Sermon: “A Sermon on Sermons”

“The test of a preacher is that his congregation goes away saying, not `What a lovely sermon!’ but `I will do something.’”                                                                      Francis de Sales

After sitting through a long and tedious sermon on Sunday morning, a six-year-old boy asked his father what the preacher did the rest of the week.

“Oh, he’s a very busy man,” said the father. “He takes care of church business, visits the sick, ministers to the poor . . . And then he has to have time to rest up. Talking in public isn’t any easy job, you know.”

The boy thought about that, then said, “Well, listening ain’t easy, either.”

It’s hard to know how to begin a sermon. “You’ve got to have something that `grabs ‘em’ right from the start,” many experts will say. “Start with a story or a joke,” they tell you. And then other experts will warn never start a sermon with a joke or an apology.

So, I’m sorry I just started this sermon with a joke.

Next to the dilemma of knowing how to begin a sermon however, the hardest thing is knowing when to end a sermon. How long should a sermon be? How long is too long? One of the most frequent criticisms I’ve heard through the years about preachers (in general) is, “His sermons are too long! He goes for thirty, forty minutes. That’s too long!”

But sometimes a sermon that’s too short can seem underdeveloped, superficial, cliché – a joke, a few unfocused points and then the thing just unceremoniously ends. People think you haven’t prepared enough. On the other hand, if the pastor tries to tackle too much, make too many points, include too much information – then the congregation gets overwhelmed and over saturated and they tune you out. It can seem like such a precarious balance.

Therefore, beyond knowing when to begin and when to end a sermon, the most difficult thing, of course, is knowing what to do in between the two. The old axiom, “You’re only as good as your last sermon,” has put many a gray hair on many a preacher.

I never thought I would become a preacher when I first felt called to go into ministry. Always thought I’d focus on pastoral care—have a nice cushy office in a large church somewhere, and just counsel people all day long. But God had other plans. And the first church I served paid the price. For the first several weeks, at that church (in Cleveland, Ohio), I thought it might be alright to share about myself, my family, my faith—let the folks there at Brooklyn Presbyterian Church get to know their new pastor a bit. So my first slew of sermons tended to be narrative and folksy, and kind of short and sweet. Talked about my grandmother Bumpi a lot.

But after a while, I decided that it was probably time to give this congregation their money’s worth. So I started spending a great deal of time – twenty or so hours each and every week – in sermon preparation; taking seriously what my old homiletics professor used to dictate about an hour of study/research for every minute in the pulpit. And then, of course after all that hard work, I wanted to share the fruits of my labor with my parishioners on Sunday morning.

All of the fruits.

After a couple of months of that sermonizing regimen, though, my very patient and very compassionate Session informed me that, my sermons were getting too long and were way too academic. “We liked it better when you talked about Bumpi,” they told me.

Message received loud and clear: keep it short; keep it real.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that each congregation has its own way of sending you that same message. When I first began serving Mt. Vernon PC, in Wichita, Kansas, (whose worship service began at 11:00 a.m.), I was informed that the air conditioning was set to automatically go off at 12 noon. One highly respected parishioner of that congregation loudly remarked, as I shook his hand on the way out the door one Sunday, “I’ve always thought a preacher should be able to say whatever he has to say in ten minutes. So after that I stop listening.” Both good incentives to keep the sermon length well regulated.

Yet another church I know of had a large, well-framed, carefully printed sign hanging on the vestry wall that said, “To the preacher: The Gettysburg Address is one of the greatest speeches ever given. It can be easily fit on one page. Jesus’ great stories of the Good Samaritan or the prodigal son take only a few short paragraphs. If Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ can convey such depth and truth in so few words, surely you can too. For God’s sake, and ours too, keep it short!”[i]

“It’s not necessary for a preacher to express all his thoughts in one sermon,” the great Martin Luther once wrote. “A preacher should have three principles: first to make a good beginning and not spend time with many words before coming to the point; secondly, to say that which belongs to the subject in chief, and avoid strange and foreign thought; thirdly, to stop at the proper time.”

“I have learned this art,” Luther went on to say, “When I have nothing more to say, I stop talking.”

All of which sounds great on the face of it, until you consider how much Martin Luther felt he had to say. Those were the days of hour-plus-long sermonizing; and when public speaking was the main form of entertainment.

That was also before golf, baseball and football. And soccer. And lacrosse.

These days, however – especially when we’ve been conditioned to pay attention about as long as it takes to get to the next TV commercial (typically no more than ten minutes or so) – preach at people for more than twenty minutes and they’re already (at least mentally) out the door; or on to thinking about the next thing.

Yes indeed, next to knowing `how to begin’ a sermon, knowing `when to end’ is definitely the hardest thing. But, you know what, I really think Jesus had it pretty well figured out.

In his time, Jesus quickly became well known for telling short, pithy, folksy parables by which he amazingly revealed eternal truths. Parables, when you stop to think about, that were also renowned for their rather ambiguous endings.

The Prodigal Son, for example, ends pretty much up in the air. The wayward son returns home again, but we don’t know what happens then; don’t know if he is ever reconciled to his older brother, for instance. For all we know, after the homecoming party was over, further arguments ensued and the prodigal son hit the road again.

Or the Good Samaritan. Did the afflicted man ever recover from his wounds? Did the Samaritan keep his promise and return to pay for all the man’s medical bills?

Jesus never gives us an: “And they went on to live happily ever after.” He just tells the story, makes the point and sort of leaves the rest to our imagination. In other words, Jesus leaves it up to us to finish the story, each in our own lives.

In today’s scripture reading Jesus offers a cryptic analogy of himself as living bread, suggesting essentially that one has to `eat his flesh’ in order to know eternal life; which leaves his listeners saying, “This lesson is too hard! Who in the world can understand it?!” [Jn 6:35, 41-51, 60] Which, if you’ve been sitting there wondering, brings me to my chief point!

Preaching is not spectator sport. It isn’t just something one person does from the pulpit (or wherever). The sermon is meant to be a communal event.

When I was in seminary, I was asked to play guitar accompaniment for a fellow seminarian who was a singer, at an African American Baptist worship service. And when we walked into the sanctuary of the church, we were both stunned when we saw the pulpit: it was a large bronze eagle depicted in full flight, with a wingspan of about eight feet or so. We were just fascinated by that; as Presbyterians we’d never seen anything like it. Even got kind of a chuckle out of it.

When the pastor mounted that eagle to preach, of course we were all ears. He started out kind of slow and quiet like. But then, as he went along, the preacher and congregation would interact, building momentum on each other’s energy, until together they reached this glorious crescendo. And then the preacher his final “Amen,” and sat down. Now, I would have never thought that a 500 pound bronze eagle could fly; but by the end of that sermon that preacher was virtually soaring. And his congregation right along with him.

Of course, Presbyterians are a bit more sedate in their participation. But you can personally engage the sermon intellectually; by asking yourself questions (other than “What in the world is he talking about?”). Questions like: How does this relate specifically to my situation and my life?’ `What is this sermon challenging me to be or to do?’ `What might God be saying to me, yea even through this humble Presbyterian preacher?’

And perhaps the most important question of all: `What is this scripture passage and this sermon telling me about who God is in Jesus Christ?’

Preaching is meant to be a communal event. It is, in fact, a three-way conversation between God, the preacher and the congregation.

While you’re thinking about that, I’ll talk about “Dallas” for a minute.

I’m sure some of you remember the nighttime TV drama `Dallas.’ If so, then you also no doubt remember the cliff hanger, “Who Done It?” where J. R. Ewing was shot. The moment of the last show of the season, in March of 1980, saw J. R. getting shot by some unknown assailant. And the audience had to wait until the following October to find out, first, who done it, and second, does J. R. live or die. Meanwhile, during that same summer, Larry Hagman was battling with the CBS network for his contractual demands to be met. By the end of the summer, the actor had prevailed, and the character survived. And those Dallas episodes went down as the two most watched shows in television history.

Maybe that’s why some preachers do sermon series; sort of a “to be continued;” sort of a `cliff-hanger’ to get people to come back again next week. (Or maybe they just can’t figure out how to end the thing.) But the point is that art imitates – at times even parallels – life. And that’s the very essence of the parable.

Jesus’ parables were themselves sort of spiritual `cliff-hangers,’ which engaged people’s hearts, minds and imaginations; and which had the power even to transform lives. But he left it up to the individual to engage their own lives in that Word. And, of course, some listened. Some did not. “Those who have ears to listen,” Jesus would say, “let them hear.”

The great English-American poet, W. H. Auden, once suggested, “You cannot tell people what to do, you can only tell them parables; and that is what art really is, particular stories of particular people and experiences.”

Jesus obviously abided by that same parabolic principle. And over the years, I’ve tried to do so as well. I’ve learned that being a preacher isn’t about something that happens for twenty or so minutes on Sunday morning. It truly is a lot like being an artist – it’s about learning how to frame life in a certain kind of light. A certain kind of `Gospel light’.

Martin Luther and J. R. Ewing notwithstanding, I think maybe sermons are so hard to bring to an end because there is always something more to say.

And even though Sunday morning’s sermon might come to an end – whether by gracefully bowing out, or by an abrupt or lingering demise – the three-way conversation with the subject of that sermon (which is God) does not end. In fact, I was going to entitle today’s sermon, “The Never-Ending Sermon”; but I wanted you to start out with a sense of hope. And now I want to send you out with a sense of hope as well. That, in spite of our waywardness, our infidelity, our hesitancy to listen to God’s voice or trust in God’s providence, God continues loving us, keeps speaking to us, keeps reaching out to us. And so, you see, when you leave this place, the sermon is just beginning.

Because the truth is that sermons don’t end until God says they end. And perhaps sometime Tuesday morning, or Wednesday afternoon, or Thursday night—at some point during that living parable which is your life—God will nudge you to embody an act of faithfulness that allows God to tell God’s own story, through you.

And so the message of God’s Good News continues in this world. Through Jesus Christ.

[i] Grateful acknowledgement to Rev. Dr. William WIllimon for much inspiration and some content.