What the Heck is Your Sermon About?

pewsI slipped into an unfamiliar pew. A while back, in a church exploring mood, I worshiped in a new-to-me congregation at 8am. As with a previous visit to a different church’s early service, musicians were prompting questions. As in, where were they?

Don’t musicians like to rise early?

One service I attended had someone (I’m being nice here) half-heartedly playing the piano . . . and for only a few moments. This church had no music. No choir or soloist. No one tickling the ivories. If you know me, and know my singing voice, you will possibly breathe a sigh of relief. You might think: if there wasn’t music, there wasn’t singing, and therefore no one near Larry had to suffer with his limited (I’m being nice here) musical range.

Music-less. The early birds don’t get the worm or the hymn.

And (I’m being nice here), this was another church that offered thin, tasteless, machine-processed wafers for communion instead of REAL BREAD. Hear our cries, O Lord, and deliver us from the ubiquitous wafers.

But enough of me griping. Let’s get to some serious complaining.

I had a fleeting thought, during the sermon, of doing what I sometimes feared might happen to me when I was regularly preaching. About ten minutes into the sermon in the church without music, I pondered standing to demand,

What the heck is your sermon about?

However, I remained seated. Those three identical parenthetical statements above are a reasonable self-evaluation. I am (mostly) a nice guy. And I probably wouldn’t have had the urge to ask my snippy question if the first moments of the sermon hadn’t held real promise.

About five minutes into the sermon, the preacher had me. I was listening. His interpretation of a Biblical story was suddenly speaking to me. It was the section of Exodus where Moses, and God, smelled something fishy about the children of Israel. Actually, they smelled the fumes from molten metal. Moses’ brother Aaron, while Moses was busily receiving the soon-to-be-famous Ten Commandments, was concocting a golden calf from the Israelite’s jewelry.

The preacher sprinkled some hints about the reasons that modern me—not just those wayward Jews from thousands of years ago—might be worshiping the wrong things. But then the preacher veered into wishy-washy language. In other words, his pulpit banality created pew boredom. It additionally birthed my desire to cry, “What the heck in your sermon about?”

But I didn’t say that. At least not out loud. (I might have hummed it if we’d had music.)

In college I had a speech professor who claimed a speaker had a fleeting opportunity to “grab” the listener. That span of time could be counted in seconds. If nothing was compelling or unsettling, you risked losing the listener.

And yet, you’ll lose the listener anyway. This professor also pointed out that most people “check out” of speeches (sermons, lectures, presentations) every minute or so. Or less. Even if the sermon is riveting, the folks in the pews are continually forming a line at the departing gates of See-Ya-Later Airlines.

How so?

For example, if I mentioned Hawaii in a sermon, and the couple on the left side, third row back, honeymooned in Hawaii, where do you think one or both of them will be mentally heading? Gone, baby. On the beach. Holding hands. Remembering other intimate activities you can imagine on your own time.

Or maybe I would appropriately reference good olde Jeremiah while sermonizing. The guy in the back row, who loved my snappy sermon opening, is suddenly all weepy-eyed about the Labrador retriever (named Jeremiah, of course) that he had when growing up in his sweet grandmother’s house. A woman near him wonders: why is this fellow on my left crying? The sermon’s not that good! How could she possibly know he was grieving his childhood dog and his long-deceased, beloved grandma?

A preacher inevitably and constantly “loses” people. But can you bring ‘em back?

My speech professor said repetition was essential. If you listen to great speeches, of any kind, you will hear the same things said in different ways. If it’s done well, you’ll barely notice it.

Even more critically than repetition, a preacher—indeed anyone trying to share about faith, about what matters—needs to make it personal. Don’t be neutral. Take the risk of pointing a finger at yourself and the other. Writer Brenda Ueland wisely said, “The more you wish to describe a Universal, the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular.” You are particular. The people in the pew (and street, supermarket, online, and . . .) are particular.

I suspect Jesus lost listeners when he shared what happened to a guy on the road to Jericho. Suddenly, some of the audience departed. While listening, it was like they were on that lonely stretch of road, and probably not for a honeymoon. But Jesus, based on how Luke shares the parable (Luke 10:29-37), jarringly brought every listener back into the razor-edged reality of the story. That darn Samaritan appeared! The despised enemy (who, for modern readers, might look like Hitler or Bernie Madoff or Osama bin Laden or whoever you personally and culturally loathe), entered the story and was shaping up to be—gasp—the hero.

That’s what scares preachers. Scares me. We—old, retired preachers and newbie preachers and those wonderful folks who are not preachers—are leery of speaking truths that remind people how alike and connected we are with, well, everyone. We prefer to loathe someone rather than to try to love them. (Oh no, Larry, I love the sinner, but hate the sin! Really? Sigh . . .)

Banal is easier.

Letting people drift to Hawaii is safer.

But then, for me, there’s that troubling example of Jesus.

Jesus plops us onto the dangerous road to Jericho, or other disturbing “normal” situations and  relationships his parables depict, and asks us to view and value the world in a radically different way. Imagine who you “despise” (say, a President or a Speaker of the House). Imagine what you “despise” (like the pro-life or pro-choice stances in abortion).

How will you love and learn from the one you hate?

How will you love and learn from what you vehemently oppose?

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6 Comments

  1. Sometimes my morning messages kept people right on going down the track. But I, like you, know that sometime we lose them. Maybe that’s a good thing, because our minds ramble and sometimes we hit a rambling just right. Then they have an “ah-ha” moment. So let us always hope for the moments that turn on the light of Christ in a darkened world.

  2. For many years I’ve offered this prayer before beginning a sermon: “May the words of my mouth, the meditations of our hearts, and even the wanderings of our minds be found in Your gracious love, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen”

    1. Frank:

      Thanks for the comment! And I love your using “wanderings of our minds.” I also used a version of that verse as the prayer before the sermon, but said, “meditations of our hearts.” Now I feel like a chump compared to your choice!!

      Take care . . .

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