“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.