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I envy math teachers. I mean, when they have to grade a test or a quiz, they know at a glance whether it’s right or wrong. Shoot, they can sometimes feed quizzes into a machine that scores the thing for them. Of course, no doubt the art of such tests and quizzes lies in the designing of them, and that is no easy task I am sure. And, of course, grading such things takes time. A while back I traveled with a colleague who teaches Astronomy and Physics and she had a goodly stack of tests with her that she scored in the airport and on the plane–it was clearly a lot of work. Still, once she looked at the bottom line, she knew at a glance whether the student got it right or whether the student had carried the wrong number or multiplied by the wrong percentage and so got it wrong.
Last week as I labored my way through 35 student sermons, I thought of that. Often. My task was to read the sermons, figure out what worked and what didn’t (and determine also how or why it worked or didn’t work), make meaningful comments so the student could understand my thought process, and then–last and most agonizingly of all–put down a letter grade. And the thing is, you know full well that a different teacher or evaluator might well come to a different conclusion–maybe only slightly but possibly also more substantially.
English teachers and anyone who evaluates essays in blue books know what I am talking about. With sermons, however, there seems to be an extra pressure because it’s probable that the student has more of his or her heart and soul in the sermon than may be true in other forms of writing. It’s also true that students pay attention to their sermon grades with some intensity because they know that preaching is the single most public act they will perform in ministry–every week they have to be “up there” and “out there” in front of people such that their relative success or failure will be in plain view every time. That’s scary and it raises the stakes.
But precisely because I believe in preaching and want it to be as good as it can be in as many congregations as possible, I try really hard to steer students to preaching practices that I hope will resonate with as many people in the future as possible. For people reading this blog, you may or may not care for two seconds what I think goes into a good or decent sermon, but since I just spent an entire holiday week doing little else than thinking about all this, I’ll make a few notes here to see if it sparks thoughtfulness about preaching in also all those who never have to grade sermons but who do listen to them every week.
To put it succinctly: I look for sermons that are true to the Bible text above all. If that text is not proclaimed aright, the sermon is off the rails from the get-go. Most students get that much right, however. I seldom if ever read heresy. So next up the sermon needs to be clear. Preachers need to connect the dots for listeners and never assume that just because the connection between A and B is clear in the preacher’s head, that everyone else will see it easily as well. (I often tell students that I have never confused myself when I preach. I have, however, been known to confuse others . . .)
Sermons also need to be lively and energetic with real-life vignettes, images, and stories that connect what is being said in the pulpit on Sunday with things that people will experience in the office on Thursday afternoon or at school on Tuesday morning. This is why I often scribble in the phrase “Show, Don’t Tell” in the margins of sermon manuscripts. You can TELL us over and over that Jesus gives people hope but for that truth to wing its way into people’s hearts, the preacher must SHOW what this infusion of hope actually looks like in real, day-to-day life. That way when people see this happening in their life or in another person’s life, they will know it when they see it and have cause to rejoice and be encouraged.
Above all, though, sermons need to provide hope, joy, and a reminder that in our Father’s kingdom, it is all Grace, Grace, Grace. Too many preachers these days have morphed into Dr. Phil mode, providing Good Advice instead of proclaiming Good News. But too many people come to church on Sundays weighed down by the burdens of life, by the pressures they face at work, by the disappointments that come to so many families these days. The last thing they need is to pick up the message from a sermon that the solution to all that is trying harder, doing more, becoming a more self-actualized human being. Lots of sermons end with such “To Do” lists and not a few people who listen to sermons think it’s not really preaching until they are given marching orders to stay good and moral people in the week ahead.
Not me. I’ll take all the Jesus and all the Grace and all the Hope and Joy the Gospel can give. All of that has myriad implications for how I behave in life. I know that. But what I need to know at the end of the worship service is that it’s all God, all Jesus, all the Spirit all the time. In that Good News I can rest, and when in a sermon I spy that Gospel in action, I sigh with joy (and probably write down a good grade, too!).