All I know about Jesus is what I heard him say. That’s all I know about almost anybody. It’s not true that “deeds speak louder than words.” Only words speak. The old “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one” is only partly true. Most ministerial speech these days tends to be in the affirmative mood. We pastors are, in the acerbic words of Stanley Hauerwas, a “quivering mass of availability.”
“Start seeing the resurrection,” says Jesus, as he walks with the disciples to Jerusalem. He is teaching them about his death and resurrection, but they don’t understand. They are confused and reluctant to ask for clarification. Or maybe they are frightened into silence by the words betrayed and killed. Whatever the cause of their fear, they do not respond to Jesus when he describes the end of their journey.
One of the ways to divide the human race, I have concluded, is between those who can tell a good joke and those who cannot. Some people are joke-telling experts. They have jokes filed away in their memory and can pull them out at just the right moment and reel them off with perfect inflection and timing. It’s a life skill.
I am mostly a utilitarian reader. For 40 years I have been writing and preaching sermons weekly, and I have come to rely on the almost exact relationship between the quality and quantity of my reading and my ability to create a sermon that has some life and energy to it.
When my children were younger, they used to call the first Sunday after Labor Day weekend “Opening Day.” They were referring, not to that long-awaited day in early April when the first major league game is played, but to the Sunday when our life as a family began once again to be determined by the rhythm of the church year, church activity and my weekly sermon preparation.
Preachers are like comedians. They are always looking for new material. If the recent spate of articles on preachers plagiarizing in their sermons is any indication, the production of the weekly sermon in the face of limited time and a challenged imagination has become the overriding issue for busy ministers.
My brother was the first to call. We chatted about Barry Bonds: What justice is there in his going four for 27 in the 1991 play-offs as a Pittsburgh Pirate (our favorite team as young fans), and then, as a San Francisco Giant, hitting 73 home runs, four of them in his last six times at bat? Suddenly my brother let me have it. “Are you sure it was the Second Inaugural?” he asked.
We occasional preachers forage for illustrative material just as desperately as do those who produce weekly sermons. Recently I sought material that would help me render Luke 12:32-40 in contemporary terms: “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.