The problem with one really good sermon – I hesitate to write “great” in connection with a sermon – is that there is always next Sunday.
Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect most preachers will agree with me about this: As good as it feels to preach an excellent sermon, to receive lots of compliments about something you’ve said, to have a full inbox of congratulatory email by the time you get home on Sunday afternoon, you realize at some point that you’ve got to do the same thing all over again the next week.
A mentor early on in my ministry used to talk about the “disturbing regularity of Sunday morning,” and I very quickly I came to understand what he meant. Preaching a good sermon – perhaps even an excellent sermon – felt good on Sunday afternoon. And maybe it felt good for a little while on Monday. But by Monday night, the following Sunday would be staring me directly in the face. I knew I’d be expected to do the same thing all over again the next Sunday.
There is no escaping it, the pressure to do it every time. Even a hall-of-fame baseball player only gets a hit every three times at bat. How can a preacher be expected to be better than that?
I’d like to think that I’ve preached a few really good sermons over the years. Sometimes the ones I feel good about receive a kind of ho-hum response, while others, which seemed ho-hum to me when I put the finishing touches on them, turned out to be huge crowd-pleasers.
Either way, I’m guessing that I’ve hit a home run at least a few times over the years.
How do I know? I’m not sure. It’s a combination of things, I guess. Standing ovation? Haven’t had many of them. I received one for the last sermon I preached at my last church, but had mixed feelings about it. No, to tell the truth I had mainly negative feelings about it. I was embarrassed. That was hardly the response I was looking for.
I grew up in a large and growing suburban church. At one point in my childhood that church was the largest in the denomination. We always had overflow crowds. Every fourth Sunday or so my family would have to sit in the church basement and watch via closed-circuit TV because there were no seats left upstairs.
Was the preacher of my childhood a great preacher? I think he was. Can I remember any of the sermons he preached? I remember a few, mainly the ones I disagreed with. So, what made him a great preacher? Lots of reasons. He was a good speaker, of course, and he always seemed to have something to say. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t engaged.
But there was something more, a bit harder to describe.
A few weeks ago, after my dad passed away, my family asked him if he would officiate at my dad’s funeral service. He’s not much younger than my dad was; he must be at least 80, but he said yes. I sat in the front row with my mom and my sisters, and I realized then what made him such a fine preacher. He preached the gospel.
He didn’t shout or wave his arms. In fact, I don’t remember that he raised his voice or gestured at all. He simply spoke in a reasonable and compelling way about what we believe. There weren’t all that many people in the funeral home for the service – a consequence of outliving most of your friends – but the pastor from my childhood preached in the same reassuring tones I remember from childhood. He said what I most needed to hear.
Next Sunday morning is coming, and I tell myself that I don’t need a great sermon. I need more than anything to say what’s true, what my congregation most needs to hear.