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The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Sermons, Preaching and Such

I have listened to many sermons on Sunday mornings since I retired in February of 2002. Visiting different churches each week gives me a wide picture of what goes on in worship. I have learned new hymns, prayers, liturgical dances, responsive readings and, I have looked at art on the walls.

I always eagerly await the sermon. I want to hear how other preachers relate the gospel of Jesus Christ to my personal, social and political life. Sometimes I hear a fine story or illustration. Other times I get an insight into human nature and a hope for spiritual development. But mostly I get little that relates to my daily life. I find that I listen best when I take notes on the sermon during the preaching time. I also time the sermon. Here are some observations I have made.

If there are four passages from the Bible – Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel, many preachers have the need to salute all four in the sermon. Now I have three years of Biblical training in seminary and have read the daily offices irregularly for 46 years. If you gave me a pop quiz at the end of the service, I could not tell you what all four or even two were about. This is Biblical overload.

When the preacher tries to tie them all together I get further confused. I am certain that the untrained lay person also swoons with too much information to assimilate. It is bad enough to have to listen to four Bible readings and worse to have to listen to them explicated.

There seems to be the desire of many preachers to do Biblical exegesis in the pulpit rather than in the study. When half the sermon is spent re-reading or re-telling the Gospel story and then explaining its social, political, archeological, Greek, Hebrew, theological and historical context, preachers have not done their homework. Taking one simple idea from the scripture and relating it to life today with a couple of good illustrations and stories is plenty. This will also keep the sermon within the 12-15 minute time slot that fits today’s liturgies.

Now I know we were all taught that sermons should have three points. If we can get our parishioners to listen one point well illustrated, we are doing quite well. An old friend used to complain when people told him he preached too long. He said, Sermonettes make Christianettes.

Another thing I notice is that too many sermons remain too theoretical and lack concrete illustrations or stories. If I find my mind wandering during the sermon it is always because theory and philosophy are being trumpeted. Lengthy discourses on the incarnation or the doctrine of the Trinity bore quickly. Illustrations of how the enfleshment of God applies to my life are exciting. The incarnation means our physical bodies are important. That discussion holds my interest.

When I hear that the Trinity means that the nature of God unfolds in my life in my head, heart and body, I pay attention. How these great doctrines of the church affect the personal life of the preacher make the sermon exciting.

I also note that few preachers are willing to take a stand on social and political issues. Preachers may mention Iraq, marijuana, abortion or homosexuality, but seldom state their own personal opinion. They may fear offending members of the congregation who disagree strongly with the preacher’s position.

The preacher can simply say, “My personal opinion is that a woman should have free choice about whether or not to have an abortion. This is not the opinion of God, Jesus, or the Episcopal Church. It is my personal opinion. I also believe that many of you in the pews may have a different opinion and perhaps we can talk about it after the service.” One can state an opinion strongly and not make the other people bad and wrong. The preacher can give others room for their own positions.

I think it is important for preachers to make their own positions clear. That is a quality of leadership. It helps people define their own opinions.

When I preach on a controversial issue, I usually say that all of us with widely differing opinions come to the holy table to eat and drink in the mystical presence of Christ, the true source of our unity. Our differences can be honored as we commune with God and each other.

Incorporating these ideas into sermons will help hold my interest and inspire me. I suspect that such an approach to preaching will sustain and excite listeners to a greater understanding of what preaching is about, and more importantly, nourish their spiritual, personal and political lives.

The Rev. Robert Warren Cromey

Fellow of the College of Preachers

Retired Rector of Trinity Church, San Francisco

Active preacher since 1956


Blogger Chris said...

I have gotten tired of the 3 points preachers. Likewise of the preachers who feel obligated not only to get all three readings, the Psalm, and the Collect into the sermon for good measure. This latter group usually re-recites the readings, too, in his or her own words. "I heard it the first time, Father!" I'm weary when a preacher tells a story at great length that only has a tangential relationship to the readings and then doesn't tie it together.

When I preach I pick one point that I want to explore and leave it at that. My feeling is that most people will hear 5 or 10 sermons on most readings during their lifetime (unless they are E&C Anglicans, only coming on Easter and at Christmas) and I have decided that I should leave some material for the next preacher they hear. I can do 4-1/2 pages A4 with 2" wide margins (so I don't have to move my eyes across the page but can just sweep down; people think you have memorised the sermon that way--an old trick of Cathy Roskam's) and that comes out at 8-10 minutes.

I try to start with a story, a joke, or at least a situation to preach from so as to give people something to hang the rest of the sermon on. I preached once using something that happened at Starbucks as a lead-in, and 3 or 4 years later people are coming up to me in church and saying "Every time I go into Starbucks I think of that sermon you preached years ago." So it stuck.

You are an excellent preacher; I always enjoyed the sermons at Trinity. Once my foot recovers from its current travails (two infections in 6 months and three major ulcers,m a cast and possible surgery later) I will start preaching again at my neighbouring parish. My own Rector is so lazy that I refuse to preach at St. Matthew's; if he does nothing all week, and then complains that he has no time to prepare a good sermon, then I am not going to be the one who helps him bear the load.

3:08 PM  

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