What Is a Sermon?
In the Protestant tradition, the sermonic moment (whether we call it a sermon, a reflection, a homily, a commentary or a discourse) is the focus or high point of the liturgy. I am interested in the fact that Martinet has an aversion to the word "sermon." Perhaps Martinet will expound further on that, or others of you who feel similarly will do so. Is it because of the negative connotation we give to the expression "preaching" (as in "quit preaching at me!")? Is it something else? I hope you will share.
It may have been Barbara Brown Taylor who said that a sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. If not, you should still read her lovely, wise little book The Preaching Life. Although I had extremely minimal preparation for preaching in seminary, I have found that I love preaching dearly, with all my heart, my mind, my soul and my strength, in a way I have yet to fully understand. With apologies to Jerry Maguire, preaching completes me.
I never, ever saw myself as a preacher. If you had told me that I would love preaching like this when I started seminary I would have scoffed directly to your face, as I had no intentions of going into parish ministry. Who knew?
Thus far, I have determined the following personal truths:
preaching is the aspect of ministry that brings me the most constant anxiety (which I am beginning to understand as "passion tinged with a sense of profound, unremitting responsibility");
preaching is the honor granted me by a congregation whose trust and attention I constantly want to keep earning;
preaching is the art form that connects me to my life-long, intuitive and unexamined adoration of language ("Word!");
preaching is the one aspect of ministry within which I grant myself almost no self-forgiveness, because while one can never fully prepare to make the best possible pastoral response in any given situation, one can (and should) be damned well prepared to climb into the pulpit on a Sunday morning.
Preaching is such an ancient human activity, very few of us have a really clear sense of what a sermon really should be, while most of us can certainly say what it should not be.
What am I doing when I am giving a sermon?
First, I am giving it. It is the best gift of my attentive mind and heart that I am capable of giving at that time. I hope it will be received as a gift of love. In my own church, I always feel that it is. I cannot overstate the sense of blessedness that comes from this manner of giving and receiving.
More practically, when I am giving a sermon, I am giving a teaching from our tradition. I have never seen a sermon described in this way but this is my current working definition of a sermon.
Finally, and in the spirit of "the last shall be first," this teaching from our tradition must minister to those gathered for worship, else it is neither fit to be given from the pulpit, nor is it fit to be called a sermon.
The congregants who are in church every weekend have heard me give approximately 540 minutes worth of such teachings over the past church year, or 9 hours. All that research, prayer, and late nights slaving over the word processor for nine hours of preaching.
Worth every second. And of course the total worship experience is so much more than just the sermon.