A Splendid Failure: A Preacher’s Guide to the Pulpit

Sermon after Sermon, the Message is this: Jesus Died for You

Mockingbird / 6.11.20

This article by Paul Walker was featured in Issue 7 of The Mockingbird: The Church Issue. The sixteenth installment: “The Sports Issue” is in the works!

My hat is off to every preacher of every stripe and persuasion, regardless of the depth, insight or content of the sermon. Every sermon exacts a spectacular cost from its giver; it requires risky exposure, supreme vulnerability, and total psycho-spiritual buy-in. Even when the sermon seems to be well received by the congregation, and people say “I loved your sermon,” and “You were speaking directly to me,” the preacher will inevitably feel discouraged and disemboweled on Sunday evening at 7pm.

I’m not a big spiritual warfare kind of guy, but I’m quite certain the Father of Lies makes his living whispering into preachers’ ears. Well, that wasn’t very good. Of course, you aren’t a very good preacher. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because no one listens to you. And besides, you know that none of what you peddle is really true, don’t you? Beelzebub licks his chops on Sunday night and digs in; Monday morning the preacher gets up and gets ready to do it all over again.

The one answer not to give when asked why you would like to be ordained: “I love to preach.” Yes, it is crucial that you love the gospel message. And yes, it is imperative that you love the people to whom you preach. But no one in his or her right mind should love to preach. Unless you have a warped penchant for emotional exhibitionism, you don’t want to stand naked (and afraid) every Sunday, which, after a few years in ministry, comes every other day. Ministers talking shop call it “the relentless return of the Sabbath.”

None of this is to suggest that a preacher’s lot is any more difficult than anybody else’s. A very long time ago Job told us that, “man is born for trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.” To be sure, a preacher’s downfall is certain when he begins to believe his own press clippings, when she agrees with her congregation’s appraisal of how special she is, when he thinks his calling is a unique kind of cross to bear. But the Sunday Struggle is, as far as I can tell, universally shared among preachers of the Word, so giving it voice brings its own comfort. After a sermon, you inhabit the strange irony of sharing your inner self with everyone who will listen, and yet you feel completely alone, with an often urgent need to hide away in a dark cave.

And, yet, someone’s got to do it. The Book we read says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? . . . As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Rm 10:13-14). And so those feet will continue to plod into pulpits to preach sermon after sermon after sermon after sermon after sermon.

What makes a good sermon, sermon after sermon after sermon? I don’t think anyone is fully qualified to answer that question. Preaching is like fly-fishing: there is always more to learn, any given day on the river will find you making any number of mistakes, and humility is the only authentic posture available. However, here are a few observations, culled from 20 years of ordained ministry and 1000-plus sermons, although on any given Sunday I might feel like a hack, or at least a poser.

I do know that sermon preparation requires an almost monomaniacal obsession with the core message for the upcoming Sunday, the message taking its specific form from the Scripture appointed for use. More on what the message is later, but for now, the message must combust with the preacher’s inner, real-time roiling turmoil. To speak directly to other people, to “tap someone’s phone line,” the preacher must speak directly to herself. Truth never travels from the universal to the specific, or from the objective to the subjective. It always works the other way around.

The preacher must mercilessly trawl her life, and the life of the world around her (i.e., art of all forms—high and low, a lifetime of personal experience, rich deposits of comedy and tragedy always on offer for those with eyes to see) for gutty and affecting illustrations of the message. This is a must. A sermon without blood-and-guts illustration is like a feast without food, a ski vacation without snow. A preacher requires illustration just as surely as a surgeon requires a scalpel. The message can’t be told head-on with bald, hammering assertion, at least not effectively. As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”

There are obstacles, of course, to telling it at all, even a little bit of it. On the con side of the ledger, the person in the pew is distracted, thinking about the woman sitting four rows to the left. Or she is subconsciously projecting onto the preacher her unresolved conflicts with her son, daughter, mother, or father. Or he is encamped in his own theological presumptions, and is looking for a bone to pick in the preacher’s offering.

On top of that, every word of every sermon is filtered through the sieve of someone’s biases and blind spots; if there are 500 people in attendance on a Sunday, then the preacher will have preached 500 different sermons. More Sundays than not, someone will tell me how much it meant to him when I said X in my sermon, when I clearly said Y. At least, I thought I did! The preacher himself occupies a sizable portion of the con side of the ledger each Sunday. Again, humility is the only authentic posture for a preacher.

It is true that the con side of the ledger could fill up the page. But the pro side of the ledger has one big whopping advantage. R.E.M. said it succinctly: “Everybody Hurts.”

There is not a single person who has come through the red doors of a church who is not hoping beyond hope for a salve to be applied to his bleeding wound. This hope is often buried below bravado, barely recognizable, but it beats in the heart of every human, because everybody hurts. The preacher, ascending the pulpit stairs, must remember this stunning advantage, and say with Caddyshack’s Carl Spackler, “At least I got that goin’ for me. Which is nice.”

Here we return to the message. Sunday after Sunday, sermon after sermon, the message must be the same: Jesus died for you. What did St. Paul say? “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Jesus died for you. What is in those four little words and how could four words thousands of sermons make?

For starters, a blisteringly low (and refreshingly real) appraisal of the human condition. I’ve got to come to terms with the fact that I am someone whose egregious nature sent the Savior to the cross. That He went to the cross reveals an exalted Jesus. Anthropology and Christology are in symbiotic relationship; raising one will lower the other, lowering one will raise the other. Raise your anthropology and the pulpit will be the province of wheedling exhortation and banal blather, of God as life-coach.

Jesus died for you. Admittedly, real inspiration is needed to refresh, week after week, a message that has become white noise. (Have we mentioned the Holy Spirit?) Yet, that is the message that carries the forgiveness hurting people are gulping for. After Jesus healed the paralytic man, he said, “Your sins are forgiven. Take up your mat and go home” (Jn 5:8).

For anyone to have half a chance to walk out of those red church doors and into his actual life, he must know that he is forgiven, not just for what he’s done, but for who he is. It is the preacher’s job to let him know. She must talk about what has been done for him, rather than what he must do. It’s her most important job, the job that looms so much larger than all her other ministerial concerns. It is this message alone that makes her feet beautiful.

In other words, every sermon must be a huge, honking guilt trip. Um, what? I don’t mean the tired claptrap dished (often unwittingly) out by sermonizing guilt-invokers. Things like, “You know, you are the only hands and feet that Jesus has in the world. You know, you are the only Bible some people will ever read.” If I’m the only Bible a person will ever read, it would be better for him to gouge his eye out and throw it away. If I were the only hands and feet available to Jesus, then this world would be a bigger stink hole than it already is. I’m not talking about those kinds of guilt trips.

The “guilt trip” that every sermon must be is the transfer of guilt, from the rightly condemned sin junkie onto the wrongly condemned Christ Jesus. The sermon must be a beast of burden, carrying the hearer’s red-handed guilt straight into the speared side of Christ on the cross, plunged into the fountain of water and blood, which bleaches away all evidence of our criminality.

Richard Hooker said it this way in the 16th century in his “Learned Treatise of Justification”:

Although in ourselves we be altogether sinful and unrighteous, yet even the man which in himself is impious, full of iniquity, full of sin . . . him God beholdeth with a gracious eye, putting away his sin by not imputing it, taketh quite away the punishment due thereunto, by pardoning it; and accepteth him in Jesus Christ, as perfectly righteous, as if he had fulfilled all that is commanded him in the law.

Shorthand: Jesus died for you–this is the guilt trip those born for trouble are dying to hear.

No one will ever preach a perfect sermon. Even the Perfect Man left us with some head-scratching moments in the Sermon on the Mount. But Sundays will still come like telephone poles flying by the passenger window on the highway. Preachers will go to bed early on Saturday nights, set the alarm clock for the pre-dawn, ask God for the measure of help needed for the day ahead.

William Faulkner had a near perfect period of astonishing inspiration and output. From 1929 until 1942 he published ten novels of miraculous depth and grit. First out of the gate was The Sound and the Fury, which I believe to be the unrivaled masterpiece of American Literature. It was Faulkner’s favorite, too. He called it “the most splendid failure.” He knew he could never perfectly say what he really wanted to say, but this story came close.

Jesus, the man on the cross, was the most splendid failure the world has ever or will ever see. Preachers will never perfectly say what we really want to say about Christ and him crucified, but each Sunday we all hope for something like a splendid failure.

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2 responses to “A Splendid Failure: A Preacher’s Guide to the Pulpit”

  1. Bill says:

    I’m a big fan of Paul Walker’s writing and preaching. His gift of sharing the gospel with humility and clarity has been an enormous blessing to me.

  2. […] Paul Walker (the Episcopal priest, not the late actor) on preaching: […]

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