What makes a sermon good?

I got a notice this week about a preaching award. It’s called the “Brave Preacher Award,” and will go to the “best” sermon addressing the recent shooting in Tucson and doing so in light of the Sermon on the Mount. The prize: $500.

Something about awarding a monetary prize for a sermon…I don’t know. It feels weird….maybe even antithetical to the intent of preaching. Would the Sermon on the Mount have won Jesus a prize? I mean, it’s a little on the long side, right? The focus and function statements? Difficult to determine.

And yet, that sermon is still around 2,000 years later. That sermon has changed perhaps millions of lives…and not just Christian lives. Did you know that Mohandas Gandhi read the Sermon on the Mount every day?

What criteria will the sponsors of the preaching contest use to determine which sermon is best? If sermons are preached to particular people in particular contexts, how can a determination be made that one is better than another?

I guess I need to let you know that I did doctoral work in preaching. I spent a lot of graduate work grading sermons. Yes, grading sermons.

It’s true. There are some things that can be rated–the proper use of the biblical text (the USE of the biblical text!), the appropriateness of illustrations, the cohesiveness of the sermon’s theme…

While working on my doctorate and in the midst of grading many sermons, my grandfather died. Two ministers preached at his funeral.

The first minister’s sermon–the church’s new pastor–preached a sermon that I would have given an A- in class. His focus and function statements were clear, the stories well-told. It was a good sermon. But he didn’t know my grandfather.

The second sermon was preached by the church’s previous pastor, the one who knew my Pa Joe. His sermon was a mess. I’m not sure he knew what he was going to say before he stepped into the pulpit. He wandered around the whole countryside in his remarks.

At the end of his wanderings, though, he told a story about him and his young son leaving church one day. Just as they had reached the door to go out, the little boy turned around and shouted, “Good-bye, Joe Buck!”

That image, those words…they helped me do what a funeral sermon is supposed to help grieving loved ones do–let the beloved go. “Good-bye, Joe Buck!” Good-bye, Pa Joe.

In class, the sermon would have netted a C. At the funeral, it did exactly what it was supposed to do; it helped me say Good-bye to Pa Joe.

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to let you know that I did win a preaching award in seminary. At that point, though, my preaching, for me, was still about me. As a new preacher in a denomination that didn’t encourage women preachers, I needed the affirmation of winning an award for my preaching.

But now? I don’t know. It just seems like there’s more to it than, as one of my colleagues used to say, “hitting it out of the park” every week.

Now, I’m beginning to appreciate the wisdom of Frederick Buechner’s reflections on sermons. Sermons, he says, “are like dirty jokes; even the best ones are hard to remember. In both cases that may be just as well. Ideally, the thing to remember is not the preacher’s eloquence but the lump in your throat or the heart in your mouth or the thorn in your flesh that appeared as much in spite of what he [sic] said as because of it.” (Wishful Thinking, 86-7)

I got another notice soliciting sermons this week. This one came from an organization that wanted to collect as many sermons as they could on a single topic.

That felt a bit more helpful to me. That organization isn’t rating one sermon better than all others; by doing a broad call for sermons, they are acknowledging the importance of hearing many voices on a particular subject. That email makes me want to look through my old sermon files to see if one or two might be appropriate.

…hmmm…where is that disk of old sermons?

Peace for your journey.

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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3 Responses to What makes a sermon good?

  1. Dianne O. says:

    Hi Kim — just wanted you to know how much I’m enjoying reading your writing again. Keep up the blogging! Dianne

    • Hi, Dianne! Great to hear from you. Takes me back to Southern days (the good parts of those days). Blessings on your work as a prof. There are some lucky students in Evanston, Illinois!

  2. Rochelle says:

    Loved this blog!

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