There was a fire in my belly when I preached this morning. I had to get it out before it consumed me; the words burned inside me like five-alarm Texas Chili. I don’t feel this way every time I preach. Sometimes I feel like I’m dishing out lukewarm oatmeal. That’s the way it goes. When you preach every week, you hit some and you miss some. Some weeks your mind is captured by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the words flow. Other weeks you stare at a blank computer screen day after day with ever-increasing panic as Sunday approaches and you realize you have nothing to say.
The thing is, folks are going to show up on Sunday morning to receive whatever I have to offer them, whether it’s of depth and substance or nothing more than a puff of fluff. I try to comfort myself by recognizing that they come for more than the sermon. There’s always the liturgy, the hymns, the community gathered, and the Sacrament of the Altar to make it worth their while. If the sermon were the whole point, I’m afraid that some weeks I might feel compelled to contact them and suggest that they’d be better off spending the morning doing something else.
What if we rated sermons on a four-star scale the way we rate movies? I decided long ago that I won’t waste my time on a movie that gets less than two-and-a-half stars. What if we could use similar ratings for sermons? People could decide for themselves if they want to waste their Sunday morning on a one-star sermon.
Of course, such a system would require that sermons be rated in advance, so the only ones who could do such rating would be those of us who will be preaching said sermons. Could we preachers be objective enough about our sermons to do that? I think I could do it. I can usually tell you how many stars my sermon deserves before I preach it. Would you like me to publish this on Facebook, or send it out to our church email group in advance? Would that help you decide whether you’re going to come to worship or play a round of golf on a Sunday morning?
Well, here’s the problem with that system. I’ve noticed that the sermon I would award with half a star is usually the one that someone will tell me changed their life. And the one I think has the power to change lives just leaves people yawning. Most of the time, this seems to be the way it works. For the longest time I couldn’t understand why. But I think I’ve finally figured it out.
The fire in my belly doesn't amount to much if it doesn't singe some ears. In other words, those who listen are as responsible for the sermon as the one who preaches it. I can work my tail off, fussing over what I’m going to say and then practicing how I’m going to say it for hours on end, but the words are empty unless they are heard. God speaks to us through the words of a sermon when our ears, and our minds, and our hearts are open to hearing it.
I’ve listened to enough sermons to know this is true. Unless I’m open to God speaking to me, the preacher might as well be chattering away in a foreign language. I’ve also noticed that there are times when a preacher’s words burn in my ears. There is so much truth in them that I can hardly bear it; God has my full attention.
Sermons are weird, aren’t they? There isn’t anything else in our culture quite like them. When else would you sit and listen to someone who stands before a captive audience, and presumes to speak for God, without making a bee-line for the nearest exit? Sometimes I wonder if sermons are a passing phenomenon. If they are, they aren’t passing quickly. For a few thousand years now, at least, God has been communicating with us through preachers who are speaking to people who are listening.
Do you feel the burn?
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Luke 24:32