What is a sermon? How does a sermon differ from a lecture or a talk? Each week a Unitarian Universalist minister starts with an open book (literally) and wonders what the congregation yearns to hear about or needs to hear about. At this service with Rev. Sue Browning we’ll explore the ways a sermon has the potential to challenge and inspire in a struggling world.
Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning
—-The Sacred Hoop by Black Elk
—-The Great Teacher in Life by James Cook
Well, That Was a Sermon!
When asked what ‘I do’ and I respond that I’m a minister, the one thing people know is that I preach sermons. They presume I officiate and weddings and memorials. Beyond that little sense of the role.
What is a sermon? Rev. Thomas Long (“The Witness of Preaching”) understands a sermon predominantly as an act of witness. He notes (99),
“The verb ‘to witness’ has two meanings: to see and to tell. …To witness means in the first place to behold, to be present and active as an observer, to ‘take something in’ … The other meaning of ‘to witness’ however, faces in the opposite direction…witnessing involves ‘giving something out.’ …it means saying something,. … ‘Witness’ in the first sense means to perceive; in the second sense it means to testify.”
This offers a good sense of what I try and do when I preach. I try to o observe and absorb with intent, aware of my context and questions around me, to process and report out through the lens of a UU minister.
Why do a sermon about sermons? A fair question.
Today is to help us stay in synch with one another. You trust me to be in the pulpit. I trust you in the pews. Everything about Sunday mornings is a shared effort. Not just in the doing stuff – the ushering, and making coffee (which are both so needed), but also the making meaning together. We need a shared effort when we worship. Sermons too need to be a shared endeavor; a two-way street; maybe even a three-way street.
To get started, a few obvious (and important) characteristics of sermons. Sermons are prepared for a specific moment in time, for a specific gathering. Sermons are spoken form of communication, they are meant to be heard. And, sermons are a part of worship services, not isolated speeches or lectures. The sermon is offered in the midst of singing hymns, and giving and receiving joys and sorrows, and time of reflection.
So, aren’t sermons like TED talks, or lectures at the library, or presentations at adult learning centers? Well, no. TED talks have been around for almost 30 years with a focus to share ‘ideas worth spreading.’ Interestingly, TED talks are 18 minutes long, and research has found this is: “long enough for a speaker to flesh out an idea, but short enough that the listener could take in, digest and understand all of the important information.” I do find them engaging and often ideas worth spreading, but not the same as sermons.
UU sermons have their heritage in Christian and Jewish traditions. In these settings. sermons are about a path to God, generally through scripture. Sermons help imagine where God is leading, and in turn, to transform the listener. Such sermons generally start with scripture (the Bible), say the lectionary (a rotating sets of passages) or the Torah portion for the week. The clergy studies the designated scripture and considers the ancient context. What can be heard in the text? What might be the relevant lesson for the week? Maybe in conversation with others, and through prayer and reflection, the preacher searches for the holy message that fits in this moment. Or sermons in these traditions might be framed around themes, say honesty or gratitude, and scripture helps bring forward a message.
I’ve heard it said, clergy begin with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other to prepare a sermon. It’s a reminder that sermons need a ‘So, what?’ aspect. What are the challenging matters of the current day? Where are the personal and societal ethical dilemmas? Where are there challenges in relationships? How are we called to be stewards of creation?
And on form, might the needed message be more prophetic, or pastoral this week? Or both? How might the sermon shed new light? Offer new confidence? Or be a kick in the butt?
UUs our sermons aren’t that different, albeit with twists for the theology (the God part) and in the sources of wisdom (the Bible part). And even so, a UU sermon is not a TED talk.
UU theology is broad, yet there are common threads in our spiritual underpinnings. Our spiritual core might be captured in humanist questions, such as ‘What do I trust and value in life?’… ‘What do I believe of human nature, and the potential of humanity in the world?’…Or we might center on mystical questions, ‘Where is the pull of the unknown as a centering force in my life? … Where am pulled toward awe?’
In his book on preaching (“Newborn Bards: A Theology of Preaching for Unitarian Universalists”), UU minister Rev. Matthew Johnson-Doyle reminds us James Luther Adams (Unitarian minister in the mid 20th century) saw our charge in preaching was to make a “moral case for mutuality, freedom and justice.” For the 21st century, Johnson-Doyle asks, “What does it mean to preach in response to and in cooperation with the spirit of life?”
The point: UUs sermons need to have at their core a spiritual sense, and to offer perspectives on around shared values and a sense of purpose in life.
On sources, UU sermons may consider the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as a sources of wisdom or starting points on topics, and may too work from great literature, art, pop culture, comics, TV or even TED talks as starting points or illustrations.
We sometimes hear minister’s job (and sermons!) is to ‘comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.’ For me there is truth in that in the sense that the goal of a sermon is to be transformative.
It is hard to choose ‘what’ to preach about. Blank paper is daunting, at least to me.
As guidance, and to help ensure we cover breadth of theological themes over the course of a year, at UUFE we subscribe to the UU Soul Matters resources. Soul Matters has a monthly theme and support materials. For example, this year we start with ‘Expectation’ in September, and move to Belonging in October. It’s a start, and is used by hundreds of UU congregations.
On my process, about a month before the actual sermon I try to describe the direction of my message – called the sermon blurb, and I give the sermon a title. (This sermon today is in part a reaction to that challenge back in July.)
Taking an example, I’ve heard you want another sermon this year on climate change. Maybe that fits with ‘Expectation’
The news is scary, and the proposed remedies are complex. I might ask myself, What is the struggle on climate change? Is it anticipation about water, or weather? About property or livelihoods? Is it concern for personal safety today, or worry for the future generations?
Where is political frustration, or anger or guilt? What do I have to say about climate change in 2019 to a UU congregation in Easton, MD? Am I comforting the afflicted, or afflicting the comfortable? Where is the spiritual aspect? Is the moral question? Where is the hope in the sermon?
Then I recall reading a headline in July, ‘Plans for an offshore Atlantic windfarm generate a buzz in Maryland’ and I remember the speaker in Chestertown from Interfaith Power and Light.So I play with a sermon title, ‘Where to Put Windmills?”Where might that title lead me and take us? Do we take our public stances with more honesty? Are we cautious of ‘not in my backyard’ thoughts – the risk of the hypocritical? How do risks and remedies affect those with the least? Will sacrifice required?
Where is the spiritual aspect? Is the moral question? Where is the hope in the sermon? UU values?
(A sample of my free form reflection. It’s not always pretty!)
What will connect across generations, across genders, across theological understandings and will be transformative? Can I picture those I hope will check us out here with the regulars? Too specific or too many assumptions about the congregation and the message isn’t broad enough; too broad, and …well…you hear the point, minister’s consider much in the path to Sunday.
Then a worship service and sermon are created. The Sunday arrives. The weather is a part of the day. Who is in attendance affects the experience. The headlines become a filter. I preach. (Or a guest preaches, or a member preaches.)
Will it always be a slam, dunk? Is there always a ‘Here’s the clear take-away message’ and we’re off to coffee?
I hope not. And too, that part – the take away part – is not mine to answer.
At my ordination I responded to this question: Among us and wherever you may be called to serve, we would have you preach, without fear or favor, the word of truth in freedom and in love. Are you ready to assume the privileges and responsibilities of ordained ministry? I responded: I am.
I aim to preach to this standard. Beyond me, UUs come from a long tradition which trusts you – the listeners– with the ability and wisdom to find spiritual depth just as well as I do. It’s a participatory arrangement.
I was thinking back to a service last April called ‘Claiming Pride.’
We had the ‘Crashbox’ theater group here with their 20 energized teens rocking the Prelude (we had to move the Chalice as they spread out). They were joined by our choir for the Offertory. The sermon was on the multiple meanings of pride, and the power in taking pride in identity. It included history on Stonewall and the pride tradition. It considered UUs in this period, and UUs today. Our context for this service, was just before the first eastern shore Pride weekend and the 20 teens stayed for the sermon – engaged young faces listening. And the morning before we had ‘hung’ our huge rainbow flag on route 50 and community training on LGBTQ issues.
A solid service. And even that week I was reminded how different each member hears a sermon. Literally you have different listening settings. Ronald Allen in his book “Hearing the Sermon” researched you listeners.
He found 40% of you consistently lean into your connection with the preacher. You sense my character (or another minister’s /speaker’s character) and my engagement in the message. It’s a filter focused on trust and perception of the speaker. Others (40%) default to hear content development; you are idea focused are drawn to learn from the way the information emerges. And others (20%) have a listening setting oriented toward the feelings generated by the sermon. Your own emotional experience is the sermon you hear.
It helps me to consider not only what I say, but the ways it may be heard, and our shared experience.
A blank calendar for 2019-20. Blank paper each week. What will we create together? How will music fit in? And Thoughts for All Ages? What is we skipped ‘Spirit of Life’ some weeks? (Woke you up there!)
What are your hopes for the year? Input to sermons – always! Ideas, feedback – yes. Or maybe you ready to offer a sermon, or to partner with someone and co-lead a service? There is support. There is a schedule. I preach at 24 services a year in Easton – many weeks are open.
I come to the preaching of sermons having your trust placed in me. I hope to ‘get it right’ (at least most of the time). I know my words matter. We will have fun, and there will be humor. But for us to be together transformed there needs to be more. A sermon is at its heart conversation; a week-to-week conversation. And conversations are more intriguing when your partner goes deep and trusts you to witness well – to behold, and to testify.
As we approach the coming year together, my hope is for Sunday mornings relevant to your lives, relevant to this congregation, and guided by a powerful sense of something beyond ourselves – the holy, the divine, the beloved community.
And my hope is that each week we each come away somehow changed by our work together.
May It Be So