Yesterday I preached my sermon “Unknown Visions of Love” at the Universalist Church of West Hartford, Connecticut. My experience there has me thinking about the nature of preaching. The sermon is one that I have given on three other occasions. A version of it won this year’s Universalist Heritage Sermon Award. The sermon’s previous reception is such that I am confident that it is both a pretty good sermon and one of my better sermons.
West Hartford has two services on Sunday and about 600 members. I would estimate that there were probably about 100 people present at the first service and 150 at the second. The way the liturgy is structured there doesn’t seem to be a receiving line after the service. The congregation did not wait to disburse until after the postlude. They disbursed during the postlude. I choose to remain seated. When the music ended I got down from the chancel.
After both the services there were a few people waiting to talk to me. The first person who spoke with me after the first service gave me the strongest criticism I have ever received about my preaching. She told, “that stunk” and complained that the sermon did not make any sense. What was worse, in her mind, was that it wasn’t a sermon at all. It was a lecture. It didn’t make her feel. It just made her think. And she didn’t like that at all. She said that if she had been visiting the congregation she would not have come back. Fortunately, she said, she had been a member of the congregation for 27 years and she knew that the regular preachers and the other preachers that the congregation brought were all much better than me.
I did my best to nod sympathetically. I told her that I was sorry she didn’t like my sermon or get what she needed from it. Mostly, I just listened patiently as she went on. In sum her critique lasted almost five minutes.
After the second service someone came up with an opposite and equally strong reaction. An elderly woman, somewhere between her mid-80s and mid-90s, she identified herself as “Conrad Wright’s sister-in-law.”* She told me that my sermon was “the best sermon I have heard in four or five years.” And asked if she could have a copy to send to Conrad Wright’s son.
What am I to make of these polar opposites? Mostly, they seem a reminder that the most important elements of preaching rarely have to do with the preacher. How a sermon is received, what someone gets out of it, has more to do with the listener than the preacher. Two people heard essentially the same sermon. Two people had opposite reactions. One was inspired. The other was alienated.
An additionally lesson is that no minister can minister to all people. We reach who can. We have to know that no matter who are reaching there are people we cannot reach.
There is also a question here about the difficulty of evaluating the success of a sermon. The different reactions I got suggest that there are probably not objective criteria with which to evaluate a sermon. Perhaps, though, it is possible to evaluate a sermon by the sum of people’s subjective responses to it. I would argue that “Unknown Visions of Love” is a successful sermon because I have repeatedly received positive feedback about it. I might also argue that it is successful because it managed to provoke strong reactions. The goal of every sermon is not necessarily to have people like the sermon. Sometimes the goal of a sermon can be to stir them up and provoke them.
I also think I learned a little more about the difference between pulpit supply and being a settled minister. If I had been the settled minister of the congregation I would tried to make pastoral care appointments with both women. For a parish minister preaching and worship extend past the liturgical act of Sunday morning and into the ongoing dynamic of minister and parishioner.
I imagine that I will continue to think about Sunday’s experience for sometime to come. Within it is the seed of another sermon is waiting.
*Conrad Wright was one of the most important Unitarian theologians of the second half of the twentieth century. His work, particularly his collection of essays “Walking Together,” has been a major influence on how I think about Unitarian Universalism, worship and religious community.