Text: Isaiah 61: 1-3
I decided to add up all the sermons I’ve preached over the last 48 years. They averaged out at 127 sermons a year. This includes two sermons every Sunday morning for over 40 of those years, and three sermons a Sunday morning for twenty or so years. Add on sermons in retirement centers and nursing homes, revivals and church camps, worship services at the U of I for Chinese scholars, guest sermons, sermons on international mission trips, sermons for everything from protest marches to prayer meetings, over 600 funerals and 200 weddings, plus extra sermons for Christmas Eve, Easter Day, Easter Vigil, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday…and you have more than 6100 sermons.
And this sermon is my last one! And then I’m going to retire. (And then I suspect I’ll start all over again, adding a few hundred more to that, even in retirement, as the Lord may please.)
I think of all the people who were physically present for those 6100 sermons. Most people heard many of those sermons, and my two daughters have heard me preach a couple thousand times.
Once in a while, some individuals would take notes while I preached. More likely, I would spy souls here and there getting in a good nap while I earnestly pontificated.
The hardest part, for me, about preaching was were those individuals who showed up packing an attitude toward me, either hostile or fawning. Whether a parishioner thought I walked on water, or was so incensed that he or she couldn’t even look at me, it was almost impossible for me to keep other people’s judgments from getting inside my head. It messed with my inner compass and too often sent me straying off message.
My very first sermon was in Wood River Illinois. I had been invited to be the guest preacher at my grandmother’s church. I was a freshman in college and the pastor was away on vacation and graciously extended me an invitation to substitute for him.
That’s another thing about preaching: in every sermon, we are always only substituting for someone else. Moses couldn’t be there that day, so I’m filling in. Or, the Apostle Paul couldn’t make it for the occasion, so I’m the interim. Or, Jesus disappeared into the clouds on Ascension Day, needed a regular mortal to step in: me. All preaching is merely substituting, delivering a message for someone else…filling in for the day.
So, I’m substituting in front of my grandmother’s congregation. And they know me better than I know them…because people in your grandmother’s congregation always know more about you than you know about them. Some of those people who heard me preach my first sermon were even there when I was baptized 18 years earlier in front of that same congregation.
My grandmother is dead now: she was around for my first sermon but will witness my last one in that cloud of witnesses that has surrounded all my sermons and gatherings. Almost all the other people who heard my first sermon are now dead. In fact, that congregation is not extinct.
And I am mindful, after serving many elderly people through the years, that perhaps half of all those who have heard me preach are now dead. And most of the churches are now struggling.
That’s another thing about preaching: every sermon we preach is to people who are going the way of all flesh. And every institution that sponsors our sermons is fallible and vulnerable. We preach every sermon to people who are being taken apart and taken down by life itself. Every person who listens to us is on a journey that passes through a world of hurt. The work of the preacher is to give people hope…not false hope, but genuine hope as they face the finitudes of flesh and family and friends and fading familiarities.
And now, at the point of my last sermon, I’ve wanted to share with you how I think preaching 6000 sermons has changed and shaped me.
It is odd that I would become a preacher. since I hated sermons when I was a kid, and still don’t much like sitting through one of them. After all, even the better sermons consist of interminable stretches of boredom, punctuated only occasionally by some insight, or inspiration, or titillation.
When I was growing up, having to sit through my dad’s sermons was one of the worst parts of my week. I never quite understood what he was talking about…plus…he talked in tones a kid didn’t quite like. My salvation in those days came in the form of those Bible comic booklets the Sunday School teachers gave us each week. When the sermon would start, I would just focus on my cartoon “Bible” instead.
Now, I have news for you: it’s not just the audience who gets dulled by sermons: it’s the preacher too. And if you’re going to preach over 6000 sermons, you have to figure out a lot of ways to keep your mind in the game.
Since one of the mottos of my life is that I refuse to let myself get bored, my main trick for keeping alert (during the research, writing, and delivering of a sermon) is to find a focal point…and pay attention…and be present with that focal point.
In every sermon, I have settled into three focal points for my own entertainment. And these three focal points are what has truly changed and shaped me.
The first focal point consisted of the people who were in front of me. When I pay attention to the people I’m preaching to, I not only am not bored, I am in awe of the stories that could be told about their lives. As their pastor, I have been privileged to have a front row seat as their lives unfolded. I have seen things and heard things that evoked curiosity and wonder. And I have paid close attention to the things that were NOT told me…or shown me, and respected the mysteries of each person.
And as I focused on the individuals who were before me for each sermon, I would always be aware that there was always someone listening to me who was in desperate need to hear a word of hope… or grace… or forgiveness… or kindness at that very moment. At first entertained by the lives of my listeners, I was always drawn into a deep love for each one (which did not always negate my deep aggravation with some!) and found myself protect of all my listeners and eager to offer some tidbit of God’s grace for their lives. Looking at…and seeing people…all of these years…is a big part of who I now am.
A second way I have distracted myself from being bored with my own sermons is to focus on some Bible passage for each sermon. Any sermon created out of my own head was always inferior to a sermon created out of my wrestling with a biblical text. If you get bored by the Bible, then either you are not focusing…or there’s something wrong with your imagination. You can be confused by the Bible. You can be angered by it. You can be scared by it. You can be irritated…or impatient… But if you’re bored with the Bible, then you’re the one with the problem. Each sermon has been an opportunity for me to push against the Bible itself…interrogating, probing, challenging scripture itself to come on out and take me on, face to face. All that wrestling with scripture, for half a century: it has changed how I think, it has changed how I pick my fights, it has changed how I give thanks, it has changed my reason for getting out of bed each morning.
And the third way I have entertained myself during my own preaching has been to pay attention to what is going on in the world beyond the walls of the church. In some ways, the world is better than it ever has been: medical advances, technological joys, revolutions lumbering to life…even if not complete. But in other ways, the world is much worse than when I started preaching: sexism, racism, and nationalism have poisoned both our earth and our minds.
My sermons have spanned the sexual revolution, Watergate, Viet Nam, Iraq, Columbine and subsequent mass shootings, 9-11, the election of the first black president, the awakening of consciousness regarding LGBTQ+ persons, and the vicious backlash of the Donald Trump phenomenon in the country. Old enemies in the world became friends of our country during the past 48 years…and are now becoming enemies again.
A preacher who keeps an eye on what is happening outside the church building will never be able to keep totally silent, nor be totally boring. And it is critical to be thoughtful, not just emotional about the world out there.
The world and its various cultures and the continuing development of the story of history…all these things have worked in me to make me more humane, more supportive of the underdogs, more empathetic to those wounded by injustices. If we’ve been reading the Bible along with the daily news, we can clearly see that Jesus of Nazareth is the perfecter of humanitarianism. More than ever, I want to be like him…have his courage to stand up to authority, have his love for the suffering, have his fight for those who are last and least, have his compassion that lifts people up without “breaking a bruised reed or quenching a faltering flame.” And I find myself understanding this love God is said to have for this world. And I want urgently to encourage others to imitate Jesus as well. For I truly believe that in imitating Jesus, we can best love and change our world. And imitating Jesus does not mean staying silent on the sidelines. Jesus himself said, “I come to bring a sword, not peace.” Imitating Jesus means understanding that there can be no peace without justice. How could I not be changed without all that observation of the world beyond the church walls?
Everything I am has been shaped and transformed by preaching those 6000 sermons. Everything I am as a father, a husband, a son, a citizen, a Christian, a friend, a neighbor…every crisis or opportunity in the church, every counseling session, every fight and argument I’ve gotten into for 50 years…everything I am has been profoundly affected by the listeners, the Bible, and the world-context of those 6000 sermons.
As a preacher, I haven’t been able to change the world as much as I wanted. Nor the church. Heck…not even myself.
But that isn’t due entirely to my ineffectiveness. It’s also partly due to the mystery of preaching and sermons. As I do my part on a sermon, I’m always wondering what God is up to…what God wants me to say. And that’s tough, because I only know a tiny little bit about God…and the rest is mystery to me. And even the tiny little bit I think I know, I’m pretty sure I don’t have it entirely right. So, I’m always thinking…for my part of the sermon, What’s God up to? But the instant I preach a sermon, I have almost NO IDEA what God does next.
I’ll preach a sermon…thinking I know exactly what I said. But then afterward, a listener would inevitably come up to me to respond. And often as not, what the listener heard what not at all what I thought I said. And that points to the mystery of preaching. It may also point to some communication breakdowns. But quite often it points to the mystery of sermons. God not only works behind the scenes to make a sermon meaningful and transforming for the preacher…but God is also working behind the scenes, inside the listener, to give each listener the insight, or the awakening, or the grace that is personally needed…by that unique individual. The mystery of sermons.
I preached my first sermon to a small rag tag assembly of mostly old people in a small church in Wood River, Illinois. I think the only young ones there that day were my friend Jeff Koch and myself. I didn’t use a microphone. I didn’t write it out on a word processer. I wrote it out on small notecards…merely an outline. I preached on “peace”…a subject I’d been wanting to preach on for several years before that.
If you would have told me 48 years ago that my last sermon was going to be digital, on the internet, and listened to on mobile phones and lap tops…I would have gotten the wrong impression. A laptop back then was for old women in a nursing home…a blanket someone draped over her legs to help poor circulation. And a mobile phone back in those days was the phone my grandmother had in her kitchen…with a 25 foot extension cord…so she could walk to the pantry and the freezer and the stove…and talk while she was working.
Lots of things have changed since I preached that first sermon. I’ve changed. The church has changed. The world has changed. But there are some things about preaching that haven’t changed at all. Amidst its interminable stretches of boredom, it still contains its treasures and gifts for those who pay attention to the craft…as well as those who listen with open hearts and minds.
May God bless all those who remain in the field preaching, week after week…and may God bless you…the listeners…bless you with hope…and power…and joy…