Preaching on Fumes

from Bill Brosend

You can smell it in the air – not incense exactly, but pungent nonetheless. No smoke gets in your eyes and throat because there is no fire. Just fumes, the fumes of a preacher who has once again not had time to prepare, and is counting on work done years ago to get him or her through the sermon without anyone noticing. Preacher, they are noticing.

Tom Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University (nice title) has been known to say that he can, within a few minutes of walking into a pastor’s study, tell if and when he or she “died.” He looks at the date on the seminary diploma and compares it to the dates of the books on the shelves. If the diploma is younger than most of the books on the shelves, he is a looking at a dead preacher, and the congregation is listening to dead sermons. They are noticing.

Fumes. Many of us are preaching on fumes. It kind of works for a while, but as a plan for the long haul it is a recipe for homiletical disaster. Recently the Bishop of Pennsylvania, Charles Bennison, asked me about the state of preaching in the Episcopal Church. I said, “Neglected.” I am sticking to that description. George Buttrick, who gave us the first Interpreter’s Bible and Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible is the one who said, “An hour in the study for every minute in the pulpit.” (At least I think it was Buttrick – Fosdick could not have said everything about preaching worth quoting from that era.) In any case, if that is the case, based on my anecdotal evidence the average sermon in an Episcopal Church should be 2 ½ to 3 minutes long. They are noticing.

Here’s the problem – we can only draw on a well that is renewed by fresh supplies of rainwater, i.e., study, and research, reflection and prayer. Just because we preached on these lections three years ago does not mean we have anything to say about them this year. That remains an open question to be answered this Sunday. I know you are busy. What I don’t understand is why preaching has “slud” so far down the list of priorities. Every now and then, sure. Every week? They are noticing.

The interesting, outdated thing about Buttrick’s admonition, “An hour in the study for every minute in the pulpit” it the assumption that anybody has a study. We don’t; we have “offices.” We have a space where our books may be on the shelves but the dominant feature is the telecommunications/technology center we call a desk, and the comfortable meeting space for pastoral counseling or the executive committee of the vestry, maybe both. “Study”? How quaint.

Which forces the question:  where do you study? Where and when do you read and reflect on the coming lections, the liturgical season, the issues and questions enlivening the community? Where and when do you read stuff you don’t have to?  How do you fill the well? The response I hear most often is, “Who has time?” To which I say, “Who said you don’t have the time?” For the most part, give or take 8 and 10 on Sunday morning (or equivalents) and the monthly vestry meeting we clergy have the incredible luxury of setting our own schedules. If you set a couple of 2 hour “appointments” each week during your bio-rhythmic prime time for attention and focus to study for your homily, even on the weeks when you are not scheduled to preach (more on that another time), no one will complain in the least. They may even say thank you, because they are noticing.

What prompted this diatribe? First was the Gospel for the Daily Office today (Oct. 8, 2012): it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). More to the point is recalling my own times of preaching – and teaching – on fumes. The sermon and lecture surely do suffer, but not as much as the preacher and teacher who offers them. We need the time for study and prayer, reflection and engagement, as much or more than our sermons do. So please, make that time, for yourself and for your sermons.

See you in the pulpit!