In my free time I’ve recently begun watching the PBS series Grantchester, a television show about a village priest who solves murders in his free time. Since my free time doesn’t seem to be as generous as Mr. Chambers’, the main character, it was only the other day that I finally got to season one, episode three, where Mr. Chambers welcomes a novice curate, Mr. Finch, to the parish staff and assigns him his first-ever public sermon.
There may be, somewhere in the world, a young clergy person whose first-ever sermon is a feat of homiletical brilliance. I myself was not that clergy person, nor have I ever met such a person. My experience was more like Mr. Finch’s, whose first sermon turns out to be a jumble of unintelligible theological words and concepts with brief mentions of the biblical text of the day that leaves the people in the pews amused, befuddled or asleep.
Grantchester must have had a great clergy consultant on set, because I knew exactly how Mr. Finch felt as he stood up in the pulpit desperately trying to cram everything he learned in seminary into 20 minutes. Thank goodness time and experience help us preachers learn it’s not necessary to compile every profound thought about God and human life and scripture into every single sermon.
Coming to that realization, however, always involves a little bit of grief. Paring things down means saying goodbye to some interesting rabbit trails, fascinating theological meanderings, even some solid interpretations of the text, in order to craft a tight sermon that speaks to the life of the congregation right then. Littered on the cutting room (pastor’s study) floor, then, are necessarily scraps of substantial content. And each week as we head into the pulpit there is always a moment or two of staring wistfully at what could have been in order to articulate what should be. And also keep folks awake.
This past Sunday I preached a sermon on the text from John, chapter five about Jesus healing a man who had been sitting and waiting to be healed for 38 years. There were so many directions to take with this text, but I had to settle for one. After worship we held a sermon talkback, where congregation members shared their views of the text and the sermon, along with some of their own stories about healing. Threaded through the conversation I could hear all of the sermons I didn’t preach: the ones that ended up in the digital trash this time around. What about a little sympathy for the man’s pain? Let’s look at what this text says about communal healing. Why didn’t you talk about the role of sin and forgiveness in healing? Does everybody come to church/God seeking healing, as you suggested? Do miracles actually take place and, if so, why not in my life?
As I listened to the ideas, perspectives, challenges, and reflections bubbling up from the congregation, I was grateful again for the corporate work of worship and the reminder that the pastor’s word is never the final pronouncement of interpretation or truth. Every week we only scratch the surface of the profound truths of the life of faith, identifying small morsels of nourishment along a whole buffet table.
What a relief to see God’s lively Spirit dancing on the pages of the text and in the minds and hearts of the community, calling all of us into deeper conversation with God and with each other. This experience was a good reminder as Monday dawns and I begin to think about cracking the text for next week open. I already know: there will certainly be plenty to talk about, so much I’ll undoubtedly need to cut a whole lot and save it for next time.