Last week I was in Vermont with a pastor friend who has moved from the pulpit to academia. “How often do you preach these days, Dale?” he asked, jolting me a bit. I paused, calculated, and replied, “About 47 times per year.” His eyebrows shot up. “I’ve never preached that much.”
I last preached here on Graduation Sunday, a glad day when everyone seemed to find something helpful in the sermon. A Deacon said as much. I appreciated his encouragement because it’s easy to quibble around the edges of sermons with tweaking suggestions. That is like sitting in Yankee Stadium, saying about Jacoby Ellsbury missing a liner, “I would have had that!” In preaching, what is hard is delivering the goods while riveting people, week after week.
Someone observed, “Only a mediocre man is always at his best.” This means taking risks, trying different approaches, taking you from your familiar world and into the Bible’s strange world, at times frontally direct, other times subtly sneaking up on you with the truth, as the parables do.
The task of preaching reminds me of my mother’s cooking. Not every Sunday is a Thanksgiving feast or a birthday dinner. Not all of it can be memorable. But hopefully hearers are fed the spiritual nutrition they need for the strength to be equipped to live from one ‘meal’ to the next.
The upshot is sometimes things work, sometimes not so much. But you give me freedom to range wide and far. After 35 years of preaching (as of July 29 this year), that enriches my pulpit work. Maybe the big surprise in preaching is how much of it transcends my biblical knowledge, my oratorical skills, and my use of language, how much of it depends upon what you bring here.
William Willimon—a top preacher today—claims faithful preaching is frighteningly dependent on faithful listening. Obviously, I have my part, standing in our historic pulpit, but surprisingly, so do you. Some Sundays I can feel you listening to my message so acutely, so on the edge of your pew, it actually pulls better sermons from me. But it goes beyond eager or unreceptive expressions on your face. It even has to do with the welcome you have in your heart for God’s admittedly strange and off-the-beaten-path Word. Yes, good preaching requires good listening.
No congregation gets better preaching than its listening warrants. How much truth will we hear on Sundays having lived with half-truths all week? How vulnerable are we willing to become as I become vulnerable telling stories on myself? How willing are we to enter the odd “otherness” of the text, as I candidly struggle over how Scripture challenges, even assaults, the conventional wisdom of how the world must be? How much do you grasp that preaching is less about making the Bible relevant to your life (that is for children) and more about weighing how relevant your life is to God’s reign in Christ? How accepting are you that the goal is not like TV–amusing or entertaining you–but real transformation, getting you to vote ‘yes’ with your life as a disciple?
Not to put too much pressure on you or on me for Sunday, but now we all have our assignment. It’s about Paul’s last sermon (Acts 26) before they take him to Rome, where he meets his end.