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Friday, December 26, 2014

Preaching from a prepared heart.

I'm not going to even try to reprint my Christmas Day sermon here, which I preached from the center aisle without a single note in front of me.  I talked about angels I have heard on . . . um, low  . . . who still sang "Gloria" in the very presence of The Incarnation.

Suffice it to say, it was a labor of love. It took hours to prepare. Hours and hours and hours.

I've been doing this now, off and on, for about a year. The folks at St. Paul's, Georgetown, DE have been my inspiration and I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

Oh, I've tried it, from time to time, over the years. But, I've really been attempting serious application of this theory on Sunday and major holidays.

Here's some of the things I've learned:

First, this is not as easy as it looks. Seriously.

And, let me tell you from first hand experience, it's not for sissies. 

It's so waaaay beyond a simple memorization of the text it is mind-boggling.

You have to let go of any notion of "perfection", which is really an illusion anyway, even with a prepared text in front of you.

Once that's established, you have to be comfortable enough with imperfection to invite people in to find the humor in the absurdity of life. Because, I mean, what you are attempting to do is smack-dab in the midst of the Realm of The Absurd.

It begins with the fact that, as Episcopalians and Anglicans, we are people of Word and Sacrament.

Let me "rinse and repeat": That's Word (as in Scripture) AND Sacrament (as in Eucharist).

It's a balance.

The task of the preacher is to break open the Word so that the people of God may be nourished in the same way that the Sacrament of Eucharist feeds the people of God to go forth and do the work of The Word - the mission of the Church - the Good News of The Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At least, that's the way I was taught. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

I was also taught that one ought to strive to make The Breaking Open of The Word no longer than The Breaking Open of The Bread. So, 10-15 minutes tops. Which is - generally (ahem) - no problem, if one is reading from a manuscript and reading the Eucharistic Prayer from the BCP.

However, if one is "preaching from a prepared heart", the almost irresistible seduction in hearing the sound of one's own voice and connecting visually with the eyes and faces of others is to . . . well, to put it kindly . . . wander.

It takes enormous discipline to preach without a manuscript, precisely because one can be tempted to cover one's insecurities by wandering off into a piece of church history or tradition or scripture or a pity story from one's own life experience or someone else's in which one feels positively confident and can "show off" a bit by imparting one's knowledge to the unsuspecting masses who have not had the time, money or inclination to afford a seminary education.

Or, the luxury of time to be actually paid to reflect on these things. 

It is a temptation which should be resisted with every ounce of once's being - whether or not one is preaching from a manuscript in the pulpit or from a prepared heart in the center aisle. 

It also helps to have a story to tell.

I mean, Jesus did it all the time.

Telling a story - especially one that has actually happened to you and has been, in some way, transformative - is, in my admittedly not-so-humble opinion and admittedly neophyte position, the heart of a sermon which is preached from a prepared heart.

There is something additionally transformative for the preacher in telling the story and watching the transformation - or, at least, reaction / response - on some of the faces of some of the members of the congregation.

In that moment, the presence of the Spirit is palpable. By that I mean that one can actually, really, honestly and seriously feel the presence of The Spirit - Ruach, Shekinah - in the room.

The feeling can range from feeling as prickly as electricity in the air or as comforting as an old, warm, tattered sweater.

In that particular moment - for me, anyway - I absolutely do not remember what I've said. It's scary and wonderful and mystical - to be in control of so many things about preaching and yet completely surrendered to and trusting in The Spirit.

And then, there's the whole point of the sermon.

Fail #1: Give good advice instead of Good News
The point - the ONE IMPORTANT THING - you are trying to say and have tried to illustrate with your sermon. It's important, at the end of your sermon, to state how you think your story has made your point.  And, to make it with passion and clarity and in a way that allows people to have something to take home and think about. - even if they disagree with you. 

This is the "one, two, three" of your one sermon point which you make without actually saying "one, two, three". And, saying it with conviction and passion - or, at least, some sense of urgency.

Because, you know, if you don't think what you've just said is important, I mean, why bother?

So, I just want to say that I'm no where near as "polished" as I want to be about this.

I am still practicing, practicing, practicing and I am beginning to feel some improvement. Sort of like the point a musician reaches when she has moved from scales and a halting rendition of "Heart and Soul" to her first recital when she hasn't actually "nailed it" but she hasn't embarrassed herself, either.

Or a sculptor or painter or musician who has had a public viewing of his work and, perhaps, received an inquiry about the purchase of his piece. Not a sale, actually, perhaps. The inquiry is enough.

I've been practicing the art and science of priesthood for almost 29 years.

What I've discovered is that I still have so much to learn.

I'm not blowing smoke here.

This is my truth.

I am so grateful for the folks who have tolerated me and been so patient with me for so long over all these many years.  I'm so blessed to have known so many generous Christians who are kind and compassionate. You have taught me so much. I hope I've been a good student.

I'm also thankful for those of you who have been my sharpest critics. You have also taught me things I never would have learned any other way.

Here's the thing: When done well, whether using a manuscript or preaching from a prepared heart, preachers always fly with The Holy Spirit.

As one Hospice patient said to me recently, "Honey, it's not how you come to church, it's how you leave it that matters."

If the preacher and presider isn't transformed, how can we expect anyone else to have that experience? And, if not, why bother coming to church in the first place?

Suffice it to say, - preached from a manuscript from the pulpit or preached without a note from the center aisle - a sermon is a labor of love.

At least, that's what it is for me.

Your actual mileage may vary. 

For me, it's all about "nourish(ing) Christ's people from the riches of God's grace, and strenghten(ing) them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come." Just as it says in the vows a priest makes at ordination (BCP 531)

That's not about "fast food". That's about substance.

No matter  from the pulpit or center aisle.

But always, always, always, from a prepared heart.

Because we are people of Word and Sacrament.

And, the Eucharist is the sacrifice of thanksgiving and the sermon is a labor of Love.


SCG said...

And the church of the blogosphere says, "Amen!" Love this!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Glad you liked it SCG. It was fun to write. Much more so than "writing" a sermon from a prepared heart. That's real work. LOL. Well, for me, anyway.

Scoop (Leslie Scoopmire) said...

That is wonderful advice! I especially like the illustration of the heart during sermon prep.

The idea of no text terrifies me-- partly because the last sermon I heard preached without notes or text just didn't work for me. It's not the method's fault on that, though.

C said...

Thank you

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Scoop - I was NOT happy the first few times I preached from the center aisle without a manuscript. It's taken me years to even be able to write about it. Keep at it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Vivian - You are most welcome

Jim Hammond said...

About half way through my career I switched from text to a "prepared heart." In my case that means thorough preparation and research, on occasion a few notes if there is an exact quotation, but a spontaneous delivery.

When doing multiple services, often the delivery is quite different from one service to the next. On occasion I have actually changed the whole approach from one service to the next.

You are so correct -- one has to be willing to make mistakes, appear silly at times, and trust that the Spirit will be present. There are occasional failures, of course, but having experienced the joy of extemporaneous speaking I do not think I could go back to text.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Jim. I admit, I do love the challenge of learning a new skill. I hope my enthusiasm doesn't come across as "better than". I think both have their place and I look forward to the ability to move back and forth among the two styles. I imagine this must be what it feels like to be ambidextrous.

8thday said...

My growing up years were spent in a church where the minister delivered a 20 - 30 minute sermon every week without a script, pacing back and forth and through the congregation. And I still remember quite a number of those sermons, even 40 years later. Now I understand why.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I personally can't imagine being able to stay on point for 20-30 mins w/o a script but I've seen Jack Spong do it for an hour and he never wandered and I never got bored and it never felt like an hour. It's a real gift