Old Sermons And Your Body

So you’re in a new parish and you think, “Great! I’ll just reach into the barrel of old sermons and use those! I am TOTALLY SET, BABY! Saturday night she is MINE AGAIN!”

Ha ha! It’s a cute fantasy! But honey, you will never be able to have a Normal People Saturday night for as long as you serve in the preaching parish ministry! Not gonna happen! You know why? I’ll tell you why: it’s called muscle memory. When your body has had years and years of Saturday “my body is here but my mind and heart are totally focused on tomorrow morning” pastoral conditioning, it won’t give that up just because your calendar says, “Free Day!” or “Sermon Already Written!”

Am I right? Even when I’m on vacation or sabbatical, Saturday nights are not a time that any part of my being relates to as a Woo-Hoo Partay night. A quiet dinner with friends, maybe. But not a traditional Saturday Night in the way that most of the working world thinks of them.

And then there’s this, which is the most serious thing I wanted to write about, which is about pulling a sermon out of the barrel and trying to make it fit today’s congregation.

I don’t believe in it.

I don’t believe that an old sermon, left mostly untouched, comes with enough of your life and spirit force to feed the congregation you serve today. I believe that we cheat ourselves and our congregations when we take an old interpretation of the Word, when the Spirit was talking to us in one particular way — and apply it to a new and different time and place.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t use beautiful sermons that you love and that have traveled with you to various worshiping communities and ministered to all of them. Of course you should use them. What I’m suggesting is that you use them as an actor and director use a Shakespeare play: with love and respect for the author’s talents, but with an understanding that the words need and deserve fresh energy, rehearsal and interpretation for the current audience. That’s the closest analogy I can get.

This is about entering into your liturgy as an incarnate being, not a a talking head who once wrote some beautiful words for a congregation and who can then consider those words automatically worthy to recite for a new congregation. No part of our liturgies should be mere recitations (and I know that there are some who disagree with me on this point). Not that one is acting the sermon (or prayer, or invocation), but one must absolutely be connected to those words, be personally plugged into them, so that there is no gap whatsoever between what the preacher is saying and what she is LIVING in that moment.

Does that make sense?

I may have written a sermon about, say, healing, ten years ago, and love and remember that sermon as having deeply ministered to many who heard it. It’s a “goodie” and one that I should be able to give again. That’s a perfectly fine plan. What isn’t perfectly fine is for me to pull it out of the folder (or hard drive), read it over once or twice, and stick it in my folio to bring to the congregation.

I need to spend some time with that sermon.
Is every phrase as true for me now as it was true for me then?
If so, then I can deliver those words with the full authentic force of my conviction. If not, I need to write phrases that are true for me today.
Are my illustrations the best I can come up with for this day and time, and for this particular worshiping congregation? If not, I am cheating them and me and God and the moment by not making an effort to make them fresh.

Is the message one that I am committed to giving again in this new ministry? Is this still the message of my ministry? Before we settle into a new parish, we need to spend some time with that question. You have heard it said that every minister has one sermon that he or she preaches in different form every weekend. If you’re growing as a human being and deepening your relationship with God, your message will subtly (or perhaps dramatically) shift as you mature in ministry. Please make sure you attend to that through spiritual direction, prayer or dedicated work with trusted colleagues or mentors. There is nothing that will erode your joy and integrity in ministry so fast as giving a message you don’t feel is really coming from your deepest, most life-giving, passionate heart. I believe that your congregation would rather hear you struggle for meaning from the pulpit – struggle to find your new message — than to have you recycle one that no longer speaks to the most authentic condition and vision of your soul.
I know I would rather hear that from my preacher than a bunch of rote or creaky material he’s pulling from a file cabinet.

I think you get what I’m saying so I’ll stop now. I am having a really interesting experience spending time with old sermons and worship materials and grasping some of them to my chest with a sense of breathless delight (“OH! I love this! I can GIVE this!”) while setting others aside to be mined for good readings, ideas and some turns of phrase. Those will have to be a kind of springboard for a new take on the subject.

Your sermons are your spiritual teachings, your “life passed through the fire of thought,” as Mr. Emerson said. If the fire is gone, that’s okay. Just don’t try to fake it. Some of our best works were beautiful, resonant things when we original wrote them. They didn’t have a long life span. Let them be part of a time that is now over, bless them, and let them go.

Keep it fresh, and deliver no word that does not feel that it absolutely belongs to your soul TODAY, in this moment.

Blessings on your preaching. We are so fortunate to be entrusted with this ancient art form.

11 Replies to “Old Sermons And Your Body”

  1. I agree that you never have a Saturday night. I’m always the one who can only have one drink and has to head home to go to bed early.
    I have tried to recycle sermons, and I find I do as much rewriting as a fresh write would have taken. So old sermons become part of my research for me.

  2. Absolutely. I’ve always said that a sermon is a dialogue between you and the congregation — even when you’re doing pulpit supply or guest speaking, you have to be focused on where that congregation is in as much of their life/lives as you can.

    Not only that, but I’ve come to think of preaching as something like performance art. Because I preach from “heavy notes” I can approach what a sermon was but never completely duplicate it. I’ve only actually tried to duplicate a sermon once, when I gave an important sermon on a holiday weekend and the congregation there asked me to please preaching it again the next week because they felt more people needed to hear it.

    And not only does my body switch to preacher mode on Saturday night, I doubt I’ll ever sleep late on a Sunday for the rest of my life.

  3. I totally agree with this. Now with all my sermons on my computer, tablet and Drive I can easily reuse Stories and quotes but it has to be recontextualized. Copy and paste makes the old work into a library and is used much the same way. Still tweaked and molded on Saturday night.

  4. Yes to recontextualized. . . .but I have pulled an old one out and am reworking it right now, as I have a large church funeral on Saturday, and will barely have enough left to get me home and in bed only to rise on Sunday and be present for the congregation and God. I have to write something new already this week. So, I cut myself some slack, use the ideas I have used in the past, and trust that God’s Spirit will be present in it all. I could also justify this by saying that my doctor has said I have to quit running on adrenalin. . .(not that I am into justifying!) LOL [You’re absolutely in the right to pull out an old sermon during a week like this! Or whenever you want to! But you’re re-connecting with it, editing it, and making it your own in a fresh way. That’s the point! And good luck with your killer week. – PB]

  5. I agree with your views and the people who’ve commented, as I’ve had similar experiences. Attending a social event on Saturday demands a level of energy I’m reluctant to give. Saturdays are a time of centering, “editing” the message – getting my head and heart ready for Sunday. Old sermons are helpful back-ups, if I’ve has had a week of funerals or unexpected crisis in my parishioners lives. However,I too, use them as Bee does- as “research” already done and then re-craft the message to be fresh and relevant to present day. Thanks for posting this good essay, Peace Bang!

  6. Hmm… I agree with your thoughts on having to “recontextualize” a previously written sermon. What I *do* disagree with is the Saturday night thing but I’ve discovered that if I bust my backside to get the sermon written on THURSDAY – I have an actual weekend to interact with my family.

    I know, I know… it’s a completely radical concept for ministry, but it’s just so crazy that it actually works . So this is my encouragement to you all – change your sermon writing day to earlier in the week…!

    [Very good advice and worth trying to take! I’m going to try to write for a focused hour or two a day instead of in one chunk and see how that works. Thanks for the inspiration! – PB]

    Blessings to you all, and Keep Following Jesus –

  7. This is why the demise of secretaries is unfortunate. When clergy had secretaries, their sermons had to be ready for typing by Friday. Now with computers that isn’t perceived to be necessary.

  8. Amen! I am an aspirant for Holy Orders at a small Episcopal Church in the Florida Keys and the Vicar, the Deacon and myself share the pulpit so I have gotten a fair amount of preaching under my belt already. There have been times I have been tempted to brush off an old sermon and update it a bit and it doesn’t quite work. Sermons, like Scripture contain timeless truths and also are for a congregation at a specific time and place. One of my “turns” in the pulpit called for me to preach on the Good Samaritan the Sunday after the George Zimmerman verdict came out AND I am a white guy in an historically black congregation. THAT was quite the experience.

  9. The truth of “entering into the liturgy as incarnate being” is as authentic as we can get as preachers. Truth be told, I am not the same incarnate being in my new setting as I was in my old; I am ever changing and God makes sure of that as I deepen the awareness of Whose Word is spoken for such a time as this. [That’s a beautiful point. And… is this the Kathleen McCombe who sent me an adorable bag as a gift? – PB]

  10. ¡Claro que sí! Enjoy the gift and the gift you are to your new community as well as the gifts you bring as your writings both sear and heal soul.

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