Recently I went to my office at the church where I am pastor and went through my normal routine of opening the mail. No personal mail, mostly just the generic “Dear Preacher, do you want to have the most dynamic ministry east of the Rockies?”, plain vanilla, junk mail.
My attention, however, was arrested by a bold headline at the top of a letter asking “Does your congregation say, ‘Ho-Hum’ or ‘Wow!’?” The letter went on to explain that “preparing a homily can take between a day and a day and a half out of your week.” At first I was amazed that anyone would expect such a proposal to be taken seriously, but the more I thought about it, the angrier and more incredulous I became. The presupposition of the letter raises serious questions about what one does with his or her preaching ministry specifically and in pastoral ministry in general.
As a graduate student in homiletics, I regularly and routinely read the printed sermons of others. I do this as a devotional exercise, mostly. I also believe that it is entirely possible that through reading the sermons of others on a regular basis, I may subconsciously begin to form more complete images of what is a “good sermon.” They may help me to answer more fully for myself the question that all homileticians ponder — “What do I do when I preach?” I may even pick up an illustration or story that I can adapt for my own use.
The thought that I need to subscribe to a service to give me sermons to preach to my congregation is another matter entirely. I preach because God called me to preach. Notice I do not say I am a pastor because God called me to be a pastor. I do delight in my pastoral role and can think of nothing else I would rather be. It represents an intrusion into the pastoral role, however, for someone else to take the relationship that rightly belongs to me in feeding the flock that God has entrusted into my care.
Those of us who have had the opportunity to minister to a family in a time of severe crisis know that there is a tremendous sense of fulfillment that comes when that family says, “We don’t know what we would have done if you had not been there for us.” If I take the easy way out and preach someone else’s sermon to them, have I really “been there” for them?
In reflecting over the churches in which I have served, and the people to whom I have preached, my mind floods with memories of people who have meant a lot to me. I think of the woman whose “All-American” teen-aged son was killed in a car accident, who because of the tragedy that had befallen her has found her way back to church in search of hope when answers can’t be found. I think of the small struggling mission church that is grieving the premature loss of one of their most prominent and beloved leaders to cancer. I think of the members who quietly go about their servant ministries which are unnoticed for the most part but would quickly be noticed if left undone. I love these people and they love me. There is also the sporadic attender who may, by attending church one Sunday, suddenly find himself face to face with Christ. How dare some outsider who does not know me or my congregation presume to steal my role as chief feeder of the sheep! They look to me as their pastor for a word from God.
The letter presented the task of sermon preparation as a drudgery which took “a day or a day and a half” out of my schedule. The question I ask is, “What is my sermon preparation taking time away from?” I thought that was my job? I thought that was what the church paid me to do! In my overall philosophy and theology of ministry, the time I spend in God’s Word preparing to feed Jesus’ sheep is of first importance.
I delight in those moments when I have been in the midst of preparing a sermon and I knew beyond any shadow of doubt that God was moving in and through me. How much poorer I would be if I did not experience those moments! If it were not for these moments, I would have considerably less to share with these people as their pastor. Time in study comes with the territory of being a pastor.
Classical rhetoric defines three classic modes of proof which apply to preaching: ethos, pathos, and logos. Preaching someone else’s sermon would be inappropriate according to any of these three criteria. Logos refers to the logical arrangement of the material in a sermon. Ethos refers to the character of the speaker. It implies that a speech will be more believable if the speaker is believable. Pathos refers to the passion with which one delivers his or her message from God. As to logos, what do I do if I do not agree with or follow the logical argument that one uses in a pre-printed sermon? Do I preach it anyway? How can I be believed if I am merely “renting” the experiences and insights of others instead of spending time in study receiving a message from God? I know the sermons I have preached that have been the most powerful have been those in which “the text took hold of me.” The pathos, ethos, and logos of that preaching event are all genuine when that happens — not to mention the sense of the Spirit’s anointing upon that message. The great preacher of a previous generation, John Bunyan writes:
I never dared to use other men’s thoughts and sermons …, though I do not condemn those who do. But as for me, I have found that what I have been taught by the Word and by the Spirit of Christ, that I could speak boldly with my conscience vindicating all that I said. (Grace Abounding)
It can be safely assumed (or at least it should be) that the readers of Preaching magazine are not the types who would subscribe to a “sermon service.” That being the case, why would one then raise the issue? It raises the question, “When, if ever, is it appropriate to use the material of others?” Other questions are, what precautions should I take in “borrowing” the material of others and what are appropriate uses for the material of others?
It has well been said that there is nothing new under the sun. Most of us, if we would be honest with ourselves, would have to admit that we are not founts of original ideas. The discipline of preparing sermons weekly that are to sound fresh, interesting, and inspiring can tax the creativity of even the most brilliant preacher. That’s why it is important, yea, even essential to gain insights from our colleagues in ministry. If an all-time great preacher has a sermon on that difficult text that I can’t seem to get a handle on, I would do well to read that sermon and see how a recognized master has approached it. One should be careful that he or she does not go to the “old master” too quickly, however. If I look at another’s sermon too soon, it will begin to dominate my thoughts so that my sermon may be virtually indistinguishable from it.
I would suggest that one at least have a basic structure for the sermon in mind before seeing how others have approached the text. If one sees a substantial similarity between his sermon and one that has planted the idea in his mind, it is appropriate to give credit to the one whose idea you have borrowed. You may wish to make a statement such as “I am indebted to Harry Emerson Fosdick for the idea from which this sermon developed.” You may simply wish to make any acknowledgements in the printed order of worship.
I also believe it is possible to use printed sermons to enrich one’s devotional life. After all, isn’t that a reason for preaching in the first place? By standing in the pulpit and proclaiming the Word of God, aren’t we trying to draw our people into a deeper relationship with God? I know that as a graduate student, my time is limited and there is no shortage of books to be read. Sad to say, sometimes the reading that I should do to enrich my own devotional life receives short shrift. Through reading the printed sermons of others, I enrich my own devotional life.
There will never be a shortage of people who fail to recognize the difference between legitimate homiletical helps and illegitimate homiletical “short-cuts.” I remember the seminary chapel speaker who joked about “stealing sermons” and then went on to talk about integrity. A professor recently commented on material he had seen, entitled “Ten Easy Sermons on the Cross.” I recently reviewed a volume of books by an outstanding preacher which was presented as material for me to preach rather than as material which could enrich my own preaching ministry.
Preaching is hard work and requires full engagement of all of our faculties. However hard the work gets, I receive comfort and encouragement from remembering that the Lord of the Universe has for some unknown reason tapped me on the shoulder, entrusted a local flock of believers into my care, and expects no less than the very best that I have to offer. A daunting task? Certainly! But, faithful is the One who called you.

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