For the better part of three decades, I have been involved in the task of preaching. Standing in front of the church gathered in worship, trying to speak a word that helps us to live more faithfully as the Body of Christ in this day and time. In these years, I have written more than 1,000 sermons and preached somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 times. Yes, some of the sermons have been preached more than once and a few of them more than twice. Most preachers, if they are honest and I tend to think most of us are, at least most of the time, would tell you the same thing. Sermons get recycled. Sometimes when you change congregations and sometimes when the well of creativity just runs dry. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with a sermon being used again. I mean we sing some of the same hymns and choruses over and over again. I would even suggest that some of their beauty rests in our familiarity with them. I like to think Jesus told the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan more than just once. As the church we have been working with these stories for 2,000 years and they are still full of meaning. I’d hate to think those first folks who were around Jesus only got to hear those powerful stories a single time.
Even though I have been at it for a while, I know there is always more to learn about the art of preaching and the power of the spoken word. That’s why I still attend continuing education events related to preaching and I try to read books about it as well. I want to share with you something about preaching that I came across in one of the books I was reading recently, "Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich," by Dean G. Stroud. The first third of the book sets the historical context. This includes the divide between the “German Christians” who were those that incorporated Nazi ideology into their expression of church and created some form of paganism that worked through the existing church structures and held onto the word “Christian” and the Confessing Church which refused to swear loyalty to the Nazis. For those pastors and congregations that considered themselves part of the Confessing Church it was a time when reading a Psalm in worship or referring to the Jewishness of Jesus or to the Jewish people as “our neighbors” could be considered an act of treason for which the pastor could end up in a concentration camp, or even dead.
One of the sermons that Stroud includes in his book is from Helmut Gollwitzer who called the German nation to repentance for their treatment of the Jewish people in a sermon preached in 1938 after Kristallnacht. Kristallnacht was a two day event of coordinated attacks against Jewish people in Germany. Nearly 100 Jews were killed and more than 30,000 incarcerated. The name refers to the broken glass from the shattered windows of Jewish homes, synagogues and businesses. Years after the event Gollwitzer spoke about the “seriousness of the preacher’s situation” who said of the importance of the sermon, “in no other form of speech are things taken so seriously, is our whole existence so challenged, even put at risk. In no form of speech does our word itself so much take the form of action, of intervention in the history of the hearers” (p. 115).
These words which speak about the importance and power of preaching have stayed with me since I read them. Though the forms and structures of the church are undoubtedly changing, I think there will always be a place of primary importance for the people to gather in worship and to hear the gospel proclaimed, a gospel that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. I believe there will always be a necessary place for a preacher to call the people to faithfulness, to live as the reign of God come upon this earth, to challenge the people to love their neighbor and welcome the stranger, to work toward a world of peace for all.
Sometimes, when you are engaged in something for as long as I have been engaged in preaching, it can become too much of a routine or you can began to wonder if it really makes any difference. The words spoken of Gollwitzer reminded me just how important preaching is to the well-being of the church.
So, if you are a preacher don’t ever take the sermon lightly – the text chosen, the study done, the crafting of the sentences, the way it is delivered . . . it all matters. The words you speak are one way God has chosen to work in this world. You should never forget that. And if, you are mostly a listener to the sermons of others, again, don’t ever take the sermon lightly. That which is faithfully and thoughtfully spoken, is a word that has the power to change the world when people hear it and respond.
So, may we all pray that the word we speak and the word we hear be the Word of the Lord.