27 August 2007

On Sermons

Pastor McCain has asked on his blog if we are not starving our people by shorter sermons. It is not a secret that preaching in the Lutheran Church has produced shorter sermons of late than in previous years. Is this a problem?

I think it CAN be a problem, but I don't think it NEED be a problem. I am a fan of concision in sermons. I do not think that if you can say something in ten words and get the message across, you should pad it out to a hundred words. I do not think that filling out a requisite 20 minutes or more will necessarily benefit the preaching of the Gospel.

I believe it was St. Augustine who made the observation: "If I had had more time, I would have written less." I think that is a good rule for sermon preparation. Take the time to review what is written and eliminate the excess pork. What I've found a good rule of thumb is if I go over the sermon in my mind and find there's a section I missed because I forgot it was there, that's usually the first section to eliminate. What hangs together in MY mind, I figure, stands a better chance of hanging together in MY PEOPLE'S minds.

My hero for concise sermonizing is St. Peter Chrysologus, fifth century bishop of Ravena. Let me tell you, HE knew how to pack some incredible punch into short sermons - I would think that by and large his sermons could not run more than 12-14 minutes. But what gold in those precious minutes! It is my hope, my prayer, my dream that one day I will be able to preach a sermon that comes close to what that great father routinely accomplished!

13 comments:

Father Hollywood said...

Having grown up in a non-Lutheran tradition where sermons typically ran 45 minutes or more, I'm skeptical of lengthy preaching. Unless we're teaching a Bible class, it seems that it shouldn't take that long to proclaim Christ from a text.

We also have to be sensitive to the fact that we live in a TV age. Like it or not, attention spans are not what they once were. Better to preach a tight ten minute sermon that people will actually listen to than an epic thirty minute exposition that gets tuned out after the first five minutes.

I think preachers need to get to know their own flocks and preach to them. Not all congregations are cookie-cutter clones of each other. I don't think there is a "one size fits all" rule for the length of a sermon. What might play in Peoria might bomb in Boston. That's one reason we have flesh-and-blood preachers and not algorythmic computerized sermon generators.

Does the sermon proclaim Christ crucified unto forgiveness and eternal life? That's more important than word-count.

I remember a quip from Dr. Marquart about preaching. He said something to the effect of: "For the love of God, gentlemen, say what needs to be said and then shut up!"

Of course, the preacher is in charge. If on a given Sunday he needs and extra ten or fifteen minutes in the pulpit - so be it. Even if your church is in an NFL city and many in the flock have season tickets (even if the home team is called "the Saints"). ;-)

Chaz said...

You have given Chrysologus a run for his money more than once.

Christopher Pao said...

Fr. Weedon,

You had a thread similar to us a week or so ago. I feel that I must, probably to your chagrin, and rehash what said there. All of this talk of sermons and how long they should be or what they should cover seem to take more preeminence among Lutheran pastors in their conversations rather than how to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Does not the Liturgy proclaim Christ crucified? Again, all this talk about sermonizing seems to imply that the Liturgy is missng something and that only the pastor can supply what was lost.

Forgie me for beating a dead horse.

William Weedon said...

Dear Christopher,

Nothing to forgive. It is a difference of perspective, I grant. In Lutheranism, the sermon is not secondary to the Eucharist. It is of a piece with it - or it should be. But the question does nontheless engage Lutherans, and I would be so bold as to suggest that it should engage the Orthodox too.

"Woe unto me" said the Apostle "if I do not preach the Gospel!" Each Lutheran pastor and Orthodox priest should say the same.

William Weedon said...

By the way, on the Orthodox side of the equation, I think Fr. Behr has really helped a great deal in suggesting to Orthodox that not only the liturgy, but preaching itself, must focus on the cross.

William Weedon said...

Fr. Beane,

Amen!

Fr. Lehmann,

Thanks for the kind words, but you know that never have I written anything that comes close to this:

Death, brothers, is the mistress of Despair, the mother of Unbelief, the sister of Corruption, the parent of hell, the wife of the devil, the queen of all evils, who is so insatiable and so deliberate in her attacks against the whole human race that she first sends ahead Despair to murmur and seduce on her behalf as follows. So Despair says: “O man, why are you wasting your time? Look, Death, your mistress is coming, and she is going to reduce your soul to nothing and consume your flesh with decay and your bones with aging, so as to make you, who did not exist before your birth, nonexistent after death. So, you who are about to die, do not delay to pay what you owe to the various stages in life before you die: spend your childhood in games, spend your adolescence in delights, spend your youth in pleasures, spend your old age with me, so that you will not image that you have no reason to have despaired of hope.”

After she sends her daughter Unbelief, who makes the following threats: “Are you thus disposing of your life as if you are not going to die, as if you will avoid death? O man, faith is deceiving you; you trust faith, which promises future blessings in order to take away present ones; and pledges that there are all sorts of unseen things after death, in order to remove the things that do exist before death. Who has come from there, or what wise person believes in things that have been promised for so long but never fulfilled? Oh, if only you would eat and drink! Eat and drink, for tomorrow you will die!”

Third, she directs Corruption, her sister in wickedness, with such fury that she assaults, lays hold of, and seizes what can be seen of human beings throughout their graves, and revealing her ultimate prisons she points out those who lie there bound and immobile, and in order to throw all the senses of the human being into turmoil with complete horror and complete fear, she oozes decay, she belches gore, she strews stenches, and she proclaims that she has supplied worms from herself as countless butchers to one human body.

Why should Christians not trust Despair or Unbelief? They are the way Death wages war; with these generals and with these tactics in a battle of this sort she captures, crushes and kills al those whom nature brings forth into the present life. She holds sway over kings, she conquers peoples, she routs nations. It has never been possible to bribe her with wealth, or to move her by entreaties, or to soften her by tears, or to conquer her by strength.

Brothers, how wrong those authors have been who have tried to write about the good of death. And what is so surprising about that? In this case the worldly-wise think that they are great and remarkable if they convince simple folks that the thing that is the greatest evil is the greatest good…. But these things, brothers, truth dispels, the Law banishes, faith attacks, the Apostle censures, and Christ blots out, who, while restoring the good that life is, discloses, condemns, and banishes the evil of death.

Chaz said...

Fr. Weedon,

You at your best are better than Chrysologus at his worst.

And when Chrysologus is at his best, you're still damn good. I daresay the Bishop of Ravenna cracks a smile at the donkey sermon, and were he not in heavenly bliss already, would be comforted by it.

Rev. Christopher S. Esget said...

After a little over nine years of preaching, I've noticed that, with an occasional exception, the better my preparation and study, the shorter the sermon.

A certain seminary professor still pops into my head from time to time snarling, "Get to the point!"

Christopher Palo said...

Fr. Weedon,

You wrote: "By the way, on the Orthodox side of the equation, I think Fr. Behr has really helped a great deal in suggesting to Orthodox that not only the liturgy, but preaching itself, must focus on the cross."

I'm familiar with some of Fr. Behr's writings, though this is a new one to me. For us Orthodox, the totality of "all of the things that have come to pass for us for our salvation--the cross, the grave, the third day resurrection, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand of the Father and the glorious second coming" is always proclaimed. Why divorce one from the others? The hymnography of Great and Holy Friday always puts these events into one single continuous action, for all of these are for our salvation. The Liturgy does as well; it does not need to be changed because one man feels it should.

William Weedon said...

Christopher,

I was thinking of how he expressed himself here:

"It is the Gospel, Scripture read in a particular fashion, through the prism of the Cross, that is salvific - if the Law itself were salvific, then Christ would have died in vain, as Paul points out (Gal. 2:21)." - Fr. John Behr, *Orthodoxy*

The Scripture read through the prism of the cross is a beautiful way of expressing the faith, and that does not mean at all to deny the vital importance of the incarnation or resurrection or second coming! It means that we see in each of these the Man of the Cross in a different aspect, but always the One who "tramples down death BY DEATH."

Steven G. said...

C.S. Lewis thought that communication should be ruled by brevity and clarity. I tend to agree.

David said...

Bill Weedon wrote:

"It is my hope, my prayer, my dream that one day I will be able to preach a sermon that comes close to what that great father routinely accomplished!"

I listened to you preach for four years. You already do.

William Weedon said...

David,

You are too kind, and I appreciate the encouraging words. But I have to confess that preaching is still something that I struggle with each week and that I do not at all feel myself to be accomplished at. Certainly nothing close to what St. Peter Chrysologus pulled off regularly!