("St. Patrick Preaching to the Kings," Carlow Cathedral, County Carlow, Ireland, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Sermons have a life of their own; and because they do, there are congregants who gather for worship who hear more than “a word from God.” They hear “a word from God for them.” Dr. (George A.) Buttrick said that the sermon is always a dialog between the preacher and the hearer. It is; and when it is a real sermon, it is a dialog between the hearer and the Spirit.
--From "When sermons take on lives of their own," by Michael R. Duncan
When I saw this article linked in the Episcopal Church's The Lead blog, I thought of a conversation my priest and I had about preaching. I was sharing with her my thoughts about the Lectionary, as I was preparing to do an upcoming supply gig for the Presbyterians. We were talking about the phenomenon of people saying things like, "I remember when you said XYZ in your sermon," and you can't EVER remember saying THAT.
This is not unique to preaching. I've had former medical students tell me things like, "I got the right answer on rounds because I remember you teaching me about XYZ and telling me (fill in some story,)" and I am thinking, "Hmmmm. I don't EVER remember me saying THAT, and I'm pretty sure when I went over that topic with you, we sure never mentioned it quite that way."
What's even more fun is when they get it totally balled up and attribute me for their "knowledge of the topic." Eeek. That's also true for preaching and teaching.
I can't really speak to what that means in terms of "knowledge of pathology," (I fear it means, "You didn't get it...") but in terms of preaching, this phenomenon might be a different kettle of fish.
I think about what preaching really is. Really, it's simply first in chronological order of our responses to hearing the proclamation of the Word. I do not believe it's the most important, but there are certainly those who would disagree with me and I'm okay with that. Personally, I think the Eucharist is the most important. Oddly enough, I think "bad preaching" is a bigger issue than "good preaching." A really good preacher brings a plus to worship, but a mediocre one does not harm it that much, IMO. But poor preaching sets a poor stage, and sort of colors everyone's outlook for the rest of the responses to worship. So when I have been in the pulpit, I have never prayed for my homiletics to move anyone. I've only prayed they don't place a stumbling block in front of anyone.
The preacher's voice is, in some ways, a prophetic voice. It's a studied interpretation to the Scriptures, coupled with my life. Now, I almost never talk about my life from the pulpit. But my sermons are most certainly from the backdrop of my life experience. They reflect what I read, what I care about, what my community is all about. I am pretty sure anyone who halfway knows me sees the threads of my life in my preaching, by my choices of "angle" and delivery. But here's the amazing thing. Somehow, in preaching, this single voice becomes prophesy for a community. Granted, being a "very very minor prophet of Kirksville" is not exactly a coveted position. But somehow, in the preaching process, as Duncan points out, a transformation occurs. The preached sermon transforms from "the person in the pulpit's lens of Scripture," to a dialogue between the listener and the Holy Spirit.
In that sense, it becomes perfectly understandable why people don't "hear what I thought I was telling them."
Now, let me preface what I'm about to say. I don't think there is a single thing wrong with sharing a sermon via e-mail or hearing a podcast of a sermon, or watching it on YouTube. But I think one needs to realize that, once it is taken outside the context of worship, it's at best, merely an inspirational piece of prose. It's really no longer a sermon.
Think about this one alongside of me.
People come to worship with a whole bunch of things in their head prior to the start of services. They are often either processing the prior week, or thinking ahead to the next one. I'd say it is a safe bet that less than ten percent of the people in a church sanctuary are "grounded in the moment" at the time the prelude starts.
So when we hear the proclamation of the Word in the lessons and in the reading of the Gospel, each of us is hearing it "from the place we are." Most of the time, for most people, I suspect that is a vastly different place from where the person doing the preaching is. The person delivering the message has very likely spent several hours study immersed in the text, because, after all, that person has to preach! But the average butt in the pews has, AT BEST, (and a rare at best at that) glanced at the readings and most people are hearing it cold.
Yet, the Holy Spirit and that person are interacting. Staying out of the way of that is pretty important. So that sermon becomes a focal point to catalyze thinking about the message. What one thinks of in church may well not be what one thinks of on the drive home.
But you get the drift. It is a single cog in a very dynamic and evolving process, and it will never be duplicated again. The Holy Spirit touches upon that person hearing the message. If it is something that convicts one to a certain feeling or plan of action, and it might not have been the same thing if the very same sermon would have been delivered two weeks later, or two months later.
In essence, the sermon represents a moment frozen in time that can't be re-created.
In that sense, yeah, I did say that!