Monday, June 13, 2005

What Is a Sermon?

In my recent post entitled, "Thumping," Martinet comments that s/he has preached what s/he calls "commentaries" and what I would probably call "sermons."

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.


Blogger Chalicechick said...

Well, I'll say this. Due to the influence of Katy-the-wise, I am extremely spoiled in the sermon department.

And I've gotten the sense that I would be pretty happy in your church.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gosh, "commentary" make me think of Mathew Henry's boring-ass commentaries on the Bible--just a bit too dry for me.

"Sermon" makes me think of the classically structured literary form (text, doctrine, and exemplum/application), and I like this form because it seems to be striving to move beyond mere commentary (doctrine) to something that is alive and enlightening.

Lastly, though I grew up Catholic, I had no idea what a "homily' is, but I just looked it up. It seems to be "an admonitory or moralising adress to a congregation." Wow! So it's just lecturing all those wicked sinners in the pews with admonition, opprobrium, and moralising--sounds perfectly awful!

I think I like sermon.

Anonymous martinet said...

Wow, inspiring a post. That's nice. (btw--yes, it's "she," although it's also nice that you don't necessarily assume such despite the fact that I've mentioned several times that I have a husband.)

Anyway, yes, I think my aversion to "sermon" does arise from the same root as the aversion to "preach"--another word I seriously dislike and tend not to apply to what I do, although I've gotten to the point where I will accept both it and "sermon" as ministerial shorthand at the very least and, especially within contexts such as PeaceBang's lovely explication of its meaning to *her*, as an expression of personal calling at the most.

"Sermon" and "preach" just seem to have gotten a bad rap in society as being admonishing, uptight, holier-than-thou, whatever you want to call it (i.e., closer to anonymous's definition of the Catholic homily!). That's my own knee-jerk reaction, and I think it's a common reaction of those who either have been served ill by religion or just haven't been inspired by it. I don't think I was particularly affected by the words until we had a part-time minister I didn't like, whose work I *did* find holier-than-thou and admonishing; she used "sermon" and "preach" regularly, and then I started getting hackly about them.

Several people in my congregation have started using "commentary" as well, because of similar reactions. I'm usually likely to say that I'm going to "lead the service" or "speak at church" if I am, in fact, preaching. :)

Anonymous's comment about the literary form of the sermon interests me; I'd like to think that I *do* try to move to something alive and enlightening (like many, I'm edgy about the fact that UUs are all too often all-talk-and-no-action, so I like to draw commentaries to a close with some sort of call to action, even if it's small).

I'm also interested in the definition of "text"--what would be defined as such? In typical Christian circles, of course, it would most likely be a Bible verse, but for UUs that's far less likely. I think I *do* adhere to the classical form somewhat if the inspiring text can be loosely interpreted (e.g., some of my better sermons--oh, see, there I go--have been about "Amazing Grace," "The Simpsons," M. Scott Peck's "People of the Lie" and the work of E. E. Cummings). Doctrine comes easily enough; I generally try to tie the text to one/more of the UU principles or sources. (Within my primarily lay-led congregation, it's been a regular gripe that folks don't always clarify *why* their service topics are relevant to UUs, and I've suggested the tie-in above as a relatively easy and obvious way to do so.) I'd like to think that also answers PeaceBang's calling to "minister TO," because I believe that the audience needs some clarification of why, indeed, they are listening to someone speak in a UU church rather than anywhere else on that particular morning.

All this is IMHO, by the way, and I'm certainly not a professional. I can say without too much puffery that I'm considered one of the strongest service leaders in my little congregation, but that's got more to do with training as a writer and performer than any kind of theological/pastoral education.

Anonymous Amy said...

It may have been Barbara Brown Taylor who said that a sermon is one side of a passionate conversation.

Dying to hear more about this: what's the other side? I strive to make my sermons dialogiscal, by responding to the needs I see in my congregation as I choose what to say and how to say it, by explicitly and implicitly inviting comment and disagreement about what I've said, and by focusing on action. But as no one else in church gets a chance to talk at everyone for 20 minutes a week, it's hard to keep the sermon from being more of a monologue than one half of a conversation.

The longer I'm in ministry the more aware I am of the power of the position. Smart, articulate, ornery folks are surprisingly-often scared to disagree with me to my face. And I'm not nearly so scary as you, PeaceBang.

Blogger Adam Tierney-Eliot said...

Loved this post! I, too am surprised at my affection for preaching. It was preaching that prompted me to originally "track" as a Community Minister. Well was pretty short lived...

Would the other half of the conversation be with God? I guess I would envision my own preaching (or, rather, worship as a whole) as the congregation and/or the minister talking to and about God.

Hmmm...I will have to think about that. Thanks PB! You gave me something to occupy my mind in this infernal heat!

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Amy, let me assure you that while PeaceBang is quite a snarky badass, the real life Rev. is quiiiiiiiite more circumspect and gentle.


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