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Preaching

The following is a somewhat amended version of the chapter in Susan Flanders’ upcoming memoir, Going to Church: It’s not what you Think – A Priest’s Quest for Honest, Relevant Christianity

“The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his notecards like a riverboat gambler.  The stakes have never been higher.  Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand…Drawing on nothing fancier than the poetry of his own life, let him use words and images that help make the surface of our lives transparent to the truth that lies deep within them, which is the wordless truth of who we are and who God is and the Gospel of our meeting…because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have. ” 

Frederick Buechner

The words quoted above are from Frederick Buechner’s extraordinary book on preaching, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale.  Reading them for the first time, I was moved to tears; reading them just after I’d written them here, to my husband, I wept again.  He asked,

“What is that about – do you miss preaching so much?”

“No, it’s that this is so beautiful and true for me.  I know that moment when you step into the pulpit. I know that silence, as they, and you, wait for something, something that will touch and melt and change hearts.”

“Well yes, Buechner writes beautifully, but there’s more to it for you…”

“OK, yes, I do miss preaching.  I love the challenge and the struggle of the task, and I so much want a sermon to be good, to mean something.”

This exchange brought back all my childhood memories of how much stock my parents placed in good Presbyterian preaching, about how they judged pastors almost entirely on their sermons. It brought back my longings for sermons, my own and others, to be powerful, to move people.  It brought back my laments about how few sermons actually do this, about how people caricature preaching as verbose and boring or as fire and brimstone rantings.  Most of all, it reminded me of how much I have loved preaching and still do.

Preaching is a unique form of expression, probably more like a spoken op ed column than anything else.  You get to speak, uninterrupted, for usually ten to twenty minutes, and it is your job to bring ancient scriptures alive in all their veiled, puzzling and even sometimes obnoxious voices. In the Episcopal and many other Christian denominations, there is a lectionary or schedule of selected Bible readings in a three year cycle.  Each Sunday has its suggested texts, and you are to connect these readings with your own life and that of your hearers in a way that matters. A preacher must always face the “So what?” question about her work – why do people need to hear this?  And finally, a sermon is supposed to be “good news” or Gospel in Christian terms. Underneath all that,  at its best, our preaching should tell the truth about the way life really is, and where we all get caught, and how and why we need saving help.  The task is daunting, and I love  its fierce demands.

However, the challenge often looks like this.  You’re scheduled to preach on Sunday and it is the Tuesday of a very busy week.  You decide to stay home and get a start on the sermon before heading to the office.  You make a pot of coffee, have some breakfast, look at the paper, maybe do the crossword. Finally you settle in, yellow lined pad and about four pencils, sharpened and in a row. Your Bible, and a couple of other books you’ve been reading that may have some good quotes, are spread about.  You read over the appointed readings for Sunday.  Sometimes your heart just sinks – “not the Beatitudes again!” you say to yourself.  “Blessed are the poor, the meek, etc. etc. who will all inherit the Kingdom of Heaven – whatever that is”.  You’ve preached on this so often you’ve run out of things to say.  Or perhaps the readings include the horrifying story of Abraham’s almost sacrifice of his son, Isaac.  He is prepared to stab him to death and then burn him to prove his faith to God!  Oh, I know there is more to it than that, and it has been interpreted by all kinds of scholars to seem less cruel.  I’ve actually managed one sermon on this text which I think deals with it adequately, and when I can pull this off,  I’m well pleased.

Sometimes, the readings are so rich in language and spirit and power that you feel a sermon can barely do them justice, but it’s a privilege to try.  Sometimes you wonder at the effrontery of it all, of thinking you can convey something of how God is with us, if even God there is, and asking why in the world you’ve chosen to walk this scary plank into the pulpit Sunday after Sunday.  At such a time, doing the laundry, or the welcome ringing of the phone affords a break.  Finally you begin to write, starting sentence after crossed-out starting sentence.  Sometimes you are three pages in and crumple the whole mess – who wants to hear this?  Sometimes you delve so deeply into your own inner story it feels too naked to preach.  Crying while you write is OK; crying while you preach is not.  You learn after a year or two how to write for the spoken, not read word.  You learn about the cadences of your voice and how the words you write will sound out loud.  No more are you preparing learned papers for seminary classes.  Finally you begin to find your voice as a preacher; and when you do, and a sermon goes well, there is no better feeling.

During my years at St. Mark’s, I had good help with my preaching.  Part of that was a system they had there of involving lay people in the preliminary preparation of sermons. The preacher for each week would meet with a “sermon planning task force” about ten days before the service for an hour in the evening.  This group of around five would go over the assigned readings for that Sunday and discuss their questions and where they found connections with their lives or the life of the St. Mark’s community.  Often they could offer examples or stories from their experience that might prove helpful in developing the sermon.  If nothing else, these meetings got the preacher’s mind in gear, opened it up to some themes and alerted her to what was of interest to her hearers.  I found these meetings to range from extremely helpful to a complete waste of time except to let others drone on about their pet concerns. Horrified clergy colleagues said, “You mean you let them tell you what to preach?”  That was never the aim or the result.  The idea was that preaching was a community event and should originate not only in the heart and mind of the preacher, but in the shared thoughts of others in the community.  Eventually new leadership at St. Mark’s did away with these groups, but in my early days there as a preacher, I found them more helpful than not.

An enormous help with preaching at St. Mark’s was the Sermon Seminar, begun back in the  early 80s by then rector Jim Adams. It continues today, after a communion service at 9 including hymns and prayers and readings, followed by a coffee break.  The children go off to Sunday School, and the adults regather in the church at 10. The sermon is given, followed by about twenty minutes for people in the congregation to respond.  They go to one of two microphones and offer praise, questions, criticisms, arguments, observations, stories from their own lives – whatever is stirred up in them by the sermon.  The preacher generally does not engage in discussion during this time, just listens to the comments.

At first, this was a scary situation for me.  Open, honest feedback is highly valued at St. Mark’s, and they were known for pressing inexperienced preachers.  I could count on negative as well as positive feedback, and in those early days, there was plenty of the former.  The hardest moments were just after the sermon ended.  I would sit down and wait for someone to speak.  This silence could feel like an eternity, even if it lasted less than a minute.  I knew folks had to collect their thoughts, but still, I wondered, in agony “what if they have found absolutely nothing to say about this?”  But always people did speak, and usually it was helpful, adding nuance and example and depth to whatever I’d said, pushing me to grow as a preacher.  Again, my clergy colleagues were dubious, many of them espousing a high doctrine of divine inspiration for preaching.  They seemed to feel that this work had to be inspired by the Holy Spirit and was some kind of private transaction between me and God that should not be questioned.  I never felt this way because my belief in the power of Holy Spirit to inspire any of us in any creative endeavor allows for all sorts of channels for this inspiration.  Not only books and music and nature and my own experiences of God and of faith, but also the testimony of my community shaped my sermons, and I found Sermon Seminar to be a wonderful, regular way of staying in touch with how well I was getting through as a preacher.

Other people helped me become a competent preacher. One woman took the trouble to request a meeting with me to talk about my preaching. At first I bristled at she suggested a kind of formula tied to a particular way of examining faith at St. Mark’s, a view I found too narrow.  She wanted me to raise questions but not answers; she felt I should present faith as the product of despair, the place we come to when all else has been swept away.  My own experience is that faith arises in all sorts of ways, sometimes out of times of great joy and gladness, and I also do find answers along the way – not to every question, and not always permanent, but answers even so. I believe a sermon should go beyond questions and offer insights at least into how the preacher has wrestled with the issues raised, and where she has come out, not as a definitive solution, but as guidance for hearers in their own wrestling.

Another parishioner came to me several years later.  This time it was about my delivery.  She felt I was not being as dramatic as I might be in the pulpit. She referenced a particular passage in a recent sermon where I had talked of Mary’s visit with her newborn Jesus to an old man in the temple who warned her “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  Why hadn’t I given that a much more forceful expression?  Why hadn’t I pointed out towards the congregation as I quoted these words?  Where was my sense of theater?  This criticism hit home.  It freed me, in a way, to experiment with being a lot more expansive in tone and gesture.  It was part of my transition from a preacher who is delivering a written text to a preacher who is speaking from her heart and trying with all her might to convey the meaning and power of her words.

More than anyone, Jim Adams shaped my preaching. People at St. Mark’s loved his preaching, and I strove to attain his standard.  He was admired for preaching without notes and for combining very keen insights on the real lives of his listeners with well-grounded Biblical scholarship. His sermons had a clear structure and usually only one main point.  He was great at finding new questions or new ways of interpreting familiar passages, and he wasn’t afraid to provoke people into thinking again about stuff they thought they already knew.  He is famously known for a sermon in which he suggested that “God is a jerk”. The full context of this utterance reduces the shock, but all that has long since been forgotten, and only that line remains in the collective memory and lore of St. Mark’s.  It was even mentioned at his memorial service in 2011. Jim and I would have lunch together in my office on Thursdays and proof-read the bulletin.  We would also often talk about the up-coming sermon for whoever was on.  We pretty much took turns except, for special times like Easter and Christmas Eve which were always the Rector’s domain. We would discuss the Biblical passages and what our thinking was, critiquing back and forth as to how the sermon might be most effective.  But it was after the sermon, on the following Monday morning, during our one-on-one staff time, that I really learned from Jim, sometimes painfully.

I would ask, “How did you like the sermon?”

“Which one?  You preached three.”

Or “I have no idea what it was about.”

Or once, “With sermons like that, you’ll never become a rector.”

My response was usually tears, but over the years I began to skip that part and ask him questions about how to achieve more clarity, less clutter, more fluency of language.  And, I got better as a preacher, so these sessions weren’t so grueling, and at times I could criticize him back. I came to appreciate Jim’s honesty, including his criticisms, as a tribute of respect, and I know he listened in turn to my take on his preaching and teaching. He changed me, and I felt myself to be part of changes in him as I heard, every so often, an idea or phrase from him that I knew had come from me.

One sermon in particular stands out for me from those days at St. Mark’s.  It was a Palm Sunday sermon, probably l988. This is the Sunday just before Easter when the services begin with great fanfare and end in dark tragedy.  We would rearrange the church with a huge center aisle, chairs facing it, and the whole congregation would walk in carrying palm branches and singing “All glory, laud and honor” in commemoration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  But then the Passion Gospel – the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and death is read. The music turns somber, and the reality of failure and betrayal and grief, not only in Jesus’ story, but in our own lives takes over. On that Sunday the sermon was to be preached from the chancel steps, facing out into the nave, with no pulpit or place to hold a manuscript, and so I prepared to do this without notes of any kind, just standing alone there in my white robe and red stole, speaking words about a time when betrayal had been very real for me, and there had seemed no hope, no consolation.  I preached about my trip home from Laos when the friend had been killed, and my sister’s absence, and my friend’s grief, and my own loneliness, and how none of it made sense, and how any notion of God having the power to bring some kind of redemption or fulfillment into the story had seemed utterly lacking to me at the time. The room got really quiet as I spoke.  It’s a quiet I’ve come to know as a preacher, and it happens infrequently, but when it does, it feels as though you are part of something more, that something is happening through you.  Perhaps because I had no notes, perhaps because I was scared standing up there so exposed, perhaps because of the power of the story, I just felt the words pour out with a passion and a conviction I’d never before known.  At the end, there was dead silence, and a few people were crying.  Instead of the usual sermon seminar, folks seemed content to just sit quietly and then move to leave.  I felt drained and exhilarated at the same time, and I’ll hang onto that feeling forever.

There have been so many sermons, and many others that I know have had power, or have moved people profoundly.  There have been others where I’ve had no idea of their impact except for what people have told me, even about sermons I thought were mediocre.  But that Palm Sunday stays with me as a day when I truly felt that God was speaking through me, that my words had led us into the heart of the Passion story and left us all, like Jesus’ frightened disciples, wondering where and how God could bring saving help.  The sermon ended on that wondering, and with these words,  “That’s a story for another Sunday.”

Review & Commentary