This blog post will appear on a Tuesday but I am writing it on a Monday morning and so am in a post-Sunday reflective mood when it comes to preaching. I heard a good sermon yesterday morning and was even able to detail the sermon's highlights--and several of its specific salient details--to a colleague who popped by my office an hour ago. I am glad when that happens--glad when I hear a good sermon and glad when I can remember enough of it to talk about it. But a week from now--or next month--things will have gotten a bit foggier regarding yesterday's sermon. And there are any number of good sermons I have heard and been blessed by that...well, that I could not summon to mind if I tried.
I confess as a preacher who used to preach 2 new sermons just about every Sunday that come Monday or Tuesday--when I had to write down in my sermon log book what I had preached the day or two previous--sometimes it happened I'd find myself with my pen poised over the log book page and...nothing came to me. I could not recall the passage, I could not recall the sermon title. Sometimes I'd shake my head, let out an exasperated "Oh for Pete's sake," and finally dig out the bulletin to look up the sermon that I MYSELF HAD WORKED ON FOR A WEEK AND HAD PREACHED!! Now, of course, once I looked it up, it came back to me but the point is: if sometimes we preachers get foggy on what we had just done, we should not fall down in despair in case we find parishioners who forget sermons.
Some years ago at Calvin Church in Grand Rapids I preached a sermon on the sacraments from Genesis 17. As it happened, I had preached that same sermon in my previous congregation in Fremont some years before and a friend of mine--who belonged to Calvin Church--had been there the Sunday I preached it. So when, after the Calvin Church service, this friend said that sermon sounded familiar, I assured him it was because he had heard it in Fremont. "Hmmm," he replied, "seems I heard it even more recently than that." I assured him he hadn't but then . . . something started to bug me. I went home. I took out the sermon log book. And as it turned out, well, I had indeed preached a version of this Genesis 17 sermon at Calvin Church only 2 years earlier. I had forgotten. But so, apparently, had everyone else as only this ONE person said it had rung any bells.
Moreover, this was a sermon people said they liked. But then, I also had the experience of preaching a mission emphasis sermon at an evening service and it was a sermon that the head of the missions committee liked so much, he insisted that some day I preach it again but at a morning service when more people would be present. Two or three years later I did this at a morning service and this same man came up to me to compliment the sermon to the skies. "Well, that's why you asked me to re-preach it, right?" I asked. "You've never preached that before" said the man (confidently) who had asked for the encore presentation!
Of course, it is also true that now and then I am taken aback by how well a given sermon stuck with someone. I've had people mention things to me that I cannot ever remember having said. Mostly, though, I tell my students to get used to the fact that individual sermons--yes, even the ones that go over really well--may not be remembered long.
Should preachers despair over this? Not at all. Because as much as anything, it is the overall arc of a given preacher's sermons that over time build up a kind of happy, gracious residue in people's souls. People learn to think like a Christian, to parse their pains and difficulties in theologically smart and biblically informed ways. Preachers who take care (as all preachers should) again and again to proclaim grace and hope and joy convey over time that grace and hope and joy are the main items of the faith. It's not about doom-and-gloom, hellfire-and-brimstone--not firstly and not at the end of the Gospel day. It's about noticing the marginalized, about forgiving each other again and again, about holding on to hope even when life's dodgiest and toughest questions are staring us right in the face. It's about resurrection and new beginnings and fresh hope all the time.
Any given sermon might teach some or all of this but it is when over many years of preaching to a congregation that all of these key sensibilities are touched upon that people start to "get it," that the main things of the faith are not so much taught to them but caught by them.
The longest I preached in one place was Calvin Church across 12 years and about 900 sermons. I suppose I could be pretty disappointed were I to quiz any given parishioner as to the specifics of this or that sermon or sermon series. But sometimes I meet up with these people and they will say something like, "One thing I remember about your preaching is that you were a 'grace guy.' You always brought us back to grace and hope. I liked that."
So do I. But it's the Holy Spirit who does this, not the preacher. As William Willimon once noted in a lecture, every Sunday all over the world the Spirit meets the preacher just before he goes into the pulpit, grabs the sermon out of the preacher's hands and says, "Let me see that thing, son. Well, I'll see what I can do with it." And every time in every church where that Spirit is blowing, that sermon wings its way into people's hearts in about as many different ways as there are people listening.
It's an amazing thing the Spirit does, building up a gracious residue of faith and knowledge in people one sermon at a time. The specifics may not linger. It's the grace that sticks. Good thing, too, because in the end, it's that grace that saves.