Second in a series trying to find theological significance in typical elements of Unitarian Universalist worship services.
In Protestant days of yore, the sermon was straightforward. The preacher expounded the word of God: “Warrant for regarding preaching as word of God is found in Jesus’ declaration, ‘Whoever hears you hear me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me'” (The Study of Liturgy, ed. Cheslyn Jones et al., rev. ed. [Oxford, 1992]). Doubts about God grew in liberal religious circles, and the old death-of-God theology of the mid-20th C. meant Unitarian Universalists couldn’t depend on everyone affirming God’s existence any more — but once God is gone, what then is the purpose of the sermon? We had better figure out what exactly the sermon is, if it’s not the word of God.
I’d like to think the sermon could be an expression of the gathered, covenanted community, but all too often it has become an opportunity for self-indulgence by the preacher, as when the preacher presents us with slice-of-life vignettes, using his or her life to (allegedly) make some religious point. Or the sermon becomes entertainment, as when the preacher is under the mistaken impression that Garrison Keillor represents the sine qua none of preaching (he doesn’t, and many of us feel he isn’t even a particularly good entertainer). Or, most dreary of all, the sermon becomes an “address” or a “talk,” and is reduced to being a mediocre lecture by a mediocre intellect.
Our problem with sermons is compounded by a mistaken understanding of “freedom of the pulpit.” Preachers and congregations interpret “freedom of the pulpit” to mean license to say whatever the hell you want. Call it cowboy preaching: the preacher rides into town, two six-guns slung low on the hips, ready to shoot it out with anyone who dares tell him or her what to preach. In the old days, freedom of the pulpit meant the preacher had license to speak truth to power, like the prophets of old; with the understanding that speaking truth to power was done under divine inspiration. Since God can no longer be relied upon, we can no longer rely on the justification for freedom of the pulpit. As one old Unitarian Universalist minister said to a bunch of new ministers, “There’s no such thing as freedom of the pulpit, so just forget it.” Unfortunately, too many preachers still say whatever the hell they want.
No wonder so many people are trying to eviscerate the sermon. The “Soulful Sundown” crowd wants to replace the preacher with the singer-songwriter (at least the signer-songwriter is entertaining). The fellowship crowd wants to turn the preacher into an adjunct faculty member of the nearby university (too bad you can’t get academic credit for attending church). The NPR-loving crowd listens to “Prairie Home Companion” instead of bothering to come to church at all.
Instead of eviscerating sermons, think of the sermon as one installment in a long conversation. The evolving conversation takes place within a covenanted community; the sermon should offer a snapshot in time of the conversation’s evolution; the purpose of the conversation is a search for truth and goodness. The preacher has the holy trust of accurately reporting the concerns of the convenanted community as one participant in the community of inquirers. And the preacher should remember that she or he is responsible for furthering the conversation based on careful listening, deep reflection, and participation in the wider conversation going on between congregations. The congregation has to do its part: listen carefully, reflect deeply, participate in the wider conversation outside the congregation, and carry on the conversation outside of the Sunday morning worship service.
If we’re not all going to affirm God, then it’s up to all of us to co-create the sermon, by doing the hard work of actually talking about religion with each other, and with the preacher.