Reflections on the Sermon
The Rev. Susan Ironside - Rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, NJ
As a brand-new priest and curate, brimming with enthusiasm and holiness, I was eager to enter into the holy season of Lent, and honored to have been asked by the rector to preach the Ash Wednesday liturgies of the parish. I approached the task with reverence, wanting so much to welcome God’s people into the Lenten season in a way that would surely cause people to flock to church with newly unleashed devotion and fervor. In the days leading up to the big moment, I spent much time in my office, praying over the texts, pondering the work of preachers who have expounded on the Holy Day with great eloquence in ages past, and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I became increasingly convinced that I would best accomplish this sacred task by preaching without a manuscript, something I had not explored much in my preaching life heretofore.
Shrove Tuesday brought pancakes and lots of parish activities. My hair smelled of burned palms, and my fingers were sticky with syrup, as I did the final review in my office, before heading home to for the day, walking through my preaching strategy, memorizing the steps and progressions I wanted to take.
Up before the sun, our first liturgy of the day was at 7 AM, and I stood in the center aisle, trembling with the weight of the responsibility that had been placed in my care, gazing at the faces of the commuters who were heading into the city, and the retired people who preferred the early morning quiet for their.
I opened my mouth to speak. And very quickly lost my train of thought.
I knew I was wandering and unfocused—that my ideas were not connecting in anything like an orderly fashion—and this revelation only caused heightened anxiety which exacerbated the situation. I started “circling the airport” (as it were) looking for a smooth landing, but no obvious one presented itself. In the end, I essentially crash landed the sermon, just to put us all out of our misery.
In the sacristy following the service, the rector looked at me with great kindness.
“Mother,” he said gently, “that sermon made no sense.”
“I know,” I replied, tears sliding down my cheeks.
He just nodded and smiled and said, “Hey. It happens.”
The rest of the day was packed with activities. Children’s Programs. Home Visits. Helping out between liturgies. I had no time to fix my problem sermon. So instead, I preached my horrendous sermon four times that day, each (I am sure) a slight variation on the chaotic piece I had created for the holiest season of our common life.
As in the rest of life, particularly life with God, I received great gifts from my own failure.
I learned that there is no “gold standard” for preaching techniques. I had always believed that preaching without a manuscript was the highest possible artform in the homiletical universe. And for many preachers, extemporaneous preaching is exactly how they accomplish their best proclamation. But not for all preachers. I learned to lean into my strengths as a writer and as a preacher, and to trust that effective preaching can be accomplished in numerous ways. My own sermon preparation and my approach to scripture is very often worked out in my writing. My fingers pray as I type on the keyboard. And the manuscript in front of me when I preach is part of the work that the Holy Spirit is accomplishing through my work and ministry. It is not a shameful crutch. It is a holy offering. And I learned that on the Ash Wednesday when I was a new priest.
I learned too, so much about grace and gentleness. Gentleness in many forms: The grace and gentleness of a wise and experienced priest who chose not to shame me, but stood beside me. The kindness of an assembly who welcomed me back into the pulpit many many times after that day. The gentleness I was able to have for myself, realizing that looking at that day through the lens of compassion, I can honor the grace and consolation of the Holy Spirit, which is nothing less than a manifestation of Jesus’ own tenderness.
The Reverend William Stanley - Associate Rector at All Saints Church in Beverly Hills, CA
It was a hot and humid Sunday in Columbus, GA in the summer of 2013. While part of a summer-long Clinical Pastoral Education at the 900-bed, Level 1 Trauma Center in downtown Atlanta, GA, a rector in the Diocese invited me to come preach. The church was some 90 miles or so away from Atlanta, so he put me up in a hotel Saturday night. I arrived after a 12-hour shift as the on-call chaplain at the hospital. Like many a seminarian, I committed some “rookie mistakes.” To begin, I had only preached a few times in public before then (the required preaching courses at my seminary didn’t come into the course schedule until the 2nd and 3rd year), so I was not yet in any kind of “rhythm.” At that point I was also under the illusion that primarily a sermon was based on reading/research—an occupational hazard when in every other instance in school one reads and reads and writes and writes—so I had not yet done enough of the crucial, integration work which comes NEXT to formulate how any of that “head knowledge” might meet the pastoral needs of a given community of faith. Even before one word was preached, I knew it wasn’t my best…and yet I had planned to give it my best effort. As I got up in the pulpit and looked out upon this sight-unseen congregation, to my great surprise, there were some other visitors from Atlanta. Seated about halfway back was my sponsoring rector from the large, resource parish in Midtown Atlanta and his family: they had come to “surprise” me (while he was enjoying sabbatical time away from his parish.) Yikes! All in all, the sermon wasn’t a catastrophe. No one was injured and thankfully, the good news of Jesus Christ is not constrained by our faults. I learned valuable lessons from this experience, namely
1) to trust my own voice in the pulpit
2) to see my reading and writing as preparatory work to the task of actually constructing my sermon
3) to always have my context/setting in mind, asking, “What does the Holy Spirit want this community to hear?”