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A Robust ‘So What’?
Preaching in a new community raises the awareness of essential sermon nutrients like a magnet gathers loose metal shavings on a workbench. Over time those essentials fade into the ordinary and are strummed but forgotten, while the motion of transition disturbs the assumed, causing everything to seem uncommon and beg for attention.
On retreat with members of the first congregation I led, the facilitator asked those gathered about my preaching themes. I was stunned to see them fill up a newsprint page and hear them discuss with detail what I talked about on Sunday mornings. Because I had rarely heard a preacher that caught my attention, preaching did not seem important to me. Preaching was just another time filler before Communion. Like the Biblical readings that laid heavily upon the glassy-eyed congregation in worship, the sermon was simple one more required tablet of fiber before getting to the Bread and Wine.
But suddenly I was faced with the reality that at least some people were listening. I confess it was my Ego that woke up first: “What must they think of me,” I trembled. So off I sent myself to The College of Preachers. I know, it conjures up an image of Dante’s Inferno with a special section just for the morally deranged. Alas, it is now defunct but what a magnificent place it was.
Pardon me for reminiscing. The College of Preachers deserves a moment of notice for the fertile soil it tilled. Niebuhr and Tillich watered there, as did most of the theologians and preachers that formed the once deep thought-trust of American Christianity. A dedicated building in the shadow of The National Cathedral at Mt. St. Alban’s in Washington, DC, it oozed with the odors and mojo of library-church-community. The great preachers, teachers and thinkers of their generation would come hold forth in conversation with young pups like myself. It was special and all told, I spent ten weeks there over the course of eight years. It changed my life and it made me a preacher.
But here is the point (and thank you for indulging me). On my first visit, that warrior for the empowerment of laity, Verna Dozier, slapped me in the face with those two words, “So what?” Instructed to bring a recent sermon with us for critique, I had just delivered my best effort – for which I possessed enormous secret pride. Upon hearing it, Verna asked, “So what?”
It was more of a statement than a question. So what does that have to do with anything that matters? So what does that have to do with ordinary life as we live it? So what does your sermon contribute to anything in anyone’s life?
That is what she was asking and I was speechless in reply. I could not think of a single thing that my sermon contributed or inspired in any practical, earthbound way other than to make me feel really puffed up proclaiming it. It is a core if not first principle in preaching.
I made the mistake of telling my wife about what I learned that first week at The College of Preachers, and she ruthlessly applied it as criteria for years. That is another thing I learned, even if by accident: arm those near and dear to you, people who are not afraid to speak the truth in love, with your preaching principles and listen to them when you ask for feedback.