This post is also in today's newsletter from St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To learn more about St. John's, click here.
At St. John’s in Montgomery, there was a crusty old veteran who always came to the early service, always sat in the same pew, and always fell asleep during the sermon. At least, he appeared to fall asleep. Parishioners are surprised, I think, to learn that from the pulpit the preacher can see almost every face in the congregation no matter how far back she or he sits. Every week, as soon as the sermon began, this man would close his eyes, lean his head back, and make no pretense of paying attention. One Sunday, not long after I had arrived there straight out of seminary, I preached what I felt had been a decent sermon and took offense at this man’s dismissive posture. As he shook my hand in the customary receiving line, I prepared to throw a passive-aggressive barb his way, but, before I could speak, he said, “That was a pretty good sermon. I liked what you said about miracles, but I thought your point about Jesus’ identity could have used some more development.” I was stunned and resolved never again to question his attentiveness.
How do you hear a sermon? How are you supposed to listen to a homily? When you come out of church and shake the preacher’s hand, do you try to say something that proves that you were paying attention? Do you offer a word of encouragement even if the sermon fell flat? In our tradition, clergy are trained very specifically in the art of writing and delivering a sermon. We study not only the practice of mining the text for sermon-worthy insights but also how to assemble those insights into a coherent whole and then how to convey it to a congregation through the spoken word. Some preachers are better at it than others, and some seminaries are better at training preachers than others, but all of us work at it. What about the members of a congregation? Do you ever work on the art of receiving a sermon? Do you ever practice with the goal of getting better at listening?
I suspect that the quality of preaching in a parish increases in direct proportion to the level of prayerful and intentional participation of both the preacher and the congregation. This is a work that we share. If I wait until the last minute to read the lessons and haphazardly throw together a few illustrations that are loosely connected with the biblical text, we all suffer. Likewise, if you wait until the last minute to engage the preached word without grounding yourself in prayer, in focused participation in worship, and in attentive listening to the lessons, we all suffer. Each week, I try to spend fifteen to twenty hours reading and reflecting on the lessons for the upcoming Sunday. If I am preaching that week, I aim to double that. Some weeks, however, I allow the distractions and demands of life to encroach upon that sacred time, and, by the time I have finished preaching, everyone can tell. How much more powerfully might God’s word move among us if we all spent a little more time reading and studying the biblical text before we walked into church on a Sunday morning?
Another pitfall of preachers and parishioners alike is the lure of the self-absorbed sermon. When I read the week’s lessons on Monday morning and immediately think to myself, “I already know exactly what I want to say to the congregation this Sunday,” it is a sign that we are all in trouble. Similarly, if you are listening to a sermon and think, “The preacher must be talking about me,” you may have been listening too narrowly. Sure, a part of the preacher goes into every sermon, and there are almost always personal connections that we can make with whatever sermon we hear, but I suggest that a better approach for both preacher and parishioner is to begin by asking what God is saying to God’s people and let the individualized connections come later.
Another challenge for both of us is to let go of the need to like a sermon or to have one’s sermon liked by a congregation. As much as I enjoy hearing unqualified praise, such compliments are like cheap, empty calories: craved but unsubstantial. In that part of me that is sinfully prideful, I care whether the congregation likes my sermon. In that part of me that is committed to the transforming work of the gospel, however, I do not care in the least. I do not write a sermon to make you happy, and I offer that you will benefit more from the endeavor if you stop judging a sermon by how much you enjoyed it. For what it is worth, I think it is more gratifying for a preacher to hear “That was really challenging, something I will need to think about this week,” than to hear “Another nice sermon, one of your best.”