A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 12, 2015
Luke 4:16-21 RSV
In a recent issue of the Christian Century magazine, editor John M. Buchanan relates how that even after retiring from the pulpit three years ago, preaching, in his mind, “remains at the center of things. Three years after retiring,” he says, “I am still learning to live without the rhythm and weekly demand of preaching, and still pondering the mystery of it.”1
Well, reading Buchanan’s article led me to do some thinking this past week about my own life of preaching and the American pulpit in general. So today’s sermon will in part be a confessional and personal reflections. This week marks the end of my seventh year with you here at the United Church. Since moving here in July 2008, I have given over 330 sermons, not counting the wedding homilies and many funeral sermons I have given. And this year marks the 39th anniversary since I gave my first five-minute sermon at my home church. Since starting to preach in 1976, I have given in the neighborhood of 1,900 sermons.
I still recall the first sermon I gave in my home church. I remember the day, the scripture text I used, the topic, and for the most part what I had to say. It was only 5 minutes long, so I didn’t say a whole lot J. By the way, as Luke tells the story, Jesus preached one of his first sermons and shared a sense of his own call into the ministry in his home church, or community synagogue. As Luke tells it, Jesus understood his calling to be a ministry of preaching good news to the poor, imprisoned, spiritually blind, and oppressed, and to announce God’s presence and readiness to save his people.
The act of preaching, you see, was what led me into ministry to begin with. Way back in 1976, the draw, the desire, and the sense of call that led me down the path I would end up traveling was preparing and delivering sermons. That was pretty much it. When I started out, my plans did not include becoming a day-in, day-out minister of a local church. I just wanted to preach. But I was soon to learn that for at least 90% of preachers, the everyday demands of being a minister or pastor is part and parcel of the preacher’s task. And so, I picked up a lot of other duties, and classes, and training along the way, in addition to studying the art, craft, and practice of sermon preparation and delivery.
I can remember as a child of 10 or 12 of being fascinated by churches we passed when traveling on vacation. And I can remember having conversations with one of my cousins about the possibility of growing up to be a preacher. And my cousin’s response was, “Well, I guess, if you could be a famous preacher like Billy Graham.” My mother, unbeknownst to me when I was still a boy, would sometimes say to people, “There is my preacher boy; I expect him to grow up to become a preacher someday.” In other words, she had a feeling—that mother’s intuition.
But the preaching task is not always easy. It may surprise you to learn that most preachers, I think, have what might be termed a love-hate relationship with the preaching task. There are weeks when a preacher is excited about preparing and giving the sermon for the upcoming week, and feels wonderful after that sermon has been given. Sometimes you feel like you have really said something of importance and that really mattered and needed to be said. Early in my college studies, one of my English professors helped me to verbalize why I had chosen to prepare for the ministry and become a preacher. She put me on the spot rather pointedly when she asked me in front of the entire class, “Randy, why was it that you decided to become a minister?” Voicing such a response in a public setting was totally new to me. Caught off guard, I fumbled for an answer. The professor helped me out by exclaiming, “You decided to become a preacher because you feel like you have something to say that needs to be said. Right?” And of course I replied, “Yes; that’s it!” And after thinking about it, I realized it was so. I had wanted to become a preacher in part, at least, because I felt like I had something important to say. So there are weeks when you feel like you have said something that really needed to be said and you feel good about it.
And then there are other weeks when preparing that sermon for the upcoming Sunday, and then actually standing in the pulpit to give it, is a chore that you dread about as much as chopping firewood. Sometimes the preacher says things that he or she would rather not say, but he or she feels strongly that they need to be said. And just think about the responsibility of planning, preparing, and giving 48 fresh, insightful, informative, interesting sermons every year, year in and year out. I have sometimes thought of how nice it would be if the modern preacher could be like Jesus and the Hebrew prophets of old who only preached when they were inspired and really had something to say, rather than being expected to give a sermon every week of the year just because that is what the preacher is expected to do.
Soon after I started preaching, I confessed to my mentor in ministry one day of how, upon awaking some Sunday mornings and realizing that it was Sunday, of thinking to myself, Oh my God! It’s Sunday. I have to preach today! Instead of expressing shock over what I had said, my mentor in ministry—well-seasoned in preaching that he was and recognized as one of the best preachers in the entire denomination—confessed to me that he often awoke on Sunday morning and his first thought was the exact same thing: Oh my God! It’s Sunday. I have to preach today! Though that was roughly 35 years ago, I often recall and lean on that conversation, and I don’t feel so badly in those weeks when the sermon well appears to be pretty dry, or when the sermon topic is not a comfortable topic, or when the sermon material is quite personal in nature and quite difficult, draining or emotional to share.
And I readily admit that not every sermon I give is an excellent or outstanding, or even good sermon. I sometimes look at preaching in light of major league baseball statistics: No major league baseball player—not even Babe Ruth—hits a homerun every time at bat, and is not expected to hit a homerun every time at bat. So it is with preachers and sermons: not every sermon is a homerun. Some sermons are like triples, some doubles, some singles, and some fall flat like a strikeout. But every once in a while, preachers may hit a homerun. Maybe it is the hope of hitting a homerun sermon that keeps preachers going.
But when all is said and done, I have always had a tremendous respect for the American church and pulpit. Since the founding of America, the American pulpit has had more influence upon American life, perhaps, than any other institution. In spite of all the flaws and weaknesses of preachers as individuals and humans just like everybody else, the American pulpit has been responsible for untold positive change in America, leading the way in the abolition of slavery, progress in education, encouraging the founding of hospitals and orphanages and retirement homes, leading in the struggle for civil rights, and in general calling America to be its best self. And so, from a young age I had the desire to be counted among those who stand in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, hoping to bring comfort, share guidance, encourage hearers to rise to the better persons they can be, and to shed some light on some of the contemporary issues of the day.
I am going to share a secret with you today that none of you have any way of knowing. By supporting this United Church with your attendance, service, and offerings, you are helping support a cause that is much greater than this local congregation. You are helping support the great institution of the free, American pulpit. Many of you may not be aware that for the past three and one-half years, I have maintained an online sermon blog where most of my sermons are published so that anybody in the world who desires can read them. As of this past Monday, my sermon blog—which you help make possible through supporting this church and supporting me as your minister and preacher—has posted 177 sermons, has had 15,481 visits, by 8,622 different visitors from 55 different countries around the world. So the positive, progressive, inclusive spirit and message of this church is being broadcast to more people and more places than any of us might have ever dreamed possible! Truly it is as stated in the book, The Riverside Preachers, “. . . preaching is thus addressed to a whole nation . . . . Preaching . . . must speak to the nation’s soul, to repent, confess its sins, to change its ways, ‘to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’”2
Though I sometimes find coming up with a fresh, informative, interesting sermon topic challenging, after 39 years in the pulpit I still love sermon preparation and preaching. And I still believe in the integrity and power of the American pulpit and its potential for being a positive change agent in the world. Finally, I am truly grateful for the support that you as individuals and the church as a whole render, making it possible to be a part of that great American institution—the free pulpit. Amen.
1John M. Buchanan, “Rhythm of preaching,” Christian Century, June 24, 2015.
2The Riverside Preachers. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1978, p. 14.