Sunday, May 1, 2011

Trashing sermons

This past weekend, due to the cancellation of a four day event, some blessed discretionary time opened up. What to do? Time for a purge! Hard rubbish collection is due in our suburb so time to get rid of accumulated junk that has survived the 'will I ever need you again?' analysis for way too long.

The depths of the attic space revealed dusty boxes. Letters to and from my beloved from the early days? Hard man that I am, my purging mood might have prevailed but my marriage would surely not survive such a unilateral decision. Another dusty box reveals sermons and liturgies from my early years in this 'odd and wondrous' calling. I pick through a few and wonder whether any of the sermons were still 'preachable'. Hmm, maybe not.  I don't notice any fundamental shift in my theological orientation (my neurotic side wonders whether I am 'stuck') but they are the reflections of a younger person. I decide, with some reluctance,  and a distrubing lack of ceremony, to put them in the recycling bin with no sense that they are recyclable apart from the neat little cards these hard-wrought words are written on.

I am surprised how easy it is. If there are fifteen years of sermons in that box those little cards add up to nearly a million words, 150 hours of speaking and many times that of preparation. One tilt of the hand and into the rubbish they go - quite salutary. Good riddance to an anachronistic form of communication?

Without getting into the debates about the efficacy of preaching, my decision was based on a growing conviction that good preaching is essentially contextual. It is the (hopefully) faithful attempt to communicate the gospel (Word) in a particular time and place so that it becomes God's living Word. Bultmann referred to preaching as an 'event' and I think this explains my growing reluctance to publish sermons. I've been tempted, when asked for a copy of a sermon, to reply 'sorry, you had to be there'.

At one level such a response sounds deeply pretentious. But at another level it preserves something fundamental about this form of communication that seems so anachronistic, namely, the immediacy, particularity and the contextuality of God's address to us. The words written on my old sermon cards could not be used again. Some of them made me wonder and wince. I could only pray as I tipped them in the bin, that at the time, the Spirit was hard at work, using my feeble, faltering words, to bring good news, bread, not stones, to hungry people.

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