Except when I'm on vacation or have some other good reason for not preaching, I'm in the pulpit most Sundays. I preach on average about 45 sermons a year, and have done so for the better part of the past 12 years. That's a few sermons. Some of them have been, with all due modesty, pretty good, while some have been duds. Interestingly, some sermons that I think have fallen flat, have received the most positive comments -- and well you know the other side. That says to me that the power of the sermon is not totally in the hands of the preacher. Once the words leave one's mouth, we preachers must entrust them to the care of the Holy Spirit. I think that has to be true even for the great orators amongst us.
That being said, we preachers do have a responsibility to the text, to the recipients of our message, and to the God who has called us to this place, to be diligent in our work. Keith Watkins has, this past week, offered a masterful essay on preaching from a progressive point of view. Turning to a decades old preaching textbook written by H. Grady Davis entitled Design for Preaching. In this book, written about the time I was born, Davis offers four questions for the preacher to consider: "Is it true? Do I believe it? Will my people believe it? Even if it is true, what difference does it make?"
Keith notes that progressive/liberal preachers, especially at a time when there are an abundance of conservative theologies present and when so many eschew faith because of its supposed anti-intellectualism, work hard on the first three questions. We are, he suggests, intent on offering something to people that is believable, so we attend to this task with great relish. And we do this in at least four ways:
We work at this in at least four ways: 1) Discount, deny, or argue against the ideas and practices which we think are inadequate; 2) Extract from the biblical record or theological tradition those kernels of truth that we think can be believed and practiced by people today; 3) Ignore the archaic or unbelievable elements, even if they include central elements of the biblical tradition, and replace them with elements from our own time; 4) Develop each text in the light of the major Christian story.
Where we have trouble is with the fourth question. Even if we come up with a believable message, replacing for instance an ancient cosmology with a modern evolutionary one, does it actually make a difference? At the end of the day, have we ended up with an intellectually pleasing lecture, but not something that makes a difference in the lives of the other. Keith goes into greater detail, offering links to longer pieces that he has written, at his blog, which I would encourage you to read in its entirety. Many preachers do offer a dry intellectualism devoid of spiritual benefit, but this isn't true of all.
As Keith notes:
Fortunately, however, many sermons in progressive worship do focus on the life-giving center of the gospel text and on the difference that this can make. On every Sunday in progressive churches, including those intended to be something other services, the work of preachers is to speak the central story of God’s love in Jesus Christ so that people can understand and experience it. Just as we translate the gospels from Greek to the vernacular speech of people in the worshiping assembly, so we search for metaphors and ideas from the cultural world in which the preacher and congregants live to translate the Word of God into the words of the people.
Our task is to do more than simply diagnose and prescribe, but also spend time "proclaiming, professing, and experiencing." Some of this happens in a service outside the pulpit, but "the solo voice of a preacher will continue to be the most often heard. May its message speak the living Word of God to people in a way that gives life to all who hear it."
What Keith has done here is offer those of us who preach a word of encouragement to recognize that our voice is an instrument of God. Whether it is booming (mine tends toward that direction) or soft, whether witty or not, the encouragement here is to continue looking to make the word intelligible, but not stop there. The goal of preaching isn't education, it is offering a gospel that transforms lives. That is, a word that is spiritually oriented.