The Ordeal of the Sermon

Every Sunday night I repeat the same dumb little joke. I say to my wife, “Hey hon, guess what I have to do tomorrow.” She obliges with, “I don’t know, what?” And then I say, “I have to make another sermon.” Ha ha!

I think it was David H. C. Reid who said that Sundays come at a preacher like telegraph poles through a train window. I know a Presbyterian minister who recently became a senior pastor, after having been an associate for most of her career. When I asked her how she liked preaching every week, she answered, “I love it. I hate it. It’s like my fix.”

I know what she means. Preaching is my fix. Not the actual delivery–that’s the easy part. But the preparation. And on Monday mornings it’s “Here we go again.” It’s always such a relief to have a Sunday off. But then I miss it. Not that I actually crave it, but I need to do it. I live for it. I’m sort of addicted to it. I depend on it for myself as much as for my congregation. Preparing sermons is at the center of my creative life. It’s what I do.

The preparation is always an ordeal. Is it like this for jewelry makers? For sculptors? For house framers? For poets and short story writers? The preparation almost always takes me through something of a crisis, which I guess it is supposed to do. I mean, something has to be at stake, the sermon has to offer the congregation some decision or some recognition which cannot be approached except for the message of the sermon. What that requires of me is not only defining the message but actually finding the message. I think of my sermon preparation in the old sense of “divinity,” like I’m going up to the temple of the goddess to kill a sacrificial animal and examine its entrails to divine what her message is. It’s not just a process; it’s got to have some sacrifice in it, and for me it’s always an ordeal.

I preach the Common Lectionary, so the texts have their own lives apart from my intentions. I don’t choose my texts or my messages; they choose me. I hate to feel like I have used a text rather than serving it. I study the texts, I read the Greek, check the Hebrew, consult some commentaries, anticipate N. T. Wright, rehearse the relevant Heidelberg–all the usual stuff. Then I free-associate, I let my mind wander with the images, I often think of the texts in terms of some typical parishioners, and then I have to go into myself. That’s the hardest part. Going into myself. That’s the ordeal. It’s like a therapy session without the assistance of the therapist.

I experience what I think of as “compression.” The material gathers like space dust into a planet, and it presses in on me, and I often feel constrained, benauwd, hemmed in, pressed in. It’s not so much that it’s painful, but it is an agony in the classical sense of agony. And from this compression the whole mass has to decompress and expand again and open up.

In the compression stage I get tempted by avoidance and distraction. I check my email quick, check a blog, see how the Mets did, play computer solitaire. Partly I’m just plain lazy, but partly I don’t like trouble, I prefer to avoid it. I learned to run away from trouble early in my life, as a white kid in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and I am not naturally courageous nor physically assertive. So I struggle to apply myself and not back off. It was easier when I smoked a pipe, my own “Dutch courage.” It centered me and calmed me down.

I recognize that in my sermons I try to do too much, and part of my ordeal is mechanical. I have very high standards of theology and scholarship. I expect my sermons to have historical-critical integrity, but also to be Reformed-confessional and dramatic-emotional. I’m not content with just teaching or even edification. I want every sermon to have conversion in it, in the rich sense of “conversion” as in Heidelberg Catechism 88 (“dying of the old self, and the coming to life of the new.”). The discernment of the conversion, it seems to me, is part of the compression. The conversion is what I usually have to go through myself, in sort of a process of recapitulation, in order to discern the message. And I can’t just lay it out like a proof or a demonstration. I have to risk the unbelief.

I know that part of my ordeal is that I start from the vantage point of unbelief. This was not the case in my first two congregations, for which I’m grateful, because I wouldn’t have been ready. My first parish was a small and stable Hungarian Reformed church, which was delighted to hear its Reformed tradition set out once again. They already believed, and they wanted to hear what they believed. That was a wonderful nursery for developing my Reformed theology. Too bad so many new pastors get placed in small churches where the belief is weak.

I moved from there to a Dutch immigrant church in Canada, and there too they started from belief. And they could sit and listen to sermons like they were watching cricket. They let me go on forever as long as I gave them something with weight. (It was far worse to be light than liberal.) They wanted sermons that edified them, helping them with the doctrines and the Bible stories that they already believed were right and true. A few of my members had come out of the Dutch churches that featured bevindelijk (experiential) preaching, and they wanted conversion. And emotion. Every week. They wanted a crisis. One Sunday as I was shaking hands at the door, one guy said to me, “Ah domine, you nailed me to my seat.”

In my last three churches I have had to start from unbelief. Not an oppositional unbelief, but a polite unbelief, innocently ignorant. It’s an unbelief of good will, or why else would they come to church. They come to church to see and hear. I asked one of my faithful listeners if he believed in the historical resurrection, and he said “No,” so I asked him how he could put up with my preaching, and he said, “I wouldn’t go to a church where the minister didn’t believe it.”

In my current context I can’t start from the standpoint of knowing what is true, and then proving it to unbelief. I start from the position of sympathy to unbelief, acknowledging that belief in the God of the scriptures can be very hard, and against the evidence. And so my tone is one of invitation and appeal. If my invitation has any credibility, I think it’s because I have started from unbelief. If my appeal has any force, it’s because I have put myself through the ordeal, I have passed through the crisis, I have undergone the compression and expansion, which generates real emotion. I have paid a price for every sermon. If my sermons have any power it is from how much they have cost me in their preparation. I don’t just mean the two pages of discarded material for every page I keep.

In Paul Scott Wilson’s wonderful scheme of the four pages of the sermon over four days, the first two days are “trouble”: trouble in the world and trouble in the text. But I think it’s also true that the trouble has to be in the soul, including the soul of the preacher. I get this from the old German Reformed theologians like Kohlbrugge who emphasized that every sermon should be about repentance, meaning repentance in the richest Lutheran and Heidelberg sense. And that’s the difference between preaching and teaching. That’s what makes preaching prophetic. The question is not just whether I have a word from God, but have I got a word worth saying, a word of life and death?

To function at this cusp, to walk along this edge, to be tuned to this kind of crisis every week, is why it’s an ordeal. And of course, it is a pleasure and privilege beyond all measure.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.