Now that I’m in-between calls (the polite term for clergy who are unemployed) I’m organizing my words. I have 7 years of sermons in various forms — electronic files, manuscripts, barely-decipherable notes on napkins. Because we follow a “lectionary” in the Lutheran Church (we read the SAME portions of scripture in the same order, on a rotating basis that starts over every three years), I have sermons suitable for updating for every Sunday coming up. At 2:30 a.m. I started the process and soon found myself lost in my words. In The Word. In the time and place when I first proclaimed these Words. I thought I had lost many of these writings when I lost all the data on my hard drive some years ago, but was relieved to find the actual HARD DRIVE in a computer bag with the sermons still salvageable.
Reading one’s old writings is a lot like sorting through old photos. Ah yes, I remember, I wrote this when I was ___________ (thinner, younger, more stressed, recovering from surgery, mad as hell, giddy with hope, lost in grief). The process even includes the simultaneous harkening back to the day and anxious fear that one experiences in looking at photos. Hey…this one was really good! Still is. Ha! Score Me. And. Good Lord…what was I thinking? Surely attendance was down that day.
It’s sort of an embarrassing activity. Ideally, we clergy give the glory to God. It is God who creates (through us). It is God’s word we proclaim (through our lens of the world). And yet, it is hard not to take the credit or the blame for a sermon either Gospel-rich or Brimstone-Brimming.
Which is why I often use my post-911 sermon feedback experience as a reality check.
I preached on the Sunday following 911 to a packed church. I was an intern and I was extremely careful in the composition of that sermon. I am certain — beyond the shadow of a doubt — that I did not assign blame or even understanding of the terrorist attacks to any particular diety. In fact, I bent over backwards to say that the attacks were NOT God’s wrath being poured down on a sinful nation.
Which is why I was stunned when a congregation member stopped by to see me to exclaim how much she loved my sermon and tell me that she had told EVERYONE in the beauty salon that day how I had explained that the terrorist attacks were God’s way of getting our attention and showing displeasure for our liberal actions.
My ears sort of closed at that point.
We learn in seminary that everyone hears a sermon differently. People take what the preacher says and filter it through their own lens of experience and current life situation and education. Our job is to prepare and proclaim the Word of God as responsibly as possible with no expectation of controlling what individuals actually hear or take away from it.
It is easier said than done.
This story is my reality check. It also still, 9 years later, makes me want to shout, “I most certainly did NOT say that!”