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On “The Glory of Preaching”

I spent part of this week reading a book about preaching.  It had an impressive sounding title that included the words “the glory of preaching.”  I bought it on the recommendation of someone from my grad school days who had spent  ten minutes or so listening to me going on and on about my what an unobvious choice I was for the vocation of “pastor.”  Zero homiletics courses, zero counseling courses, a whole string of academic classes on systematic theology, philosophy, postmodern theory, etc., an almost pathological fear of public speaking, a history of fast-talking, stuttering, introversion, etc.  “All in all, not the most obvious candidate to be behind a pulpit on Sunday morning,” I nervously half-joked.  “You should buy this book,” she said.  “It will be a great help to you.” 

And so, I bought the book.  I even read parts of it.  But somewhere around Thursday last week, I had to put it down.  Maybe it was the almost impossibly lofty conception of the task of preaching (nothing short of a “weekly encounter with the God of the universe,” the author said, “one of the primary means by which personal transformation occurs!”).  Maybe it was the formidably regimented structure and schedule laid about by the author, with original languages and word/syntax analysis, followed by reading in multiple translations (six or so will do), followed by sentence diagramming/mapping, followed by commentaries (no fewer than three), followed by finding relevant illustrations and examples, and then attention to oration.  Ideally, all of this should be done by Friday so that, time permitting, part (all?) of the sermon could be memorized on Saturday.  Maybe it was just that I was feeling unusually lousy about the status of my sermon for the week.  Maybe it was all of the above and more.  But far from being inspired by the vocation of preaching, I mostly felt tired, guilty, and inadequate.

It was hard to see past the yawning chasm between the ideal I saw on the page and the reality of what my week looks like.  To say that my week-to-week rhythm of writing sermons bears little resemblance to the preceding would be the height of understatement.  While I am obviously reading and reflecting on chosen texts throughout the week, often I will not begin to write until Thursday or Friday.  I’m lousy at diagramming.  Whenever I do a word Greek/Hebrew word study I seem to end up at the unremarkable conclusion that the range of meanings for the word in question is more or less captured by the way in which the various English translations render it.  And memorization?  Um, right.  Often I am beating my head against the wall for a good chunk of Saturday, scrambling to finish, modify, revise, cut, etc. over breakfast on Sunday morning, and desperately hoping the church printer is working half an hour before worship begins.  I wonder how this “preaching rhythm” would sell in a book?  Not exactly glorious or worthy of emulation.

Every Sunday before worship begins I pray that I would speak truly of God.  It sounds good.  And I really mean it.  I really want to speak truly of God.  But sometimes a more honest prayer would go something like this, “God, I pray that what I offer out there today would not be an offensive stench in your nostrils.  I pray that nobody who comes today will be harmed or confused by what I say.  Please protect your people from my sermon today.”  This might sound like pretentious false-humility, but I assure you that it is not.  Really.  I think that many, many people who get up to preach each Sunday are only too aware of how inadequately they have prepared, of how easy it is to simply resort to platitudes or poetic ways of saying the same thing you have said a thousand times before, and of how little we actually know or understand about God and God’s ways.  Sometimes all you think when you sit down is, “well these dear people certainly deserved better than that!”

Is preaching an inherently “glorious” task?  I don’t know.  I’ve heard some amazing sermons and some truly horrific ones.  I’ve certainly contributed my share to the latter and I’m just immodest enough to think that I’ve gestured toward the former.  I know that God can (and does) speak through both.  I’ve preached sermons that I’ve been rather proud of that seem to stimulate very little beyond a smattering of yawns.  I’ve preached sermons that I’ve been utterly embarrassed by and been told that they were just what someone needed to hear.  Many of us remember barely a fraction of what we hear in sermons.  Often what we “remember” bears scant resemblance to what was actually said.  What can you say?  The Spirit blows where and how it will.

I think highly of the vocation of preaching.  I think sermons are important.  I listen to a lot of sermons and am challenged and shaped by them regularly.  For some people, the twenty minutes or so they spend encountering a text on Sunday morning represents the sum total of their engagement with Scripture that week.  All the more reason to approach this time with all due seriousness, skill, and prayer.

But I don’t think preaching is everything when it comes to discipleship and faith formation.  Not by a long shot.  Many people will encounter Jesus more truly in a morning spent serving at the soup kitchen or helping out at youth event or visiting a hospital or listening—truly listening—to another human being’s hopes and fears.  Many people will be more engaged and transformed by taking communion, or singing a hymn, or walking a mountain trail or spending time in solitude and prayer than they ever will by listening to a sermon.  And that’s ok.  It’s better than ok, actually.

To borrow an image from Leonard Cohen, sermons can be one of the ways that the light gets in through the cracks.  God can and does speak and move through human preaching.  Of this, I am convinced.  I am equally convinced, though—and profoundly grateful!—that God is far too creative and resourceful and persistent to be restricted to this.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Many people will be more engaged and transformed by taking communion, or singing a hymn, or walking a mountain trail or spending time in solitude and prayer than they ever will by listening to a sermon. And that’s ok.”

    I like this. I hear the voice of God lately walking each morning on a walking & biking trail near our home. The solitude, the birds, the sound of water and wind, the trees, the firm earth under foot — all of these communicate God’s message to me more than 99.9 percent of the sermons I have heard.

    Yet, it is my parishioners themselves who tell me how important good preaching is to them. That they value my sermons makes me want to preach good ones.

    My sermon preparation follows the three Rs: reading text and commentaries (Mon & Tues); writing manuscript and outline (Wed & Thur); rehearsing outline (Fri & Sat). Then preaching Sunday with minimal notes. What is lost in precision in not reading a manuscript is (hopefully) made up for in eye contact and animated delivery.

    This glory of preaching thing reminds me of transubstantiation. The glory of a wafer! Okay, but it’s still a wafer. People get all wrapped up in this stuff. They hyperventilate about it all.

    Good preaching is hard. It’s hard to do it well. It’s hard to do it well consistently. The only thing about preaching that is easy is that it is easy to deceive yourself into thinking you are a better preacher than you are. I think a lot of preachers fall into this trap. But you don’t, Ryan. It’s like Socrates — the beginning of wisdom is to realize you have none.

    Although you do have Christ, and Christ is the wisdom of God.

    Peace to you!

    June 3, 2013
    • Thank you for these wise, kind, and affirming words, Chris. And the funny ones, too. I chuckled audibly about the image of someone hyperventilating about the “glory” of wafers and sermons :).

      (I admire your discipline with the 3 R’s… And your ability to depart from the manuscript. Maybe some day…)

      June 3, 2013
  2. Kevin K #

    Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for your honest words and feelings about preaching. They certainly resonate. Your words “I think that many, many people who get up to preach each Sunday are only too aware of how inadequately they have prepared, of how easy it is to simply resort to platitudes or poetic ways of saying the same thing you have said a thousand times before, and of how little we actually know or understand about God and God’s ways” couldn’t be truer.

    As someone who preaches for a living, I put myself squarely in the category of that “many” you refer to.

    I once skimmed an article in a Christian magazine that noted the problem with today’s preachers is their lack of “unction” from the Holy Spirit. I confess I didn’t read the article close enough to get an accurate read on what “unction” meant… all I know is that from Saturday evening to Sunday morning I have more of a growing sense of impending interpersonal doom than “unction” of the holy spirit (maybe some people get the two confused).

    At any rate, this preaching/pastoral thing is a humbling thing (perhaps that’s the ‘glory’ of it… less to do with our own oratory awesomeness, more to do with the seemingly counterintuitive fact that God uses us ordinary preaching folk to accomplish His work in other’s lives, often despite ourselves). Sometimes I wonder why on earth a group of people would gather to hear me speak on such a regular basis. Yet many of them assure me that they appreciate my efforts, and even, thank God, hear from Him through it.

    And yes, my week would flow more like yours and less like the one described in the book. I also read another author who says that he spends the first day of each week simply sitting with the text… what a novel thought, a whole day in the office for sitting with scripture (does his phone ring? does he check e-mail?… are their human beings in the church that pays him?). Ideals worth fighting for, in one sense… and also good to give ourselves permission to be human as well.

    As always, thanks for your honesty… I’ll risk sounding hyperspiritual, but, as Paul puts it… We have this treasure in jars of clay. I think it’s important to recognize both the treasure we’ve been given, and the clay within our hearts. I wish more of us pastors would be good at noticing both.

    June 4, 2013
    • Thanks for this, Kevin. Really appreciate what you’ve written here.

      This made me chuckle:

      all I know is that from Saturday evening to Sunday morning I have more of a growing sense of impending interpersonal doom than “unction” of the holy spirit (maybe some people get the two confused).

      Priceless. Yup, this is me.

      I like what you say about the humbling aspect of preaching perhaps being where the “glory” is. Yes, this certainly sounds good and true and entirely in keeping with God’s manner of being and working in the world. Whatever “glory” might be, it must be Jesus-shaped somehow. I fear that too often the “glory” of preaching is associated with images of power and spectacle and coercion and quantifiable response. For some reason, many of the preachers who seem most keen to proclaim and protect the glory of God and the glory of their craft come across as mostly concerned with the glory of, well, themselves. Those lines blur together frequently enough to make me very uncomfortable.

      Thanks, finally, for the reminder of treasures in clay jars. I appreciate this very much. I wish you all the best as you proclaim the gospel of peace—with or without the appropriate unction—each week to and for those God has called you to serve.

      June 4, 2013
      • Kevin K #

        “For some reason, many of the preachers who seem most keen to proclaim and protect the glory of God and the glory of their craft come across as mostly concerned with the glory of, well, themselves. Those lines blur together frequently enough to make me very uncomfortable.”

        It is a strange thing, this being a religious professional. I remember really admiring David as a hero when I was growing up. He seemed so in tune with God, and in a lot of ways always had the right religious thing to say when the people needed to rally around God. I took a second look at David’s life just over a year ago (as part of a sermon series, interestingly enough) and I remember coming across passages where David did and said some things and you really wondered… was he just advancing God’s agenda or His own? The incredibly helpful conclusion I came to was… “???” and “both… I guess…”

        I think part of being a “good pastor/preacher” is paying attention to our own motivations. It is a constant struggle, and there is such a fine line between proclaiming the glory of God, and thinking our own glory is getting caught up in that. I hope I remain as uncomfortable as you with how blurry those lines can certainly be.

        June 4, 2013
      • Yes, this “religious professional” thing is very strange indeed.

        I like what you say about paying attention to our own motivations. It’s so desperately necessary yet so difficult to do well. Even when I am scrutinizing our motivations it’s so easy to make it all about myself (look at me, I’m so in tune with my motivations! I must be very holy and sensitive and self aware…). Sigh.

        A wise mentor once told me something to the effect that it’s a good thing to feel mildly terrified/unsettled/nervous before preaching. It means, a) that you’re not taking the task lightly; and, b) that you have some sense of what an outlandish thing it truly is to presume to speak for/about the living God. I think these are wise words.

        But it doesn’t make the whole Saturday night to Sunday morning thing any easier (or more enjoyable) :).

        June 5, 2013

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