Today I received feedback on my final sermon for preaching class. It was positive overall, though the professor ended on a comment that embodies the kind of criticism I’ve grown to fear as a Presbyterian layperson in the midst of future Preachers.
She wrote, “While I am delighted to see such an improvement in your delivery in this sermon, Kelsey, take care that you do not sacrifice content for delivery. People ultimately come to preaching because it alone brings them a word FROM GOD.”
Her emphasis on the relationship between solid theological grounding and good sermons has left me a bit shaken, because I am a person whose attempts to tell my faith story will always be marred by doctrinal missteps and a distrust of much of the biblical narrative. I am a person who cares very deeply about my time spent in pews, but is more fulfilled by sharing a cup of coffee with a pastor friend than by spending sixty minutes each Sunday faithfully tracing my way through a weekly bulletin.
Somewhere along the way I stopped believing that words from God had to come in capital letters.
My sermon traced my journey from a religious studies seminar in the spring of 2011 to my almost-finished graduate degree. It highlighted the reasons why Divinity students’ shared engagement with religious issues should draw us together, instead of separating us along the lines of degree programs. I essentially preached from the school’s mission statement, taking it as a text that can inform both our spiritual and academic life at YDS.
Admittedly, my sermon cast only a passing glance at the Bible. Referencing Deuteronomy 6: 4-9, I talked about the importance of being ‘an engaged people’ in biblical times, and the way that the passage can inform our call to share our passion for the study of religion with the wider world. I deserved to be questioned about my failure to fully explore the implications of these verses, but I can’t accept the idea that a greater emphasis on the biblical text would be inherent to improving my sermon’s content.
Because the best preaching in my life has always come in lowercase letters.
The foundation of my relationship with God was built among people who could never quite find the right words for their faith: friends who grew up alongside me as we chased each other through the church’s secret passages, a dad who never had much to say but was almost always right next to me in that last pew on the left, a mom brought to tears by the beauty of the natural world more often than the words of Preachers.
I took a preaching class not because I thought I could be taught the right words to say, but because I needed new listeners to help me sort out the mystery of my faith. I craved a space to share my uncertainty and my utter amazement at the life God has given me.
I signed up because I wanted to claim the kind of preaching we can do even when we’re not Preachers.
I leave the course confused about what I really accomplished, but happy I took the time to travel an unexpected path. I don’t think there’s any ultimate claim to be made about the importance of GOD in giving sermons, except that there’s something beautiful in the faith it takes to stand up and say anything.
I love your honesty. Preaching comes in all forms, and you have plenty to say and you say it beautifully. I hope this won’t silence you in any way!
Preaching is more difficult than most people realize. Opening ourselves to the surprises that come from an encounter with scripture isn’t easy. It’s a lot more comfortable to start with a good idea and then force the Bible to echo our thoughts. But that’s not giving the Bible a chance to be the Bible.
Each time I read one its familiar passages, the Bible teaches me something I didn’t know before. It’s a little scary to be challenged and opened to new insights but the Bible has a way of doing that, especially when I take the time to study commentaries and understand what the text is really saying.
One of the things I like most about rubbing shoulders with some great scholars at the university is the excitement they exhibit when they discover something new. Similarly, one of the things I like most about hearing a great sermon is the sense of excitement the preacher demonstrates as she shares insights that are new to her. That’s when God speaks to me. It doesn’t happen every Sunday but it happens often enough to make going to church on Sunday morning a true adventure.
Your words speak volumes. Preaching takes many forms and informs all listeners. You are good at this.
I can relate to your experience. My early preaching years were very different from my post seminary preaching years. My own inclination was to preach on clever ideas, rather than starting with God’s word. It was tough for me when this bubble burst in my preaching classes. However, in the long run it was for the best. Eventually my preaching shifted almost entirely to exegetical, which I have found is generally more well received by congregations than topical messages tend to be.