Hanging On to Old Sermons
From the Gettysburg PO by President Michael L. Cooper-White
March 17, 2011
Flipping through a file of old Lenten sermons the other day, I came upon my “farewell sermon” preached at Angelica Lutheran Church in Los Angeles in mid-Lent 1981. It’s hard to believe that three decades have passed since I preached that message entitled, “Clean and Blind or Dirty and Whole?” on the Gospel for Lent III. I can still recall the mixed emotions of the occasion: excitement as I embraced a new call, which I anticipated would be a brief hiatus away from parish ministry (I haven’t gotten back yet); and deep sadness at saying goodbye to this community of God’s faithful that I had served and come to love.
Running across that memory-sparker manuscript (I’ve always found it works best for me to write out a sermon, and then try to deliver it without too much dependence on the text) made me glad I’m in the clergy camp of the sermon-filers-and-hoarders. Others—like those who have toted file boxes each time I’ve moved my office and household—might wish I were in the other camp of sermon-shredders (or now the growing cadre of recyclers). I have always respected, and been a bit in awe, of colleagues who periodically jettison all their already-preached sermons, in part lest they be tempted to avoid the hard work of encountering pericopes anew and just reach for something “in the barrel.” While I won’t profess that I’ve never drawn some material from old sermons, the constantly changing contexts in which I have preached for three decades as a synodical and churchwide staffer, and now seminary president, always seem to force me to start afresh on an old familiar set of texts.
I suppose as much as anything, my drawers full of sermons from across the years constitute a kind of pastoral journal, with some personal memorable moments recorded therein as well. Sermons preached on the occasions of my son’s baptisms remind of those special celebrations. Funeral homilies recall the Godly saints over whom I was privileged to pronounce a final benediction. Sermons preached in the aftermath of great tragedies—congregational or societal—bring back to life the pathos of the moment-in-time when they were delivered. There are the sermons from my internship in Chile and homilies given in El Salvador during the war years. And ones preached after the great Oakland fire and on the Sunday after 9-11. Another retells the courage of a California congregation on the Sunday they confronted the sudden death of their pastor whose bicycle hit the rear of a truck when its driver suddenly slammed on the brakes. Still other sermons remind me of the challenge as a bishop’s assistant in revealing to a trusting congregation that their pastor was guilty of sexual misconduct or had suffered a nervous breakdown. There’s the sermon of a brash young pastor in San Francisco who preached to all the church’s bishops and admonished them to pay more attention to God’s beloved who are gay or lesbian (that one “got some legs” beyond the sanctuary and generated some pretty sharp letters!)
After her freshman year in college, daughter Macrina volunteered for several weeks in the Seminary library. Her assignment was to catalogue the sermons of one of our distinguished alumni, The Rev. Robert Koons, who in his 90’s now still proclaims God’s word with his every breath and smile. Expecting a boring task of archiving old yellowed manuscripts in manila folders, Macrina would come home some evenings talking excitedly about the content of Bob’s sermons. “He was preaching about civil rights,” she was impressed to discover. “He raised questions about how Christians should regard the war in Viet Nam,” she noted after cataloguing some of Pr. Koons’ sermons from the early 1970’s. Bob’s sermons constituted a kind of written “oral history” of how a pastor engaged the Word and struggled to let it live among God’s people in times turbulent and triumphant over the course of a half-century or so.
Here at the Seminary we have the privilege of making at least some small contribution to the preachers of tomorrow, who from their first year are also today’s proclaimers as they anxiously approach a pulpit on their maiden homiletical voyages. We also have an amazing talent pool of preachers among the Seminary’s faculty and staff, seasoned craftswomen and men who model what this chapel attender regards as some mighty fine preaching. That the voices we hear in the Church of the Abiding Presence are equally divided between the higher and lower registers signals an exponentially enriched preaching cadre from the days when the preachers’ voices were all male.
As far as I recall, no seminarian has ever asked me about whether or not to hang on to sermon manuscripts, outlines or worksheets once a preaching moment has passed and the homily has been delivered. But I’ll offer my unsolicited advice nevertheless: Yes, keep them! Bother to move the files with you when you may go from one call to a new one (it’s a lot easier these days when you can just keep them on your computer or a flashdrive). On your bad days, go in search of some old sermons that remind you of your happiest times in ministry. When your ego gets inflated, go back and reread some that bombed, just to be reminded that a good preacher is like a fine pianist who can never rest on her/his laurels but must open up the keyboard day after day and practice, practice, practice what you preach!