preach on little or no notice. So each one of us was given a text and five minutes to prepare a (minimum) five minute homily. Just so that when it happened in real life, we wouldn’t freak out.
I did mine, and I Father Michael Curry (this is when he was still a rector in Baltimore) the most terrible thing anyone could’ve said.
“That one was the best of your three, Jeff. You should do that more often.”
All my skill, all my craft, all my intricate knowledge of the Greek and the genres of the texts crumbled to dust as they said the one with the least preparation was the best one.
I knew instantly why, but it was years before I trusted what I knew enough to do what they suggested.
You see, when you have to preach without preparation, you’re more likely to preach from your heart.
That’s when other folks can see if you’re talking about someone you know, or someone you know about.
To be honest, I didn’t really know Jesus all that well back then. But I knew my brokenness, and my longing for Him, and those things made my third sermon the most authentic of the three.
Still, when I got out of seminary and entered parish ministry, I went back to writing “well crafted” sermons. I was much too frightened to trust that God’s strength might really be made perfect in my weakness, and so I hid myself behind seventy-dollar words and multiple dependent clauses.
And folks liked it.
I was an often-invited guest preacher for special services and stewardship programs. We have a long tradition in the Episcopal church of erudite preachers, and we take a certain churchy pride in knowing our preachers are smarter and use bigger words than a lot of other church’s preachers.
I was popular, but I knew I was a fraud.
Then one week I struggled to get a sermon written. Really struggled. I had a good structure. I had a good “message,” a good point to make. It all fell together well, but it just didn’t feel right.
On Sunday morning, at the early service, I walked out into the aisle to read the Gospel, and as I read it, suddenly I knew what it was I was supposed to be preaching that day, and it wasn’t what I had on paper up in the pulpit.
Walking back up the aisle to the pulpit, I gave in. “Okay, God, if this is what you want, I’ll give it a try, but I know I’m never gonna get through it if you don’t give me the words…”
I can’t say it was my best sermon ever, or even up to that point. I don’t know.
But I know I never wrote out a sermon to print and put in the pulpit ever again.
I’ve written a few outlines, but not many. Mostly I just let them grow until Sunday morning and preach the fruit.
Nowadays, the seed for my sermon is this piece that I send out to y’all, but I don’t “craft” these either. I don’t write until they’ll write themselves.
Whatever the text is I’m working from, or, in this case, the bit of the liturgy I’m using as a starting point, whatever it is, I start the week by planting that in my heart in prayer and then I wait. Sometimes that means doing some historical study of the text, but often that study comes after the prayer, rather than before it. Of course illustrations come along as I am given them. And I study to make sure I have them right, but I don’t start with the study any more. I have learned that if I’ll wait, He is faithful to give me something that will help me lead others to Him. Usually I have something by Wednesday, a starting place, and I can write my weekly email piece. Sometimes, though, it’s late Saturday, or even very early on Sunday! Those days, I still sweat a bit, but I refuse to force something that isn’t something He’s given me to say.
Once in a while, I know I get it wrong. My ear is out of tune or something, and I don’t get the Heart of the Father right in a sermon. Those days, I pray that the congregation hears what He wants, not what I said! Believe me, that’s happened plenty, even when I thought I had a good message. Folks hear what God intends, not what gets said! (And sometimes they hear what they want to hear, too, of course…)
This approach to preaching depends much more on the gifts of the Spirit than what I was taught.
This approach to preaching doesn’t “teach” a lot, except to clear away misunderstandings or “veils” that lie between the people and the Holy One. Sermons that “teach” may impress, but they rarely move the heart. They may inform, but they don’t introduce.
Our preachers can hardly be faulted for “teaching” from the pulpit. It’s all most of them have ever known.
And we preachers won’t abandon our studious styles and the praise they bring until the rest of you begin to ask for more.
“Sir, we would see Jesus.”