“I used to be indecisive but now I’m not so sure.”
Quoted in Umberto Eco, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition
1989. Rank these event from greatest to worst:
1) Fall of the Berlin Wall
2) Tiananmen Square
3) Crocodile Dundee II
4) Exxon Valdez
5) My first sermon
I think I got these in the correct order, although you might flip #3 and #4. I found that first sermon, once thought mercifully lost to history, in a jumble of 3.5″ disks in a box in the basement. Remember those? Hard, plastic “floppy disks.” I was looking for some old files and came across this pile that included programs like Quattro Pro, Memcards (which I used to actually learn Greek and Hebrew, after much resistance), system boot disks for old versions of MS-DOS and early versions of Windows, even a cutting-edge OS/2 disc.
Some discs would not be read, churning aimlessly in a USB floppy drive. Others included papers from my student days, some of which, after skimming again, weren’t too bad. I apparently had the audacity (stupidity) to review Bultmann’s two-volume Theology of the New Testament for a class — what was I thinking? (I wasn’t real thrilled with it in 1991). And some papers written for Dr. Nagel and Dr. Wesselschmidt might actually be worth reworking at some point.
But what most intrigued me were the sermons. I had sermons from Hom I with Prof. Schmelder, from Hom II with Rev. Rossow, and a fourth-year class called, I think, Creative Homiletics with Rev again. I’m glad the discs stored only what I turned in, and not the paper copies returned by my profs, full of their red marks and slashes. Homiletics, as I recall, was not one of my better classes. Man, were these sermons bad. I can neither sing like angels nor preach like Paul. Please, do not blame my profs for my preaching.
Well, maybe that’s not fair. What should I expect of myself, a 23-year old kid, one hom class, at a field work congregation for, what, six months? I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know the congregation. I was both more certain and less certain about a lot of things than I am now. I was harsher than I should have been, and softer than I should have been. There was Law, there was Gospel, but whether I was able to effectively deliver those to God’s people I cannot say. And, actually, it really isn’t up to me, because preaching isn’t, after all, about the preacher. The Spirit works through Word — his Word, in spite of the preacher.
Other discs that I was able to open came from a little later: A New Year’s Eve sermon preached some four months after my ordination; random sermons from the mid-90s–more of them from the Old Testament than I would have expected. Sermons preached at the funerals of dear brothers and sisters in Christ who are now waiting for the Great Day; a whole slew of wedding homilies — some couples I immediately remembered, a few names meant nothing these years later. Some things changed over time, as I scanned those sermons. First, the sermons became longer. Preachers’ disease, I guess. Second, the sermons became more, I don’t know, pointed. As a student writing sermons you have to make up an imaginary audience and preach some kind of Word of God into the air. You know neither yourself with your strengths and weaknesses, nor your audience. But the longer I was at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, the more the Word worked on me week after week, and the more I knew those whom I had been called to serve, I could actually preach the Word to people. And those people, those called, baptized saints of God, week after week turned me into a better preacher.
I have sermons on my hard drive, too, passed on through various computer transitions, from sem prof days. These are different still. I was a different preacher, I was preaching to a different audience, they faced different issues. I’ve never again preached a sermon from my days as a student or as pastor of Gethsemane. And, trust me, you will never be afflicted with those old sermons. I could not preach them again, because I am no longer the person who wrote them. And you could not hear them, because they were not preached to you.
Some of you reading this, I’m guessing, are new pastors, just months into your first call. The grind of preaching every seven days, with the impending pressure of Advent and Christmas, has probably caused you to wonder what the heck you have to say anymore. Your sermons are probably not very good. But they are, in spite of you, Word of God. Keep preaching. Your people need you to speak God’s Word to them.
Some of you, I’m guessing, have been preaching for a long time. You’ve probably got this “preaching thing” down. If so, great. But don’t become too comfortable, for the Word has a tendency to take us to places that we might not want to go — the tentatio that Luther talked about.
Some of you, I’m guessing, are inflicted with preaching week after week. I am one of you, since I don’t preach much on Sundays any more. I hear sermons — several times a week counting chapel on campus. As God’s people, our job is to hear. Receive with thanks the Word that the Lord of the Church is giving us through that struggling, perhaps burned-out preacher. To give thanks to God for that Word, and for that preacher. Even if we don’t like his preaching. And if you are one of the “Spirit-ized ones” in the Body of Christ who has been given to “encourage” (Rom 12:8 — though the ESV uses “exhort”), who can help build up that struggling preacher, do so — he likely wants the help, and he needs it. God’s people at Gethsemane Lutheran Church whipped me into shape. Do so in a way that will actually help him, of course (“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” Rom 12:10–even when “correcting” someone). He will be a better preacher, you will be a better hearer, and the Body of Christ will be built up.
Noah November 3, 2011
Five years in. Most of the time I am glad to have some experience under my belt. But there is also something that came out of those early experiences in preaching. There were sometimes the first time I ever touched and thought on those particular Words from God. I remember the honor and privilege I felt just to begin pondering the text in relation to a group of people for which God had placed me to compile, arrange, and speak. Preaching an old sermon is nearly impossible for me. I don’t know why exactly, as there are others who can. I particularly enjoyed looking a few 3.5″ disks that I mainly used from games. I probably have some 5th grade paper on the Eiffel Tower, Thomas Jefferson, and the State of Missouri, but no sermons. It does bring to light the changes that say a life-long pastor has seen as he transitioned from pen to typewriter to word processor to computer to iPad/iPhone. The pen might have been the best place to begin with? I would enjoy reading the aspects of how different forms of compiling a sermon bring out different observations/tendencies. Ok, that’s about as exciting as CSPAN at two in the morning, but I too sometimes watch that.
David Schmitt November 3, 2011
Thanks for writing such an encouraging word. It makes me wonder why we don’t have you teaching preaching . . . but, then, in a way you do.
As you note in your post, our conversations with one another around the Word are the means whereby God forms us as preachers. It may be a bible class question that still hangs in the air, a casual conversation with a shut-in, or an unfortunate misunderstanding with a member that causes us to slow down as we approach God’s word, and draw closer to our Lord and to one another as we meditate on meaning and experience repentance and grace.
In the week after our celebration of Walther’s birthday, perhaps it is appropriate to remember how frequently in Law and Gospel Walther quotes a classical rhetorician – “it is the heart that makes one eloquent” (Quintilian), he says. Through the Word, in private study and mutual conversation, God works upon our hearts making us eloquent. So there is always hope for a preacher who remains in the Word.
Less seriously and more shamefully, your post drew to mind how I was once up in Isolation dorm in my study room typing out my sermon (on a typewriter, none-the-less!). I came up short in the page length. So, I took the 23rd psalm, double-spaced it, and threw it into the middle of the sermon, retyping the closing pages. Thankfully, I don’t have the copy of that graded sermon. I’d hate to hear what my hom prof said. I’m sure the marks were not good. But, there, in the center of that feeble effort of a first year student was hidden our Shepherd and he is here still, not giving up. He continues to call, lead, feed, and strengthen me and all preachers, lambs of his flock, sinners of his own redeeming, those who in their struggle and strain give voice to his speaking and for that I give him praise.
Jeff Kloha November 4, 2011
Typewriter? Man, are you old. If David Schmitt resorted to a cheap trick like that and still became the preacher that he is today, there is still hope for the rest of us.
I do type out a manuscript for sermons. Habit, I guess. But for Bible studies I don’t use a single note, only whatever Keynotes I’ve put together. Not sure why; maybe such a high view of preaching was beat into me at the sem that I want to get it completely and thoroughly laid out?
John Rasmussen November 5, 2011
Thanks. I read this a few minutes after finally finishing a “Saturday night special” for tomorrow morning… (this is a bad time in the quarter to preach!). It’s refreshing to remember that as far as preaching goes, we’re always striving but never arriving.
Jaime Nava November 7, 2011
Yup, I am one of those ‘four-month-in’ guys. As much as a professor can relay information about the ministry, I am learning more by living it. Living the ‘inhale-exhale’ of a weekly regiment is both invigorating and somewhat exhausting!
One blessing I have here is a band of brother pastors which meets weekly to discuss the Gospel text together for each Sunday. It is a sacred place where I can chew my thoughts with my mouth open. Combined, the years of pastoral experience total over 50 years in the group. They help to temper me and I bring that new pastor smell. I pray that all pastors had such a thing!