My education in preaching aligns with the tradition of excellence in manuscripts. It is the tradition of the crafted phrase and the choice of the perfect word at the perfect time. It is the tradition which includes Fosdick, Buttrick, and Claypool.
After using an electric typewriter for a few years, I graduated to word processing – on a Commodore 64. I remember the absolute marvel I felt the first time I cut and pasted dotted-green letters on the screen and pasted them into another point in the sermon where I thought they were better suited.
It was a significant milestone on my quest for the holy grail – the perfect sermon. The flawless manuscript delivered perfectly. One where I included everything in the pulpit that had been on paper, in the order it was written. Nothing left out. A sermon where I anticipated the illustrations or quotations offered by church members at the door. A sermon that said it all and said it well.
I keep every preached sermon in a file folder with all the research that went into its writing. Almost every sermon had notes and file clippings added to the folder AFTER the preaching – in the hopes that if I ever tried to massage it into condition suitable for publication – I would have the all the material to make it a perfect sermon.
After forty years of trying, I still have not written, nor have I preached the exact sermon that I planned during the week. No matter how captivating I think the idea is, no matter how good or how powerful the illustrations seem to me, no matter how profoundly I think have explained the text, all my sermons leave something out. Like the sentence crafted in the study, but forgotten in the preaching moment. The story found in the Sunday paper after the sermon was preached, but would have made a much better introduction. The new understanding of a text which rendered all my past sermons on that text pointless. Perfection has always been beyond my reach.
I often felt as Tantalus must have felt. You remember Tantalus. He is the famous figure in Greek mythology, a half human son of Zeus who was uniquely favored among mortals, but he committed a crime related to food. The stories vary as to what he did. Whatever his crime, Tantalus was punished by being “tantalized” with hunger and thirst in the afterlife. He was immersed up to his neck in water, but whenever he bent to drink, it all drained away. Luscious fruit hung on trees above him, but whenever he reached for it, the winds blew the branches where he could not grasp the fruit. The myth says he starved and thirsted for eternity, with satisfaction just out of reach. Just as the perfect sermon is out of reach.
Then I read a quotation from an artist who said, “I used to strive for beauty. Now I strive for life.” I saw a parallel between seeking beauty and perfection. I quite striving for the perfect sermon – since I wasn’t going to write it anyway. I started placing a priority on life.
I engaged the congregation more. I no longer focused on the words, the outline, or that manuscript. I focused on the people, the lives they lead, and the faith to which they aspire. It was freeing. The result was that the sermon seemed more alive to me.
The manuscript became a discipline for preparation, not a master. I left it in the study after reducing all my preparation to as few notes as possible. I became comfortable when, during the preaching moment, I left out illustrations that seemed important or forgot phrases I had worked hard to craft. I accepted that they were part of the preparation of myself, but not the sermon as it was preached.
There is no task into which ministers inject more of themselves than preaching. Consequently, preparation styles are personal, with each of us using the methods that work best for ourselves. Whatever your method, my advice is to work hard. Prepare well. But ask yourself if the congregation will recognize their lives in the message? Will they see how the Bible relates to their lives?
If the answers to these questions are “yes” and you’ve prepared well enough, forget about perfection, put the manuscript aside and trust the Spirit. Perhaps you will experience the grace of reclaiming the joy of your calling.