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Cover of sheet muslc: The Sermon that Deacon Vanderwater PreachedHallo again to all.

Do you remember sermons?

If someone were to stop you some minutes after Divine Service ended and ask you to recap in moderate detail the sermon you just heard, could you do it? We applied this test to ourselves and failed. Perhaps we could recall the general text or some small anecdote woven into the preaching, but not much more. Sadly, many of sermons we've heard are unmemorable.

We don't want to put all the blame on the pulpit, we hasten to say. No doubt there have been sermons where our minds wandered to Monday's to-do list or we replayed in our heads a critical comment made by a co-worker. Random thought drifts aren't a purely 21st-century phenomenon! No doubt listeners to Lancelot Andrewes occasionally nodded. And we all know about the length of Elizabethan sermons...

Whether a sermon is 10 minutes long or two hours long is not the issue: the content is. We take for granted that most in the first-world countries of the Anglican Communion top out at about 30 minutes. Our brothers and sisters in African churches are far more welcoming of longer perorations, it seems, and those of us who grow impatient with a sermon about seven minutes into it may have something to learn about attentive listening. But whether long or short, is it capable of being remembered? Of being pondered on, brooded about, or even angry about? Is there enough substance in it to make us sit up and take notice, as the old expression has it? We worry it is only the very rare sermon that qualifies.

The sermons that fret us are the ones that seem, well, 'phoned in, where the preacher skims along the surface of the text and doesn't engage us in the mystery and wonder of God's word. Preaching is a gift, of course, and not every hard-working priest will have the necessary talent to reach — and sustain — brilliant hebdomadal eloquence. Yet we worry a bit about what we hear these days, knowing full well that parish priests often have crowded diaries and insistent demands and sermon preparation often loses out to a hospital visit. And, after all, it can be rightly pointed out that we live in a visual culture now, not a verbal one, so most people in the pews wouldn't recognise outstanding preaching if they heard it. Yet as the sermon is still a part of our primary liturgies, to give it short shrift is to dishonour the Gospel. (Hard words, we know, but we believe them to be true.)

If pressed, we'd say there are five sermons we've heard, in a fairly long Anglican life, that we remember. In some cases, it was one or two sentences that arrested us — and still do, decades later. With others, it was a surprising way of interpreting a particular passage of Scripture that struck us then, and still does now. Not every sermon can be a publishable gem of prosody. Some weeks the words will come and others, not. But if a sermon in some way suggests that the preacher has wrestled with scripture, has tugged and teased at the meaning, and has striven to share with us what's been gleaned, there will be an authenticity to it that transcends even commonplace prose. And those of us in the pews will hear that. And we'll remember.

Words matter. Sermons matter. We're listening.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 2 September 2007

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