“How long does it take you to write a sermon?” a member of the church asks.
“About 50 years,” I say.
“No, no, no,” the person says, “how long does it actually take you to write it out – or whatever you do?”
No matter how often I answer this question, I never seem to get it right for the person who asks. Putting a sermon together takes a long time, a lot longer than most people realize.
Reminds me of the story about Picasso who was recognized at a restaurant by another patron who then asked for the artist’s autograph. Picasso obliged, according to the story, and wrote his name on a napkin using those famous block letters.
Handing it to the autograph seeker, Picasso mischievously said, “That’ll be a million dollars (or whatever the equivalent would have been in Spanish pesetas).”
“That’s ridiculous,” said the autograph seeker, “it only took you a couple of seconds.”
“Wrong,” said Picasso, “it took me 50 years.”
The point Picasso and I would like to make is that great art (or the humble sermon) takes time – a lot more than you might imagine. A lot of life experiences, a lot of bumps and bruises, a lot of hurt, joy, and painful life lessons are involved in the creation of a sermon.
When I can bring myself to do it, which isn’t often, reading a sermon from early in my ministry is a painful experience. Why? Because I knew so little. I think I was even aware at the time that I had a lot to learn.
What’s the sweet spot for life experience? In other words, how much is enough – and when do we reach the point at the other end of life that no one much cares what our life experience was like? I don’t know.
Maybe a better question is this: Can you take what you’ve learned along the way and translate it into something meaningful and intelligible to other people? Can you speak from experience in such a way that it actually helps another human being?
I think that’s the gift of preaching. It’s taking what we know to be true – not what we’ve learned by reading a book, but from living our lives – and translating it into something that engages the imagination of other people.
How long does that take?