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Monday, December 17, 2012

Homiletical Malpractice

Imagine a surgeon finishing the operation, and the patient is alive and is going to live.  He made it!  The surgeon was successful, right?  He cut, the patient lived, and on to the next patient.

But wait!  He had to remove both legs, just below the knee.  Measures taken during the procedure insured the patient would have to have assistance breathing for the rest of his life.  The surgeon did not think any of these lasting negative side effects would happen, so he did not warn the patient or the patient's family.  They expected a successful surgery.  They and the patient expected that after a recovery period, he might not be 100% again, but he could rejoin his softball league and get back to golfing.  He had visions of himself and his wife taking their Golden Retriever on long, early morning walks.  They had no notion it would go the way it did.  I guess that's the risk you take when you go for surgery.

For his part, the surgeon was baffled.  He had done this type of surgery before.  He prepared the way he usually did.  The week leading up to the surgery, he had gotten less sleep than usual, but not the night before.  The night before he got his usual sleep.  And anyway, there had been many times when he had accomplished much more difficult surgeries with better results on less sleep.  He could not fathom any reason why he had to take such extreme measures to save the patient.  But once he was started, all he could do was follow through.

I felt like this fictitious surgeon about 2/3 of the way into my sermon yesterday.  I was talking about the effects of sin and the need to know the effects of sin.  What I wanted to say is that we cannot get salvation without knowing why we need it.  We are sinners!  I prepared as I usually do.  I read probably seven different resources (Old Testament Commentaries) throughout the week lead up to Sunday.  In fact, I probably read more background work than usual. I don't know what the quality of my thinking was during my study time, but I definitely put in the time.

My prayer life needs to be better and I know that.  I am certain of that.  But I prayed giving more attention to God than I had in previous Advent sermons this year, and I felt like those sermons were fine.  I know prayer preparation needed to be better, but in the past I have done better sermons on the same amount and same quality of prayer.

The unnecessary negativity of the sermon should not have surprised me.  I am after all the one who wrote the sermon.  And I read through it out loud three times before delivering it.  But somehow, in my practice read-throughs, my overemphasis on sin did not register.  I couldn't feel how oppressive the sermon was until I was giving it with 125 people watching and listening.  And then, in that moment, I just wanted to be done.  But I couldn't quit and my mind wasn't nimble enough to take it in a different direction.  I had to follow through.

Fortunately, unlike the fictitious surgeon whose efforts rendered his patient legless and with need of breathing apparatus, the effects of clergy malpractice in the pulpit are reversible for several reasons.  First, in preaching the listener's participation has a lot to do with the sermon's impact on that listener.  Those who listen closely typically listen attentively every week. They hear the good news including when it is preached in happier tones.

Second, the preacher (in this case me) gets another chance.  I was too heavy handed on the third Sunday of Advent.  I have the chance to be lighter and more festive on the fourth Sunday of Advent.

Third and most importantly, the Holy Spirit is the greater determiner of success than either preacher or listener.  I can skunk it up in the pulpit and the Holy Spirit can still do something with that.  A listener can be completely checked out, not hearing a word of the message, and the Holy Spirit can still break through to that listener's heart.

A final word on yesterday: my ill-timed emphasis on sin, which in turn negatively affected what could have been a good sermon, was not for lack of effort.  Nor was the sermon poorly formed due to malevolent intentions on my part.  I know what went wrong.  And I will do my best to be more positive.  And thankfully, I have the chance - this Sunday.

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