Last Sunday was the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year in Christian churches, and that’s the day I threw 60 years of sermons into the trash. It amounted to three file drawers and four large cardboard boxes packed full of sermons plus a number of manila envelopes with sermons in them tucked in nooks and crannies of the little room that passes for what I call a study. They filled the blue recycle can to the point where it was almost too heavy to move.
I tried to do it cold turkey, which is to say without looking at any of them or saying a fond goodbye. I wish I had succeeded in that, but I picked out several at random to review and remember. They were mostly disappointing.
I had worked hard over the years to come up with snappy sermon titles, but most of them now seemed thoroughly ordinary. However, a few caught my eye. There was “The Committee to Dispel Nonsense,” for instance, preached on Sept. 17, 1978. It took off from an article in Time Magazine about the formation of a committee by that name. My opening sentence was, “Now we have a Committee to Dispel Nonsense which surely means there is a lot of nonsense around that needs dispelling.” Sadly, neither that committee nor my sermon did much good along those lines.
Another title I liked was “Oh to Be a Hundred and Eight Again” from Feb. 11, 1973. It’s a quote from a woman who had just turned 110. I was 39 at the time and spoke earnestly about settling into whatever age we are and doing the best we can with it. Now I’m in my 80s, and, truth be known, I wouldn’t mind being 75 again. Do as I say, not as I do, dear people.
When Count Basie died, my sermon on April 29, 1984, was “Down for the Count,” which I still think was a good title. The Basie Band had played a swinging set at the Russian River Jazz Festival the summer before, and I had the privilege of shaking the Count’s hand and welcoming him to Guerneville. My sermon was about how jazz music helps us know the darker side of American history. I said, “Jazz emerged from slavery and brought African rhythms into our musical culture so we can hear the yearning to be free. In fact jazz has been called the ‘Sound of Freedom.’” I still think jazz is that important.
I also noticed that over these 60 years my sermons moved through three main themes. The first was “The tug of life and the pull of faith are not necessarily in opposite directions.” This sentence showed up every so often during the first twenty years. During the next 20 years it was “The Christian God is too exclusive,” by which I encouraged us to appreciate all the ways people of faith worship, pray and believe in response to the mysteries of life on earth. And in the last 20 years I often spoke of faith as motivation for creating caring communities. I’m not sure what I managed to say Sunday by Sunday did those themes justice, but my intentions were worthy ones, I believe.
My favorite minister is Reverend John Ames, of Gilead, Iowa, the fictional pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead. An older cleric, he is coming to the end of his preaching life, and he wonders what to do with all those sermons stacked on the shelves of his upstairs study. He thinks it might be good to make a big bonfire of them in the church yard and invite the kids of the parish to come and roast marshmallows in the fire. What a great idea I thought when I read that.
But this is not the time or place for building fires, that’s for sure. And so into the blue can went my 60 years of sermons. Next Thursday the big truck will haul them away. Their time had come and gone.
For everything there is a season. A time for preaching, and a time to leave off preaching. A time to accumulate things and a time to let things go.