How to Listen to a SermonRead Now
Lay Sermon from the Outdoor service on June 12, 2022
Before the world was created, the Word already existed; he was with God, and he was the same as God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in creation was made without him. The word was the source of life, and this life brought light to humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has ever put it out. John 1:1-5.
When I was in college, I was a lay pastor for four small Congregational/UCC churches in northeast South Dakota. And then I spent over thirty years as an English teacher. When I retired from teaching, I then served eight years in the South Dakota House of Representatives. One thing I learned from my years in these professions is “Don’t give a mike to a retired preachers, teachers, or politicians. They won’t give it back.”
So I appreciate your being here today, and I admire your courage and tolerance.
When I was teaching composition, I sometimes allowed the student to write about anything they wanted to write about. Inevitably, there would be students who said that they didn’t have anything to write about. And I would respond with, “Oh yes you do. You always can write about why you don’t have anything to write about, or you can write about writing.”
And I have applied this approach to my creating this sermon: I am giving a sermon on sermons.
I knew what I was going to talk about, but I was wondering what I should use for the scripture. My first inclination was to use part of the Sermon on the Mount, and then talk about how one should prepare for listening to the Sermon on the Mount.
[Bill’s cellphone rings. With great embarrassment, he apologizes and answers his phone.] “Hello? . . .Oh, hello, God. How are you? . . .Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I hope that things get better. . . .Actually, it’s not a good time to talk. I’m kinda busy right now. Can you call me back this afternoon? . . .OK. Great! I’ll talk with you then. Love you. Goodbye.”
Where was I? Oh, yes, the Sermon on the Mount.
But I concluded that such a sermon would be rather short. My suggestions are to arrive early so that you can sit in the front row, and bring some fishes and loaves of bread. Those of you who are biblical scholars are raising your eyebrows, for I have conflated two different stories of Jesus.
And then I thought about the beginning of the Gospel of John because it talks about the Word. That scripture always has been a little puzzling to me. It seems that “the Word” is a metaphor for Jesus, but why? I gained a little insight when I read that Spanish translations use “the Verb” instead of “the Word.” I like that because in English we talk about transitive and intransitive verbs: “A transitive verb is one that only makes sense if it exerts its action on an object (‘I hit the ball’). An intransitive verb will make sense without one. (‘I am’ or ‘I am hungry’). I like “the Verb” because it implies that Jesus not only exists but also is a man of action.
When English teachers talk about communication, we often talk about active communication (speaking and writing) and passive communication (listening and reading. So giving a sermon is active communication, and listening to a sermon is passive communication. But even passive communication is active, but just not as active. And what I want to share with you this morning are some things that you can do to help you listen to a sermon, to help you understand a sermon.
The first thing you can do is to anticipate what the sermon will be about.
On Saturday our church publishes online the scripture and sermon title for the service the next day. Read the scripture, apply it to the title of the sermon, and imagine what the sermon will say. You are getting ready to hear the sermon.
On Sunday morning before church, a daily devotional may help you listen to the sermon. I like the UCC’s “Still Speaking Daily Devotional.” If our pastor and the writer of the devotional are using the liturgical calendar, the devotional and the sermon may have the same scripture. You will have the opportunity to compare and contrast the sermon with the devotional.
And then there is the sermon itself. Try to clear your mind of your brain chatter. Perhaps our service should have a second Time of Centering Silence before the scripture and sermon.
And then listen for the main point, the thesis, of the sermon. And what are the points the pastor uses to support the thesis?
One way to be a more active listener is to take notes on your bulletin. I know several members who do. When our choir is a part of the service, you may see my wife, Anne, on her cellphone during the sermon. You may wonder what she is doing: texting, emailing, Googling? And you may think that she’s rather rude. Actually, Anne is taking notes. And she is writing her notes in linked haikus, which she shares with the pastors and others. She really has to concentrate to create her special poem. I prefer limericks. A limerick has different challenges, and it is known as a vehicle for bawdy humor. Here’s a limerick based on today’s scripture: “There once was an apostle named John/Who had an epiphany by a pond./’I suddenly heard/”In the beginning was the word.”/Dear God, I hoped I’m not conned.’”
And then after the service is time for reflection and discussion. Talk with the pastor about the sermon. Did you like it? Do you have questions? Do you have insights you would like to share with the pastor?
One of Jane Anne’s sermons included comments about the compact that God made with Noah after the flood, that God never again would destroy all living beings. After the service I pointed out to her that God was not quite that compassionate: “I promise that never again will all living beings be destroyed by a flood.” God still can punish through other means, such as fire, as referred to in the title of James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time. And as Coloradans, we especially should be concerned about the fire possibility.
In the summer of 1968, I was a counselor at a Presbyterian/UCC camp in the Black Hills. And on the Sunday morning before camp started, we counselors and deans trooped into First Presbyterian Church in Rapid City. And I remember that service long ago because the fellowship hour following the service started with a sermon talk back with the pastor. I don’t know if we should do this at Plymouth because we certainly are a bunch of talkers, and some of us would not leave church until the cows were coming home. But you can talk with other members during fellowship time. And if you have a lunch partner who heard the sermon, too, talk with that person, too.
I already am anticipating who will be giving the sermon in the park next summer and what the topic will be. And it will be in reaction to my sermon. Originally, I planned to have as my scripture only the first verse of the opening chapter of John. But as I read a little more, I decided to include the verses through “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” I knew that Anne would bristle at that sentence, for she contends that darkness gets a bum rap in the Bible, that it deserves to be lauded also for all its benefits. So come back next year to hear what Anne has to say. And be an active listener.
So the holy trinity of listening to a sermon are anticipate, actively listen, and discuss.
That’s all I have to say, and I am happy to talk with you after the service and give you the last word. How’s that for ambiguity?
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