PREACHERS AND PREACHING
I have estimated that I preached about 3,372 sermons in my career. I took lots of preaching courses in seminary and grade-wise I did as well there as in any of the other disciplines taught in seminary. Many of those sermons were forgettable. I know because that has been the testimony of lay persons (they don’t remember them) and there are many (most) that I don’t remember. Unanimous opinion!
I was licensed to preach on May 4, 1957, and the license was given to me at a special service on June 10, 1957.
The process started in 1956, with approval of the Ludlow Quarterly Conference on April 15, 1956. The District Committee approved me on May 19, 1956. I completed the studies on April 23, 1957. I was ordained as a Deacon in 1960 and as an Elder in 1962.
If I were completely honest and this is the place and time for honesty, I have only heard one great preacher in my career. His name was Harrell Beck. He broke lots of the modern rules, but he held his audiences spell-bound. He could talk for an hour and you would not want him to stop. He might come to some great stopping points, but he would go on and wow his listeners some more. But his techniques could not be taught or caught. He was unique. One of a kind. He was the Old Testament professor at Boston School of Theology. He taught Old Testament to Martin Luther King Jr. and to several bishops in The United Methodist Church and last of all, to me. I discovered him or he discovered me at the summer school at Vancouver School of Theology. Once discovered I kept going back for more.
When he was working, he spent every weekend preaching somewhere. When he retired, he and his wife were going to China for some teaching and enjoying that culture. However, he went into a doctor’s office and died. His wife was very angry. She had given him to the church for many years and now that he was retired, it was going to be her turn. It was not to be.
Oh, I have heard some good sermons, but Harrell Beck was consistent. His lectures were like his sermons. Or should I say his lectures were sermons. Hour after hour, I never tired of listening to him preach the Word. I shed tears when I learned that he had died. More tears than when I learned of my father’s death.
Donald Hartman was very good at first person sermons. He would assume the role of a biblical character and present the sermon in that way. I never mastered that technique. Robert Moon was very good at getting to the heart of the matter on social issues. I did that occasionally. Usually I lost members every time I tackled tough issues. Sometimes they didn’t want to think about such issues in worship. Often they disagreed with what I said.
It got so bad at East Anchorage that one astute lay person asked for a public hearing of the membership to discuss my sermon on the death penalty. (I was and am against it). Apathy reigns in most churches, so only about a dozen people showed up to hear her protest. Even her husband (who probably was more angry than she) did not show up. Every other person present disagreed with her, but she felt heard, so she didn’t leave the church. What was interesting is that one 80 year old woman, who also disagreed with my position, affirmed the fact that she wanted me to tackle tough subjects. The woman requesting the hearing wrote a touching tribute when I was honored at a later occasion.
Usually when I experimented with new techniques in preaching, I would get push back from a portion of the congregation. That didn’t feel good and it is one aspect of ministry that I did not and do not appreciate. Many people like routine. So change is threatening.
I was a fan of dialogue sermons. Many were uncomfortable because they were not comfortable with interaction, with others or with the preacher. Such sermons are harder to prepare than traditional sermons..
Now that there are television screens and computers available for worship, one hears the mumbling from those who do not like it. Such tools can be very useful for communication. I was saving film clips for years, but never got to use them because the technology was not available in the worship setting..
Example: a clip from The Elephant Man where he proclaims : “I am not an elephant. I am not an animal. I am a human being. I…AM..A..MAN,” would add visual power to any preaching about accepting people as Christ accepted people. I never got to use it. My bad.
I took a course in Preaching Contemporary Literature in seminary. Even got an “A”. I practiced what I was taught.
Occasionally I had sermons that even I could remember. I loved biographical sermons. I have sermons on Naude’ Beyers (South Africa), Corrie ten Boom, Gandhi “Is Gandhi in Hell?”, Kahlil Gibran, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, Ed King of Mississippi (we even had him preach at Stanwood), Anna Howard Shaw, Bartolome de Las Casas, Fanny Crosby, the story of LeChambon, France, and Andre’ Trocme, Elizabeth Peratrovich (Alaska), and Michael Servetus, . It may have been more effective to use these persons as illustrative material, rather than spend a whole sermon on each person. Who knows? I bored a few people, but I was not bored. That should count for something.
Ideas must be considered dangerous. Nikos Kazantzakis was treated badly by the Greek government. Who is Nikos Kazantzakis? He is best known for writing “Zorba the Greek”. But he also wrote “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “The Greek Passion”. I saw the movie “The Greek Passion” in the 1960’s. It was a formative religious experience for me. I made sure lots of people saw it and no one was affected by it in the same way I was. That should be a cautionary fact as we engage in “spiritual formation”. When Nikos died the government wanted to bring his body back to Greek soil, but his widow would not allow it to happen. Good for her. Kahlil Gibran was excommunicated, but when he died and his body was returned to Lebanon, the roads were literally lined with people to pay respect as his body passed by on its way to burial. Michael Servetus was condemned as a heretic by both Protestants and Catholics. This may not be true of all heretics, but when some one upsets the establishment this badly, I think we need to learn more about what he or she was writing and saying and doing. And so I have done that.
Books and/or movies occasionally inspired sermons: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Babette’s Feast, Chocolat and the Harry Potter Movies would be examples. Sometimes the titles were better than the sermons: “My Dog, the Methodist” and “Thank God for Fleas”. When I saw the movie “Chariots of Fire”, I dug a little deeper and learned the wonderful story of Eric Liddell, missionary to China and martyr for the faith.
So I think Dr. Merrill Abbey might have been proud of this preaching pupil. At least I let one course affect my preaching from time to time. Biblical truths can be communicated through contemporary literature and movies.