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Preaching and the “using” of resources

I’ve just finished crunching the audio and posting the text of the Last Sunday of the Church Year.  I do save my sermons on the computer as well as post them here.  By my count, I preached some 68 sermons this Church Year.  That’s right, better than one a week and I had three Sundays off this year.

People who come to this blog regularly may have noticed that I have recently used some material from a preaching resource, Concordia Pulpit Resources, for the last couple sermons.  For two of these sermons, I borrowed quite a bit, extensively, shall we say.  This brings up the debate among preachers, and perhaps listeners, about not just the ethics of using such resources but whether by doing so, the preacher is somehow not being all he can be for his people.  There are essentially two camps with a good bit of middle ground between them.  The first extreme is that a good preacher would never use someone else’s sermon and, of course, will never reuse an old sermon.  The other extreme is the preacher who says, there’s nothing new under the sun; why reinvent the wheel?  (See what I did there?)

Over the years, I have found myself sympathetic to both camps.  The Lord called me to preach to this flock, not Luther (or Walther, or Chrysostom, or Osteen).   I should be preaching to them, not any of them.  There is truth to this and it should serve as a corrective for any pastor who is tempted to be lazy.  This approach, however, ignores some very stark realities.  First, preaching has to happen every Sunday, and more so during the festival half of the Church Year.  Every Sunday.  While I have often been tempted to get into the pulpit and announce that there will be no sermon this week so that next week’s sermon will be more “special,” I haven’t.  And so every Sunday there’s a sermon.  Talk to the people who write regularly like a newspaper columnist.  They write 500 words or so, half as much as a sermon, sometimes a third as much and they don’t do it every week, they take long breaks and publish merely 30-40 columns a year.

Secondly, I am not under the delusion that I am God’s greatest gift to the Church.  Jesus is God’s greatest gift.  Preachers are there to extol this gift.  Anything I can say about Jesus has likely been said before and perhaps even better than I could say it.  They don’t call me “golden-mouthed” like the did John Chrysotom.  If I can find someone who has a better grasp of the text, or someone who has said something better than I ever could, I owe it to my hearers to let them hear it.  This is part of what it means to be a part of the Church, we all learn from the preachers who have come before us even as they did.

Thirdly, and this is a strong corollary to my second point, I am merely human with finite resources.  There are some weeks when the choice is I can either preach a not so good sermon, or I can use a sermon that is far better than anything I could have come up with that week.  It’s often as simple as that.  It’s usually far more complicated.

I typically wade through the text and wrestle with it beginning on the Monday of the week.  I have been participating in text study group with some other Lutheran pastors at the local ELCA Lutheran college.  Sometimes ideas will crystallize out of that process.  Other times, I’m stymied maybe by a particularly hard saying of Jesus, “to him who has more will be given and to him who has little even what he has will be taken away,” or maybe by a text from the OT that is beyond my educational limits.

The strict camp would have me believe that every thought used from someone else is pilfered.  It’s not.  After all, when I gather up ideas like this, I’m still editing and providing context and enhancing understanding for my people.  That’s my job and they are the better for it.

The ethical question is simple in my mind.  If you knowingly borrow something, attribution is appropriate, maybe not orally in the sermon, but definitely in the written text.  I say not necessarily orally because then the sermon sounds like a rabbi quoting the rabbis.  And if you quote something famous, oral attribution is necessary.  But usually we are formed by our fathers in the faith in such a way that even the language we use is typical of their language.  That’s actually a good thing.  I don’t think they mind non-attribution if its for the sake of the Gospel

Maybe one day, somebody will quote me, to their kids or their congregation.  I won’t be upset if they forget who they learned it from as long as it points to Jesus.

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