By Steve Schlossberg
Part one gave an overview of good preaching, which I usually manage to avoid. Today we begin to set our sights on how to attain the goal of preaching badly. Here I focus on preparation, or avoiding it, both of which can be pathways to poor preaching.
Trust the Holy Spirit
The worst thing about most good sermons is that their ambitions are so woefully low. Because good pastors believe that the best way to communicate the love of God to their people is to spend time with them, they don’t have as much time as we do to compose life-altering sermons.
Paradoxically, they also believe that the preachers most likely to compose life-altering sermons are those who spend time with their people. Surprisingly, this is not because their people provide them with anecdotal material (though spectacular effects can be achieved by betraying pastoral confidences from the pulpit), but because that’s how they learn the language of their people, how they talk, how they think, what they hope, what they fear and what would be most helpful for them to hear their pastor say on Sunday.
Consequently, the old rule of thumb, that a good sermon demands one to two hours of preparation for every minute of oration, is a rule most good pastors cannot consistently keep. They must therefore frequently resign themselves to the prosaic work of simply and responsibly representing what a given Bible passage says.
For them, this is liberating. Even on a week when no pastoral crises intrude, they are free to spend their 15 to 30 hours shooting no higher than discovering or rediscovering where a given text is coming from and what it’s getting at, checking their work against a commentary, imagining how the people they know would be able to hear that, imagining a way to help them hear it, and imagining one or two ways in which it might bear on their lives today.
Good and bad alike, preachers make most of their homiletical decisions by intuition. Good preachers develop these intuitions by getting to know their people. Bad preachers develop these intuitions by listening for compliments. Unfortunately, the people who compliment our sermons regularly frustrate our ambitions. They have a terrible habit of dying without giving appropriate notice, impertinently contracting serious illnesses, spontaneously going to jail, or cluttering our calendars with personal catastrophes such a weddings.
Even a bad pastor has bad weeks. What is liberating to us is that the best way to prepare a bad sermon is to forgo preparation altogether. Given our theological education and our fluency in spiritual jargon, most clergy are perfectly capable of prattling on for hours without stopping to take a breath. Extemporizing a 10-minute homelet is something we can do falling out of bed; extending this to 15 minutes with a couple of amusing anecdotes is a piece of cake.
If such dereliction troubles your conscience — these people are, after all, paying us to do something in our paneled studies — it’s helpful to remember that sermons are perishable goods with extremely short shelf lives. Much to their chagrin, good preachers find that dusting off old sermons for re-delivery usually avails them nothing, either because they wouldn’t say at this point what they said before, or because their people don’t need to hear at this point what they did before. Circumstances change; miraculously, so do human beings; incredibly, in rare instances, so do preachers.
Much to our chagrin, vain preachers find that most sermons are forgotten as soon as they’re over. Even the best of them seldom stick with their hearers past the last hymn; by the time our people file out the door, they are reduced to thanking us for an enjoyable experience, the actual content of which at that point is lost forever.
In most cases, of course, that’s because there was no actual content to begin with. But the point here is that preaching, good and bad alike, works like the liturgy to which it belongs: by cumulative effect. Week after week, year after year, of hearing a preacher reiterate a modest handful of verities or inanities eventually aggregates a small but yeasty deposit that leaches into a parishioner’s thinking, believing, feeling, and choosing. Though there are a fair number of Christians who say that a sermon they once heard changed their lives, they’re seldom able to remember more than a line or a phrase of it, and as often as not they butcher the quote. From that we can deduce that the sermon wasn’t half as inspired as the hearer; that the Holy Spirit was at work, not in the preacher’s words, but in a listener’s ear.
It’s as if it doesn’t matter what we preach: our muleheaded people will either hear what they’re already thinking, regardless of what we’re saying; or they will hear what the Holy Spirit is telling them, regardless of what we’re saying. You can salve your troubled conscience, then, by simply misappropriating a little Scripture: “Do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.”
Say a Prayer
If like me, however, your vanity surpasses your faith, and if like me you aren’t very good at thinking on your feet or talking through your hat, then you’re going to have to resort to some preparation.
Whether good preachers begin their work by saying a prayer of self-dedication or, in the crisis of a writer’s block, blurting out a desperate plea for divine help is a secret known only to them and God. It’s possible that some consider the work of sermon preparation itself a form of prayer. Humbling themselves before the voice of another, they presumably find the work, to some small degree, life-altering, or at least thought-altering. Again, the most interesting sermons the people will hear are those that were most interesting to the preachers to prepare, because they actually learned something while preparing them. Whether they discover something about God or something about themselves, exegesis can be a spiritual exercise.
But again, we can only speculate about the habits of good preachers. What we know is that pausing to say a prayer before we do what we already have in mind is a venerable method of baptizing our decisions. And as with any malfeasance, I find it’s always helpful to say that I said a prayer before I prepared a sermon, because it’s always helpful to be able to blame God for not stopping me.
Read the Lections
A boon to good and bad preachers alike, the lectionary spares us the hard work of having to think up something to talk about. But of course it was first of all meant to be a boon to our people, to expose them, over the course of a three-year cycle, to most of the Bible. Even if this generous exposure, by itself, does surprisingly little to acquaint them with the contents of the Bible, it at least spares them a diet of sermons that range year-round on their pastor’s favorite half-dozen verses from St. Paul or St. John.
But the venerable lectionary is no match for us, whose theological (or other) preoccupations can hammer any text into a platform launching a sermon on any of our half-dozen favorite lines from St. Paul, St. John, Richard Rohr, or Poor Richard’s Almanac. “Good sermon, wrong text” was the compliment one of my seminary professors regularly lavished on my classmates and me, when one of us had delivered ourselves of a sound and even insightful homily whose only fault was that it completely misrepresented the text it claimed to interpret.
There are worse things than treating our people to verities that the given lections don’t happen to say, and we are fully capable of doing them. The major constriction of taking the lectionary seriously is that it sets the Word of the Lord before the preacher and people as given. We do not choose it; it is chosen for us. There it is: deal with it. That approach to preaching is not only true to the spirit of the Scriptures, which obstinately confront us, but to the spirit of our faith, which presumably includes some willingness to be confronted by the Spirit and what he chooses to set before us.
But it does sometimes happen that an issue or a question to which the given lections don’t speak is similarly given. If there’s a calamity in the parish or a notorious injustice in the community, the congregation will naturally expect their pastor to confront it. Responsible preachers often reserve their remarks on matters like these for the Rector’s Forum or the adult education hour because those venues invite dialogue. But to leave a subject of urgent interest completely unmentioned in the sermon is, in a sense, to say something about it, to assert by silence that what happens inside and outside the nave are irrelevant to each other, and that the Scriptures speak to something other than real life.
Probably in part because we doubt that the Scriptures speak to real life, at least in part because clergy have a justifiable terror of being thought irrelevant, bad preachers are irresistibly attracted to “topics.” Politics, for example, will never fail to perk the ears of your parishioners, and allows you delicious opportunity to vent all the fascinating opinions your spouse has lately, inexplicably wearied of applauding. Treating your congregation to political commentary is also an effective device for forming the identity of your congregation, because it allows you to identify the Other, those who are not of one mind with us, in contradistinction with whom we define ourselves. It’s them, not us, whom the prophets upbraid.
But politics hardly begins to tap the reservoir. You are by far the most interesting person you’ve ever known, and so are your opinions. Do not let the Lord catch you on the Last Day having failed to generously share them. Search the lections, then, not for the key word or phrase most likely to provoke, confuse, or slip past your people completely unnoticed, but for anything that vaguely suggests something you’ve been dying to get off your chest.
The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Church, Richmond, Virginia.