“Muscle Memory”

What is the most memorable sermon you’ve ever heard?

How about the most memorable sermon you’ve ever preached? What makes a sermon memorable when so many are easily forgettable?

To be fair, I do not think that a sermon has to be memorable to be considered “good.” There are plenty of great sermons that have an immediate impact and are powerful in the moment but do not necessarily transcend that time and place. But, there’s something to be said for a sermon with a lasting, even recurring, presence.

The most memorable sermons I have ever heard have touched something in me, sometimes even prompting a physical response: a churning stomach, a flushed face, or a racing heart that accompanies grief, joy, or hope. They have been visceral, physical experiences that have brought me outside of my normal, generally distracted, state, and into another one where I’m very aware of myself and my surroundings. Quite simply, they have been incarnational, as God’s Word is made real and tangible for me.

I have learned much about this aspect of preaching from my colleague, Gary D. Johnson. Not one for sappy anecdotes or quotes from esteemed theologians, he goes for the gut as much as the brain or the heart. More than once, he has made us all a little uncomfortable as we come face to face with ourselves in the mirror of the Law and desperately grateful for the Gospel that follows.

Despite my recognition of the power of this kind of sermon, I have a tendency to think of the sermon as the “head” part of the service, while other parts connect with the “body,” such as singing, passing the peace, or receiving Holy Communion. This is a challenge for me as I attempt to mature as a preacher.

I have come to understand that the artificial head/body distinction is problematic, partly because it denies the obvious reality that the head is part of the body. Forgetting this, I appeal only to reason, to logic, or to problems that I think people are facing, neglecting the fact that so many of our problems can’t be articulated with words, and the response of God’s grace and hope in Jesus Christ defies reason or logic. The result is a sermon too limited for the scope of both the sin and the forgiveness present in the Word. Such a sermon probably isn’t bad. It might even be good. But it probably won’t be memorable.