Simply put, a sermon is an attempt to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ as it relates to our daily life. It is an effort to take the “there and then” of Biblical faith, history and tradition and bring it to the “here and now,” affirming along the way something about the nature, being and activity of God. It is, I believe, a joy, a privilege and a sacred task, one that as a pastor and preacher I take very seriously. But I can also tell you, after over 30 years of doing this week in and week out, that it is dangerous business indeed!
Truly, a lot can happen in and through those words spoken each Sunday from the pulpit. Sometimes a sermon serves as a word of comfort amidst discouragement and struggle. Or it might provide “a teachable moment,” in which together, the congregation grows stronger and more knowledgeable in one aspect of faith or another. A sermon can often be prophetic, in the sense that its hearers become cogently aware of the need for “faith-filled” change on both personal and societal levels. There are times that it must be very direct and to the point as to a needed response; and then there are other messages that should be purposely open-ended, so that those who are listening might be led to reflect further on the issues involved. And yes, though its source material should always be biblical in its focus, it should also relate to real life as we know it and live it; and as such can just as effectively and appropriately bring us to laughter as it can move us to tears. Whatever its form or direction, a sermon is designed to speak to us (mind you, that includes both the congregation and the preacher!), and perchance to stir us up as well. As an old friend of mine, a retired pastor, was wont to say, as preachers “we are called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
I am always struck by your comments to me regarding those 15-20 minutes I spend preaching every Sunday morning, and grateful for your good words and great kindness to me (most especially on those mornings when it seemed much longer than that (!), or those times – more than you might realize – when I was totally unconvinced that there was anything of value that flowed from my tangled tongue!); and moreover for the ways in which something that was said in a particular message somehow touched you. I am continually amazed by this, friends; because in all honesty, there have been many times when what you receive from the sermon is not necessarily what I sought to impart! But that’s wonderful in and of itself, for it is an affirmation that God’s Holy Spirit leads not only my speaking, but your hearing as well; and where this is concerned, let me just say that as a preacher I am not only grateful for the Spirit’s movement, I depend on it!
This is because much of the “good news” we proclaim as Christians is, I believe, “tough love.” Scripture does not offer us mere “warm fuzzies” for the living of these days; it proclaims hard, radical truth that flies in the face of the sin and injustice rampant in our world. This is, to say the least, uncomfortable for any of us hear; in fact, it has the tendency to make us squirm, whether we’re sitting in the pew or standing in the pulpit! But in truth, this isn’t a bad thing: to adequately speak and hear the Word of God very often requires us to face that rather harsh mirror image of ourselves, and to confront the old ways, false understandings and shop-worn attitudes and behaviors that keep us from living a life of faith.
I’ve realized over the years that often times the hardest sermons for me to write and preach are also the hardest ones I have to hear – yes, I do preach to myself as well as to you (!) – and inevitably, in one fashion or another, these are the messages that demand of us to choose between the ways of life and death; for indeed, while life might be the best choice, it is rarely the easy one. But the “good news” is that when we rise to that challenge, life becomes so much more than it ever was before, and as persons and as a people, we are transformed into disciples of Jesus Christ and members of his Body.
Granted, that’s a lot of weight for the average sermon to carry, but I dare say that’s what keeps things interesting for the preacher; and the beauty part (and I’d say this applies both in preaching and hearing) is that there’s always next week! Already, even as I’ve been writing these words, I’ve been wrestling with that message to come, aware that on Sunday morning, we’ll again have that joyous opportunity to come together in worship, to truly “be attentive to the Word of God” as it is revealed in scripture, to sing it out in the melodies and harmonies of our hymns and anthems, to experience it in prayer, feel it in our shared moments of ministry with our congregation’s children, and then, even in and through the modest words spoken from the mouth of this particular pastor.
How it’ll all turn out, what it’ll sound like, how it’ll be received… I still don’t know… like you, I’ll find that out somewhere between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. on Sunday. But I pray that my words might by some miracle be transformed into a true WORD for the facing of this hour and the living of these days; for that will be the best I could hope for.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry