Monday, February 06, 2006

A Sermon is A Love Letter 

My Mother's two favorite things in the world are winter and big cities, so when she comes to visit, she always comes in the winter and there is always plenty to do! She arrived on Thursday and we had a great time. The highlights of the weekend included: a dinner with my uncle, who was in town for the Sailboat Show for which he is a vendor, at a nice restaurant downtown called La Strada, an excellent play in Much Ado About Nothing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, a very filling meal at the Weber Grill Restaurant, dinner with the boss for Super Bowl Sunday (and the Steelers winning just for Julia), and her getting to see me in action at St. Luke's, where on this Sunday I also preached. I dropped her off at the airport this morning and she arrived safely back in Florida this afternoon. A great time!

After I preached the sermon (which I felt went very well and will let you know when it is available online to download as an mp3) she asked me a good question, "Now, when you get down to St. Mark's and these lections comes up again, if you're scheduled to preach, will you just pull this sermon out of a file and give it again?"

My answer to that is no, but the question is a good one and bears some explanation. When I told her I would not do that, she said, "But they've not heard it before. It's not like you'd be repeating a sermon to the same congregation." That is true, and in all likelihood, I could probably get away with it. But I want to take my cue, in part, from St. Paul here. He could have written one letter and sent it to all the churches, saying what he needed to say, sermonizing, theologizing, philosophising, and edifying at length. But, for Paul, and for the preacher, I don't think that's all there is to it. Paul wrote individual letters to individual congregations. I believe strongly that the Holy Spirit can influence and direct the sermon preparation process, if the preacher so prays and is so willing. I also believe the preacher has a relationship, like Paul, with the congregation and the setting to bear in mind. While a generic sermon might suffice, the emotional and spiritual connection will not be as strong or as immanent. Because I believe the Holy Spirit guides me as I prepare my sermons, I believe that the finished product, so to speak, is what the Spirit would have that particular congregation hear on that particular day in response to those particular readings and circumstances from my particular lips. In other words, it is an un-repeatable theological event. While others can read it later or listen to it on audio file later, the theological event aspect for that particular congregation of the sermon is passed and so the experience will be different. So, were I to drag an old sermon out of a file and re-preach it to a different congregation in a different parish at a different time following a different set of circumstances, it might make sense, it might move someone, it might even be regarded as an excellent sermon, but, for me, it would be like dragging out a love letter long sent to someone else, re-writing it word for word and sending it to a new flame. It would be used emotion and I believe would be a disservice to the new recipient. While the new recipient of the love letter might be overjoyed (or revolted), moved to tears of excitement (or agony), and be waiting for the next opportunity to tell me how much it meant (or didn't mean) to them, it would still be a cheapened experience. If and when they discovered the secret, it would no doubt make them feel cheapened. It might evoke emotions and questions like, "Wasn't I good enough to get my own love letter?" So too, then, with the sermon; for essentially, a sermon is a love letter from the preacher and from God to the congregation. While a love letter or a sermon might have similar themes or even repeated words or phrases ("I love you" comes to mind for both circumstances), I wouldn't copy the whole thing and send it again.



That's a really interesting analogy, Ryan - one that I had never thought of (although to be honest sermon re-use isn't exactly something that comes up often in my life). Maybe I should throw out all the form letters I've been sending to women.

Seriousness aside, though, what's your take on reusing bits of old sermons like Fr. Bob used to do? Do you feel inclined to reinvent the wheel with each sermon to keep it authentic, or would you have a problem with using old (but relevant!) notes and outlines to piece together a new sermon?

Hope your mom had fun! I would say to tell her Beal says hi, but in light of what you've said I'm going to keep this authentic and fresh. Tell your mom Beal says hello.

ZAX out,

By Anonymous BrotherBeal, at 7:24 AM  

I remember a professor saying that a sermon is an intersection, not just between a preacher and the text, but between the preacher, the text, a congregation, and space-time. Therefore, a sermon should do justice to each participant at its intersection.

This is why I tend to have difficulty with the question so frequently asked in Bible classes at seminary: "But prof, how does that reading of the text preach?" My answer, in light of the above, can only be, "To what congregation? When, and in what circumstances? While what is going on in your own life? Establish these variables, and then we might talk together about "how this interpretation preaches."

By Blogger Baruch Grazer, at 8:28 AM  

It is also true that sermons "rot." Sometimes it takes a lot less than 3 years to do, too. I was struck by how wrong a sermon I had preached on giving up everything earthly in exchange for a heavenly reward sounded after September 11, 2001. Not only can't I preach that sermon again, I can't preach that reading again.

You're doing the right thing, Ryan. And Baruch Grazer's reason is certainly part of it. But God's message for the world sounds different sometimes, too, and you need to be in tune with that as well.

By Anonymous micah, at 8:46 AM  

i love that analogy! And, I agree - a sermon is an event, and not one that can really be repeated for all the reasons stated. To Beal's question though, about reusing bits... I think it depends what you mean. Would I tell the same story more than once? Sure, thats possible. But transplanting text from one year to another doesn't work really well, because our writing voice changes with time and context, and message too.

By Blogger Susie, at 12:23 PM  

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