“Post-its, Possibilities, and Preaching”
June 3, 2012
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth the work of God’s hands.
But sometimes we human beings can’t leave well enough alone and take matters into our own hands.
Maybe it’s necessary. After all, our hearing is slight and we don’t always catch what the heavens declare. Our sight is poor and we miss what the firmament tries so plainly to show us.
When heaven and earth fail us—or we them—we turn to human voices to tell the glory of God in hymns and prayers and, yes, even in sermons.
Having just finished that long arc of the beginning of the church year that originated on the first Sunday in Advent and concluded last Sunday on Pentecost, having preached on most of those Sundays and at our special worship services as well, I’ve been thinking recently about sermons. Sermons are mysterious things. Those of us who preach them on a regular basis are always trying to find out what they mean and how they work and how they can be better than they are and how they might be written and preached without the tears and agony and self recrimination that so often accompany their preparation and delivery.
I once heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu talking about his sermon preparation and his practice of praying in the pulpit before he preached. One Sunday after worship, his daughter asked him, “Daddy, why do you pray before the sermon?” He told her that he was asking God to help him to preach a good sermon. And so his daughter asked, “Well, why doesn’t he?”
It’s somewhat like the experience of the great 20th century preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, who said that a woman once came up to him after worship, took his hand, and earnestly told him: “Oh Dr. Fosdick each of your sermons is better than the next.”
Those kind of responses are a source of the angst that preachers sense as Sunday approaches. They are the reason preachers can understand the sentiment expressed by the minister in a novel by Frederick Buechner, who said, “I threw up when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord.” Preaching brings with it a sense of anxiety that one is just not up to the task and beyond the reach of divine intervention.
Of course, there are those Sundays when I feel as though I really did a good job—and someone might even tell me that as well. Then I remember that Martin Luther, upon being complimented on a sermon, is said to have replied, “You don’t need to tell me it was a good sermon, because the devil has done that already.”
It is not all fear and trembling, however. For those who preach also know the support of those who listen. When I’ve tried to tell others about my experience in preaching to you, which, in all sincerity, is both a joyful and exhilarating one, I’ve said, “They listen.” You can tell that they are listening.” Preaching here is humbling and uplifting at the same time. So Marilynne Robinson once said, “The attention of the congregation is a major part of the attention that the pastor gives to his or her utterance. It’s very exceptional.” And she concluded, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy a good sermon.” That one sentence is enough to make most preacher wake on Monday morning eager to make the attempt once more.
Good sermons mean a great deal to people.
When my preaching is poor or your listening is less apparent, I take great comfort in the story of Paul and Eutychus from the Acts of the Apostles.
Look at Paul, getting ready to leave, meeting with others in an upper room where many oil lamps are lit against the midnight darkness. The night is getting on, and Paul is going on—so much so that even the cool night air isn’t enough to help young Eutychus, sitting in the open window three floors above the ground. His eyelids get heavy, and Paul talks on. He nods and wakes with a jerk, and Paul talks on. Finally, as Paul talks on still longer he falls, first in to a deep sleep, and then onto the ground below.
Oh, the dangers of sanctuaries above street level!
The story has a happy ending, as we heard. Paul takes the young man in his arms and assures the people around him, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” They take Eutychus away alive, and as the Bible says, they are “not a little comforted.”
And Paul returns upstairs, and continues to talk until dawn.
This incident came to mind as I was recently reading about the development of Post-it notes.
Maybe you know that they were invented by a member of a church choir. Back in the mid-70’s, Arthur Fry was an engineer at 3M and member of the choir at a Presbyterian church in St. Paul, Minnesota. During choir rehearsal on Wednesday evenings, he would put little pieces of paper into his hymnal to mark the music that he would be singing on Sunday. Often enough, before Sunday morning, those pieces of paper would fall out, annoying Fry, who would have to spend the service flipping through the hymnal in search of the right page.
One day, Fry attended a Tech Forum at 3M in which another engineer spoke about the work that he was doing with adhesives. He “had developed an extremely weak glue, a paste so feeble it could barely hold two pieces of paper together. After the forum, Fry quickly stopped thinking about this dead end product—a glue that wouldn’t stick.”
In his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer tells what happened next: “During a particularly boring sermon, Fry engaged in a little daydreaming. He began thinking about bookmarks, and how what he needed was a bookmark that would stick to the paper but wouldn’t tear it when it was removed. And that’s when Fry remembered the presentation about the ineffective glue. He immediately realized that this patented formula would help create the perfect bookmark.”[i]
The rest is office and church choir history.
What struck me about this account was that one line: “During a particularly boring sermon.” There’s the key. A boring sermon—a head-nodding, eye-closing, falling-out-of-the-window sermon—resulted in a burst of creativity that continues to affect our lives nearly forty years later.
On behalf of boring preachers everywhere, “You’re welcome.”
You see, sermons have all sorts of purposes—the best ones can help us better see the way of Jesus Christ that we seek to follow, they can comfort us in deep sorrow, they can bring clarity of thought as we consider weighty theology or puzzling scripture, they can illuminate some dark corner of our lives, they can inspire us to selfless action in the world.
And even when they fail at these purposes, even when they bore us silly, that is, even the worst of them, might be doing more good than is readily apparent. This makes me think that the person was right who said that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.
Maybe this is the good news about sermons that don’t work, sermons that bore us. They present us with the rare gift of time to make new, creative connections in other parts of our lives.
Our flurry of activity is one of the joys of life. We get pleasure from doing a lot, accomplishing a lot, and being with other people. We can give thanks for the ability and the strength and the sense of purpose that keeps us on the move.
At times, however, we need to slow down and bask in God’s good gift of rest—time for doing nothing, time for family and friends, time for worship and prayer. We need to take the opportunities to “moodle,” as one theologian calls it: lying in the shade under a tree by a lake, watching the clouds roll by; sitting in a hot tub, letting your thoughts flow; sleeping in a hammock under a harvest moon; lollygagging on your walk home; marveling in a garden.[ii] Sometimes a sermon gives us just that chance to “moodle” a little bit—to take an indirect path toward something new.
And this is where the experience of preaching meets up with all of our lives.
We can learn a great deal from our achievements. And we can learn as much, if not more, from those times when we fail to achieve.
That’s good news, because when you think about your own life, you know that it’s not an example of perfection. You know the mistakes that you’ve made. Some of them have been minor—no harm done. You tried something and it didn’t work. You tried something else—and it didn’t work. Ultimately you found that “different recipe” and got the cake you were looking for. We can learn from those small mistakes.
We can also learn from the big ones—what one person calls our “excellent mistakes.”[iii] These major mistakes are “the best mistakes we have made” because they carry so much potential for growth within them.
When we allow for mistakes, we allow for our creativity. It’s said of Thomas Edison that he tried over 10,000 times to perfect the incandescent light bulb. After another attempt that didn’t work, he was asked how he dealt with this most recent failure. “I didn’t fail,” Edison is said to have replied. “I just discovered another way not to make an electric light bulb.”
Learning from our mistakes, we grow in our creativity.
It should also be said that we can learn from our achievements, from our successes, from what does work. Too often we can be so caught up in what went wrong that we don’t see what went right and ask why it went well.
New possibilities arise as we learn from our mistakes—and from our achievements.
As the summer gets into full swing, let me invite you to continue to worship with us. Slow down and enjoy the good gifts that come to us in our weekly gatherings. I’ll seek to inform, illuminate, and inspire. And even when I fail, well, there’s something good there as well. So may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be found acceptable in the sight of the living God, who is our strength and our redeemer.
[i] Jonah Lehrer, Imagine, pg. 46-47.