Standing on Shoulders

We all stand on other people’s shoulders. We all benefit from the boost offered by those who came before. There is a sense that this dependency is to be despised – that greatness is defined by an absolute inventiveness. But this idea that we ought and could create out of nothing is both foolish and arrogant. The wise ones among us understand how to benefit from and build upon work done already by others before. In so doing, we pay these people honour and we extend the legacy of their offerings.standingonshoulders

It is particularly important for preachers to understand this standing upon shoulders. The prevalence of sermons on the internet has empowered a wave of pulpit plagiarism. Pastors fear the real possibility of dismissal should they rely too heavily on the work of others, which is difficult because there is so much good work being done by others. Why should we deprive our congregations of the excellence that is available and which has fuelled our love for our craft and calling? If a sermon on YouTube is more compelling than what I could put together on my own, would it not be better that I offer that to my people? It would certainly save a lot of time and effort.

Most of us understand the falsity of this question of expedience. We understand the value of the preacher bringing original work, forged in the fire of a particular context with a specific group of people. At the very least, we can understand that this is what people feel that they are paying for and that it would be dishonest for us to represent the work of others as the fruit of our own labours and the congregation’s investment. For most of us, the real issue takes on a deeper nuance.

This morning I was going through some old notes, and found some jotted comments from my hearing of a friend’s sermon. It was a great sermon and I found myself thinking that I might like to preach it. Well, not his sermon exactly, but certainly his text, and probably its general direction. If God had been pleased to bless me by the work of my friend, I ought to be able to offer that same blessing to others. The text is the text. The truth is the truth. How would this be any different than my singing someone else’s song or playing someone else’s video?

There would be no difference, of course, so long as I was willing to tell everyone that the sermon had been written or substantially built by someone else. The fact that I would find it almost impossible to do so, tells me all I need to know about the propriety of such a thing. My people expect my sermon, forged in dialogue with a God by his Word and by his Spirit. To admit that I was preaching someone else’s sermon would not fly, at least not very often.

But this is not to say that I could not, nor should not utilize the value of my friend’s sermon. In fact, I believe that it would be honouring to his work if I did. Of course, I must go further. I must stand on his shoulders and in so doing, see if I could see a little further. We see this when we share in conversation. One person offers an idea. The next person hears it and comments on the first, intending to advance the understanding of them both. The second comment stands upon the shoulders of the first, with the third and fourth comments reaching even higher.

Of course, it would be disingenuous then for me to take the result of this homiletic conversation and own it entirely as my own. If I were, rather, to share the source of my original thoughts, I bear tribute to my friend and I elevate the authority of what I have offered. People see that there is a progeny to my thinking which gives to it a greater credence.

Perhaps this is exactly what we should be doing. Would it not be awesome if we could grow to celebrate the preaching of each other’s sermons in the full light of day, paying full tribute to each other, while consciously advancing the effects of one another’s work. This would be like we treat our sermons as open source materials, expecting and even hoping that others will take what we have given and make more of it for the good of God’s Kingdom.

This might require a culture change, but I believe that such a change could draw us closer to the culture of the Kingdom, because of both the improving content of our preaching, but also for the spirit of it.

The Ring of Truth

Preaching is not viable if preachers are not preaching truth. If we were not offering truth, we have no right to stand and speak.truth

People have largely given up on truth, at least as it touches on the biggest questions of our life, identity, and way of being. Truth seems beyond us – certainly beyond our capacity to preach. Even if we could understand what is true for our personal existence, the thought that we could know truth for others well enough to proclaim it to a gathered group seems to be beyond us. We might have some level of confidence about our own selves, at least until things break down, but we have little hope of identifying such for others. Even when we do think we have some proven insight we could offer, it will likely not be well received if pressed with a tone of too much confidence.

Preachers are different. Preachers have the kind of confidence that would allow them to speak the truth – for themselves and for others also. This is not because of the preacher’s own personal wisdom, but because the preacher believes that God has spoken and is speaking through his Word and by his Spirit. To the degree that preachers speak the things that God is saying, they represent and share the truth. Preachers preach because they have this conviction that God is making himself known in the world, in part through preachers who instruct people in his Word.

This is a tremendous claim. If preachers are correct in this assertion, then everybody ought to listen to them. It is a complicated world and a sure and moral compass ought to be of highest value. Why would we not pay attention to the wisdom of the universe? Why would we prefer our own wisdom when we can only see so far. Why would we not welcome the voice of a preacher?

Perhaps, because we do not trust the preacher. It may be we have heard too many truthless preachers, infatuated with the sound of their own voice and inflated with the arrogance of their opinions. Perhaps listeners just don’t have the faith to believe that God could exist and speak into the world that he created. It is a risky position. If people are wrong in this, they will have seriously miscalculated.

Truth preached ought to bear the ring of truth, wherever it is heard. Humans have been created so as to recognize the voice of their Creator. When we convey the Word of God, it rings a bell for people whose capacity to hear has not too greatly been eroded. People might not like what they hear, but if the message is truthful, it will leave a mark. The people God is calling will hear what he is saying. Whether they will respond is another question.

Preachers ought to trade in truth. Only then will preaching have authority. Truthful preaching has a right to be spoken. Truthful preaching has a need to be heard.