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.