Today was an amazing day at church. I love Sundays like today. We had decided to transfer Holy Cross day to today because, well, I have a special attachment that feast and it's a good one to celebrate in parish life. The propers (readings and prayers) are just so well aligned that it makes for a compelling liturgy even before you add in wonderful music (including variations on Pange Lingua as an organ prelude, "Lift High the Cross," and Ave Verum Corpus). I arrived early at church, but Eric, my Minister of Music, was already here practicing. Not only that, he had done many of the things I do to get the church ready on Sunday morning. That meant that I had a solid two hours to refine my sermon. I already knew what I wanted to do with it, but having the time to actually practice it in my head in the space really helped tighten it up.
An aside for all you Minister types out there: I have a special mix of music I listen to on Sunday mornings to help me prepare. It's a really grab-bag that includes Joan Baez, Mickey Avalon, U2, Enya, Leonard Cohen, Shaker music, Elton John, Gorillaz, Pink Floyd, and Eminem. How's that for eclectic! Actually, this morning it was the Eminem that really got my juices flowing. I listed to it on my earbuds as paced back and forth in the church feeling my way through the sermon.
The sermon itself came across really strongly, and I'm eager to post a copy of it here on my blog. I even managed to weave in some asides about Buddhist Bardo States! Bede would have loved it, and it's quite appropriate that there was a Holy Cross taste to a Holy Cross Day Sermon. Another nod to OHC was that I mentioned "Blessed James" during the Eucharistic Prayer.
We chose Prayer F from Common Worship 2000. As Eucharistic Prayers go, it has a nice rhythm and strikes me as well written and focused. We spoke the congregational responses, though Eric wants to sing them paperless-style next week.
After the service several people commented that they liked the sermon and the service overall. This included a retired priest that I respect, so I am very pleased about the compliments. Normally I don't solicit feedback about my preaching because I've discovered that I'm far better off not getting attached to praise about my preaching. The most important thing about a sermon is not whether it elicits praise and 'at-a-boy's, but whether it makes Christ present through the scriptures. I think it's tempting to get caught up in the trap of preaching to make people feel inspired or impressed or something, but that really isn't the point.
David Bartlett, one of my professors from Yale, tells the story of a plaque in the pulpits of his father's church. Where only the preacher can read it one reads, "Sir, we would see Jesus." It's actually one of the most helpful things anyone ever told me about the task of preaching. Seriously, if I just wanted to inspire and amuse, my sermons would include a lot more pithy anecdotes about pets, children, and other "cute" subjects. Sometimes those kinds of stories are helpful and good. I used a feel-good story about the birth of an infant last week. But they need to serve the text.
Anyway, I was feeling the Spirit this morning! I wished my Intern had been there, because there were several key learnings I think she could have gotten. I would have told her about the process of writing it. For example, on Saturday at the Contemplative Eucharist and then at the Healing Prayer service we had ended up having some long discussions about death from the Christian perspective, that obviously informed how and what I preached about today.
Also, the choreography of my movements during this sermon were deliberately crafted to emphasize the dramatic and thematic arch of the sermon. As the world spun around on the axis of the cross, so I spun around 180 degrees at a key moment. That's not particularly subtle. But what is subtle is that it was at that moment that I was least on-book. In other words, as the intensity of the sermon peaked, I completely ignored my notes about what I had planned to say and instead went with my gut and improv-ed my way through it. It has taken me years to learn how to do that kind of thing, and I can't wait to teach my intern! I really wished someone had taught me these kids of advanced techniques when I was a student.
My main preaching professor at YDS was Wes Avram. He taught me a lot of stuff. For example, understanding the role of emotion in persuasion is critical to good preaching. You need to rehearse, before the congregation, you're own process of being persuaded in order to bring them to the same place. Also, the emotional content of that process is more important than the intellectual content. I remember him correcting some of my bad habits, like "accidentally" introducing props into my sermons that would distract. If you are reading a quote from a book, don't show the congregation the book unless it actually is relevant that they think about the book. Otherwise you reduce the impact of the quote. But as much as Wes Avram and David Bartlett taught us, there is still SO much more to the craft of preaching.
Anyway, it was a good Sunday and I like to treasure these sorts of memories as a reserve against more difficult times!