Trimming and Pruning

I never used to get sick.

Now that I have a small child, however, I seem to get every virus going around. The most recent of these produced an interesting learning moment for me in the pulpit. On Saturday morning, after a long week of illness, I realized I had drastically overestimated my hopes of getting better. I had a painfully sore throat and persistent cough, and my colleague was out of town. I knew I couldn’t depend on my voice to last the eleven to thirteen minutes that I usually preach, so I had no choice but to be creative with my sermon. I decided to pare down my remarks to five minutes and include some time for the congregation to sit in silence and then talk with one another.

I learned several things from this experience. First, sermons don’t have to be long to be effective. There have been other times that I intentionally preached a short sermon, primarily because the service was already full of other great stuff. Those sermons, on the whole, have been pretty good, perhaps because every thought, every detour, every word, had to make the cut. I believe that my preaching, both that day and beyond, has benefited from the exercise of trimming and pruning.

Second, there’s something to be said for variety. Even those who told me they preferred “a more traditional sermon” had a surprising amount of substantive reflection about my “nontraditional” one.

Third, experiments like these don’t have to be “gimmicky;” sometimes they can be downright powerful. This experience was borne of necessity but also echoed the reality of hearing diverse human beings tell the story of God. During a year when lectionary texts come primarily from Mark, it’s important to remember that not all of us tell the story n the same way. Some of us, like the writer of Mark, are naturally more succinct than others. Others of us, like the writer of John, see the beauty in layered complexity. Some would rather not use narrative at all, finding more room in poetry, metaphor, image, joke, harmony, or even silence.

During my sermon, I asked the congregation to think about the last time they were presented with really good news and then reflect on their instincts afterward. Did they spend time crafting the perfect story, complete with dramatic pauses and sound effects? Did they reach for their phone and clumsily text their friends with shaking fingers? Did they rush right over to share the news in person, the words tumbling out almost accidentally? When we preach, we not only share the Good News but call others to do so. How can we encourage a range of voices to bring their own nuance and richness to the Good News of Jesus?