Or, Why not simply point-click-preach?
I’ve just gone fifteen rounds on the topic of internet sermon resources, and I’m just about shot. I’m done with it. But I’m not going to sleep tonight until I get this off my chest.
I say I’m done with it because the upshot of this final round had me “taking the stand,” as it were, in defense of a preacher doing his own exegesis and his own homiletical development (this after I’ve also lately been asked to defend the Lutheran position on the Office of the Public Ministry; the icing on the cake for me is that these are sticking points between me and another LCMS pastor). You know what the funny thing is? My arguments have been sound, Biblical, and Confessional. And I’m oh-for-two.
So I’m done with that discussion. I think the first place I went wrong was in thinking that the conversation were possible in the first place. That is, I failed to adequately appreciate the reach of post-modern thought’s tentacles. Post-modern thinking is the most illogical of systems. It reduces all contrary or contradictory viewpoints to differences of opinion or preference. No matter my argument, my stance was only considered as my “preferred method of sermon development.”
Preaching another’s sermon as if it were one’s own. I’ve posted on the subject before. I’ve read several stories about preachers whose ministries were terminated because of even one instance. Yet for some it is a regular practice. The arguments in defense of the practice are all similarly self-justifying: “I was running out of time and I needed something.” “They said it better than I would have. Why reinvent the wheel?” “Sure, it’s not technically ethical, but it’s all about proclaiming the Gospel, y’know?”
And behind each of those answers, my question begins somewhere in the neighborhood of, “Then why must it be such a secret?” If indeed there is nothing inappropriate or ignoble about the practice, then why is it not a matter of public knowledge?
Why the practice frankly sucks.
If I may, I’d first like to turn to the Small Catechism. The Eighth Commandment, as Lutherans number them, is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The Catechism explains this commandment with these words:
We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest possible way.
The traditional handling of this commandment is to prevent behavior. It prevents us from speaking evil of our neighbor. It precludes our gossiping about another. It curbs our sinful desire to in any way damage our neighbor’s reputation.
Yet as with most of the Commandments, there is a “but.” After the “but” is an exhortation toward actively keeping the commandment. Here we are exhorted to “defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest possible way.” The Large Catechism amplifies this. In short, your reputation is important to God.
To preach another’s sermon is to deprive him of his due honor. Indeed, imitation is the highest form of flattery. But imitation without citation is often prevarication. More concretely, if another “said it better than I would have,” is it not then appropriate to honor that one’s work as superior? This provides a wonderful opportunity to actually quote the other–to “speak well of him” and thereby build up his reputation.
I’m reminded of Letter XIV from Wormwood to Screwtape in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. The issue was humility:
The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour [sic] that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s [sic] talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise [sic] all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.
When one flagrantly preaches another’s work as his own it is the exact opposite of this humility. That preacher seeks the other’s talents for his own. This may further indicate a Ninth Commandment sin of covetousness–of another’s talent or reputation; a First Commandment transgression in the form of loving accolades more than God.
Secondly, as I’ve written before, it is inherently dishonest. Be it a lie of commission or a lie of omission, it remains a lie. To allow someone to continue believing that one wrote words that are not his own is the same as willfully misleading someone in believing those words are his.
Thirdly, as I’ve also written previously, it is at least a betrayal, if not an act of theft, against the congregation. They called one to serve as pastor/preacher with the understanding that he was trained to preach. It is not a giant leap on their part to assume that he is doing the work for which they have called him and likewise compensate him–preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments. That he is doing the work these tasks entail is generally understood. To knowingly and purposefully do otherwise is not just dishonest. It’s lazy.
Pastors are expected to be theologians. In this church body a four-year degree is a prerequisite to seminary admission, and the MDiv requires at least another four years of formation. Laziness leads to a disregard for that education and that formation. Laziness pushes us toward the path of least resistance. This laziness is unfortunately not new to the church. Hear Luther speak:
Some pastors and preachers are lazy and no good. They do not pray; they do not read; they do not search the Scripture … The call is: watch, study attend to reading. In truth you cannot read too much in Scripture; and what you read you cannot read too carefully, and what you read carefully you cannot understand too well, and what you understand well you cannot teach too well, and what you teach well you cannot live too well … The devil … the world … and our flesh are raging and raving against us. Therefore, dear sirs and brothers, pastors and preachers, pray, read, study, be diligent … This evil. shameful time is not the season for being lazy, for sleeping and snoring. (Meuser, Fred W., Luther the Preacher, pp. 40-41.)
Pray. Read. Study. Be diligent. Do the work of preaching.
In the fourth place, and related to the foregoing, preaching the Word of God is an event. It is dynamic. It’s an act through which God acts in the here and now. When the Word of God is preached, that Word acts upon the hearers. The sermon is not simply “filler material.” To simply point-click-preach is to treat casually the Word and work of God. It is a form of “despising preaching or God’s Word.” The Third Commandment directs us to “hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
Again, let Luther speak. He had an appreciation for the task, not only of speaking a sermon, but of preparing it:
Sure, it would be hard for me to sit “in the saddle.” But then again I would like to see the horseman who could sit still for a whole day and gaze at a book without worrying or dreaming or think about anything else. Ask … a preacher … how much work it is to speak and preach … The pen is very light, that is true … But in this work the best part of the human body (the head), the noblest member (the tongue), and the highest work (speech) bear the brunt of the load and work the hardest, while in other kinds of work either the hand, the foot, the back or other members do the work alone so such a person can sing happily or make jokes freely which a sermon writer cannot do. Three fingers do it all … but the whole body and soul have to work at it. (Ibid, pp. 44-45.)
The place of preaching is central to the Office of the Public Ministry. Hence the Confessions refer to it as the “Preaching Office” (“Predigtamt“). The preacher’s task is not merely in the delivery of the sermon. It is in the development as well.
A double standard.
Most preachers wouldn’t think about printing lyrics or music in a bulletin without that precious CCLI number right after it. They expect their children to produce their own research papers for school. They themselves would likely not have the nerve to submit another’s work as their own for print media. But as far as sermons go, nothing is out of bounds. Somehow the genre of the sermon transcends legality and plain old “right.”
Understand, there are literally thousands of online sermon resource sites. Many provide their sermons gratis. Add to these the various bound and print resources out there and you’ve got a veritable homiletical candy store from which to pick and choose. One need never produce another original sermon. It’s all been done and it’s all there for the taking. “All things are lawful for me,” cries the lazy preacher. “Good,” “right,” and “salutary” are then forgotten.
Just because they’re accessible does not mean that it’s OK to use them carte blanche (shall we also discuss the availability and propriety of internet pornography?). Availability and propriety are not necessarily equivalent terms.
If not him then who?
A real kicker is the less-oft-considered issue. Exactly whose sermon is it? Forget about the issues of intellectual property and ethics. Who’s really in the pulpit? Obviously it’s the preacher. But in the case of the borrowed sermon, the preacher is merely the vehicle for another’s preaching. Granted, he made the choice, such as it was, of a particular sermon to deliver. Yet the theology of that sermon is driven, not by the sermon-deliverer, but by the sermon writer. Practically speaking, for the Lutheran pastor to preach a Methodist’s sermon is tantamount to inviting that Methodist preacher to step into that Lutheran pulpit. And while I’m quite certain that most Lutheran preachers would not think of pulling a move like that, they functionally do just that on a regular basis.
One guy’s opinion?
I write this from a certain perspective. I am a pastor writing about pastoral practice. I know where I stand on this. (I write this entire post cautiously, as I am dangerously close to flogging a dead horse by broaching the subject again.) I’m honestly interested in hearing others’ opinions. I’ve obviously heard some–those of my opponents in this. What say you?
Clergy, have you encountered this? What has your response been? Were you to encounter this, either again or for the first time, how might you respond? Would you respond?
Lay persons, what say you? What might your reaction be were you to learn your pastor didn’t write his own sermons? Have you had such experiences? Care to share?
Is it a prevalent problem, or am I just that lucky to have stumbled upon it? Are we due for an American Visitation? Is it something that circuit counselors would be willing to address? Districts? Synod in Convention?
As always, thanks for your comments.