Thursday, June 26, 2008
The Preacher’s Corner
I have found that life is the best teacher
Many people know the ancient Greek story of Sisyphus and his rock. He was a mythical king who was punished by being set to the task of pushing a large rock up a hill, only to watch it roll down again, and to have to repeat this through eternity. I think every preacher can identify with old Sisyphus when faced with ‘the relentless return of the Sabbath’ and the necessity of thinking up a sermon for every Sunday that rolls by.
Maurice Boyd, a preacher I admire, likes to say that to him it seems as if the Sabbath returns “every three days.” And indeed, it really does seem that way. A minister spends several days thinking about the upcoming Sabbath. Then there is the Sabbath Day, and finally, it takes two or three days to get over the weighty responsibility and get ready to do it all over again.
God intended humans to live in seven-day increments, and it falls to preachers and rabbis to start things rolling with a sermon to mark the commencement of the Sabbath. I preached a sermon recently where I said that the blessing at the end of the service is really the beginning of the rest of the week… “Go forth upon thy journey Christian soul…”
I had a friend in seminary who repented of his decision to enter the ministry, because after a semester or two of preparation, Frank Thompson realized that he did not like to be tied up on weekends. It was a wise decision, and Frank is now a consecrated layperson in the First Presbyterian Church of Houston, Texas — but as a lay person, he does not have to be in his pew every Sunday. Preachers have to be in their pulpits most Sundays, even if we do allow ourselves the occasional vacation Sabbath.
Andy Mitchel (a son of Abbeville, whose ancestors lie in Hill Crest), spent most of his adult life opening and shutting the doors of the Presbyterian Church in Shelby. But even such loyalty as that has its limit, and so Mr. Andy would decree that for one month each summer the doors of that old church would be shuttered “to give the organist a rest.” As that little congregation had a long tradition of inviting the Bible professors from Belhaven College to conduct their services, each coming one Sunday per month in rotation, I suppose Mr. Andy believed that the ministers could find respite without the church’s help. But Mrs. James, the organist no doubt needed rest. There are a great many hymns over the course of a year.
People often wonder how ministers think up sermons, and I would suppose that there is no set answer. Yes, they teach the standard methods in seminary, but over time I have found that life is the best teacher, and experience the best source of illustrative material. I am aware that computers and the Internet offer new possibilities. But I am distrustful of sermons derived from any source with a name like “Yahoo.” To me, a yellow legal pad and the King James Version are more likely to stimulate the spiritual juices.
The other day we examined a young seminary graduate for ordination in Tupelo. That is a daunting moment, and part of the trial is the requirement to preach a sermon for critique. The young man was so enthusiastic that he launched right into his discourse, forgetting to read the Scripture he had based his sermon upon. Fortunately, he recalled his error and I was quite impressed at his ability to work his text into his ongoing remarks in such a seamless way. The ability to recover from a pulpit faux pas is a sign of real skill, more important, really, than the ability to give a flawless performance from memory. A minister must always be able to adapt when the unexpected happens, because the unexpected almost always does happen.
I am an old fashioned preacher, and do not mind saying so. Whoever succeeds me here can be just as modern as he or she may please, and there will be plenty of time for that, for as the hymn says, “time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.” The great challenge is not to be “up to date,” but to hold on to that which has proved its value. The novel always fascinates. It is the verities we forget. The preacher of my youth had many sermons but one theme. It was “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” One could do worse to begin and end with Psalm One Hundred and Three.
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