Monday, February 22, 2016

Six Hundred Sermons on the Wall, Six Hundred Sermons . . .

            This week, I’m going to preach a sermon about heaven. I’m not that keen on heaven as a sermon topic anymore. It isn’t that I don’t hope for some sort of wonderful surprise when I close my eyes the last time. It is just that I’m not counting on it. And I’m certainly not living for it or in fear of some other place. It strikes me that I need to live for this life and my current neighbours. If there is more, after, it’s all gravy. I think that's about what I'm going to preach, too.

            Still, I thought I should go back into my collection of old sermons and review my journey with respect to heaven and hell. I did a key-word search, and came up with a dozen good hits. I read what I had preached before, in another life. And I didn’t find anything that grabbed me or convinced me, though I did find a lot that made me shake my head and think, “I said that?”

            But this exercise got me to thinking about all my old sermons—about six hundred of them. I used to have two filing cabinets full of them. They were four-drawer behemoths. I carefully catalogued my sermons by text. Each sermon folder contained all of my false starts, all of the material that I had edited out of the final revision, and all my exegetical notes. Each file contained both the final manuscript, and a copy of the notes I took to the pulpit. On each folder cover I kept track of where I had preached the sermon, the computer file-name of each revision, and thoughts about how the sermon had gone over, as well as how it might be revised in the future.
            Early in my career as a preacher, the effort I put into cataloging, preserving, and reflecting on my sermons made a lot of sense. In my first congregation, in Sarnia, Ontario, I had to preach six times a month. I came to that congregation with twenty-five or so sermons “in the barrel” that I had written during seminary. I decided to use one of those sermons each month, so that I only had to write five new sermons each month. This meant there was only one week each month I had to write two.

            With vacations and study leaves, this plan got me through almost three years of ministry. In my fourth year I went back to the new sermons I had preached my first year, tried to improve them, switched out a few memorable stories, and preached them a second time. But I noticed that rewriting those four-year-old sermons was actually a lot of work. Those old sermons didn’t really please me anymore. They were all too long, and too sure, and too full of finger-waving, “thou shalts,” and “thou shalt nots.”

            With all the changes I had to make in those old sermons, it was a lot of work to stay ahead of my writing load that fourth year. It exhausted me. Happily for me and my family, my next congregation, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was a dual-pastor situation, and thus the pressure was off. I made sure to write at least three new sermons each month, and used only the occasional old sermon. By then I had a dozen or so that I was happy to preach again. But it was only a dozen out of 250 or so sermons. I couldn’t help but notice that there were many, many sermons that I wasn’t happy with at all. I found many of them to be too exact, too pointed, and too sure.

            After four years in Ann Arbor I move to Grand Rapids to edit the denominational magazine. My new routine was to preach as a guest pastor twice a month. However, I still only had a dozen sermons that I was really proud of—and not the same dozen I went to Ann Arbor with. Later, when the magazine switched from a weekly to biweekly and later monthly schedule, I had more time to write new sermons. I was probably averaging one a month for the last five years I was editor.

            I stayed out of parish ministry for a further six years, teaching at a seminary in the Philippines and working at a graduate school of philosophy back in Canada. When I returned to parish ministry, I found that hardly any of my old sermons spoke to me any more. My thinking had changed a lot. I experienced a lot of inner conflict about what I could, in good conscience, say. My new sermons reflected that ambivalence. I certainly never preached on heaven or hell, because I knew that there was nothing I could say that would be theologically acceptable and true to my own convictions.

            So now I’m in what I hope will be my last parish, in Toronto. It belongs to a different, much more liberal denomination, the United Church of Canada. I don’t think I’ve used an old sermon here, as is, ever. In fact, I’ve dumped the hard copies of all my old sermons, along with their exegetical notes and my reflections on them. These days, my old sermons survive only, ghost-like, in the cloud. They’re pretty much dead letters.

            So why am I thinking about all this? For a few reasons, I guess. One is that as I reflect on all those old sermons, I’m struck by the fact that I’ve changed my mind. And it has been good—an adventure, really.  I’ve changed my mind for a lot of reasons. I’ve read the Bible with more care, and a more open mind (I think). The world has changed. I’ve studied hard, because I enjoy doing so. I’ve read far more widely in theology and philosophy than the rather narrow canon I was introduced to in seminary. I’ve especially read a lot of secular hermeneutics, and it makes a lot of sense—though I know I’m only one and many others might disagree. I’ve also changed my mind because of my experiences in places like Rwanda and Hiroshima. These experiences have given me something akin to post-traumatic-theological stress. The old certainties I used to have don’t measure up to the new questions that sometimes still keep me awake. I guess I’m also a restless soul by nature.

            When I reflect on how I’ve changed my mind, I’m surprised that more ministers don’t change denominations. Does it mean they never change their minds about important matters? Have they stopped reading “tough” foundational stuff and stuck with nothing but pragmatic “how to grow your church” stuff? But I also know that when I published my last book, Not Sure, I was overwhelmed by the number of ministers—including many in my old denomination—who wrote me to say things like, “I’ve changed my mind too . . . but I just don’t know how to get out of the situation I’m in.” Many ministers are afraid to preach what they really think—or doubt.

            When I reflect on how I’ve changed my mind I’m not suggesting that every minister will become more liberal, like I did. Some might become more conservative, I suppose. But the fact that there is so little theological movement in most minister’s lives, over thirty or forty years, surprises me. I wonder, sometimes, if all of the dire statistics about ministerial burnout, depression, and unhappiness are related to the inability of most pastors to imagine changing course by moving to different denominations. Certainly, parishioners do it all the time. Why not us?

            I’ve changed my mind. But looking at all those old sermons also gets me to thinking about the many people who sat through sermons that I could now never preach again. Where does my change of mind leave them? I sometimes wish I could go back in time and offer a “ya, but!” in place of the sermons I actually preached.

            If nothing else, this suggests to me that parishioners should do more than sit in the pews and nod their heads. They need to wrestle with what they hear, listen with a very critical ear, and work to inform themselves of differing perspectives.

            I am not suggesting that they then go after the pastor who has preached something they disagree with. But if we could come to the preaching moment as if the sanctuary was a never-ending conversation between friends, rather than a “Thus says the Lord” [via the minister] moment, we’d be further ahead. Or, as I’ve said before, if we could think of the sanctuary as a playground rather than a lecture hall, we’d all be working for the day when we grow up a bit, mature to something else and move on, theologically at least. Perhaps then, as ministers, we wouldn’t take ourselves so seriously. In the end, after all, people come to know God more through our love for each other than through a particular (out of many to choose from) orthodoxy.

            I do have twenty hand-written sermons left in my last filing cabinet. They are catechism sermons written by my father over thirty years ago, just before he died. I read them over this week. My dad was always a bit insecure about his English, since it wasn't his native language. On the whole, though, he did pretty well on that score. He had a lot of practice, and worked hard at it.

            What struck me was that I didn’t find anything in his sermons that interested me. It was a different time, a different audience, and he was a different person. I suppose I read them as much for the bits of his self-disclosure as I did for his perspective. But on the whole, they didn’t speak to me.

            Just as my old sermons don’t speak to me, and won’t be heard by anyone, anymore. I’m thinking of erasing my disks, jettisoning all of them. I know my kids won’t read them either—no one will. It’s just hubris to keep them. What matters now is this coming week, this audience, this time. That’s what I have to focus on—as well as the text, whether it's a Biblical one or not—as I write my new sermons. Sure, each new sermon is ultimately going to be a brick in the wall that merely proves the truth of, “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” On the other hand, for me at least, there is no life like writing a new sermon this week, and trying to get it right, for now.