A while ago, I was having trouble with a sermon that I was working on. I had read the scripture carefully and I had a message that I wanted to deliver, but the words just weren’t coming. Every story I tried to tell felt wrong. Every sentence’s feel was just a little off. And, weirdly, it all seemed very familiar. I kept feeling like I had delivered this sermon before… so why wasn’t it working now?
So I went back and checked the sermons I had given in the past. And it turned out that I had given this sermon before. Or, at least, I had given a sermon that used the same scriptures and had the same basic theme that I was trying for in the one that I was working on. And I was faced with an unpleasant choice: should I scrap the one I was struggling with and look for a different angle on these scriptures… or should I scrap the one I was struggling with and just use the old one?
A little background might be useful here. Before I was a pastor, there were usually two reasons I would preach. One was plain old pulpit supply. When a local pastor had an emergency or was just on vacation, they would call me in to lead worship. The other was for my job with Back Bay Mission. I would book preaching gigs where I could use the sermon to preach the gospel and tell people about the Mission’s work. Either way, I almost always used the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for whatever Sunday I was preaching.
The RCL provides several texts for every Sunday and rotates through a three-year cycle. So the RCL readings in 2015 and the RCL readings in 2018 are identical. But I don’t always use all of the readings for any given Sunday. In fact, I almost never use all of the readings; I use one or two for the sermon, and maybe base the call to worship off of the psalm of the day. So there’s a bit of a coincidence here: not only did I happen to preach on the same Sunday in 2015, but I choose the same scriptures from the RCL suggested readings!
Now, I pride myself in never delivering the same sermon twice. That’s part of why I use the RCL. It would have been easy enough to have one or two Back Bay Mission sermons and one or two other sermons and just recycled them again and again. But I wasn’t preaching that often (eight sermons in 2015), and writing a sermon usually isn’t a big challenge for me. Moreover, the sermon that I gave in 2015 was a Mission sermon. And while I sometimes mention the Mission in a sermon in my current position, a lot of it wouldn’t have made sense if I just grabbed this sermon and delivered it again. Giving the same sermon wasn’t an option.
But then I thought a little bit about how music works.
I’m not a professional musician, but I do play the saxophone. And I practice several times a week (and even every day when that works for my schedule). And the fact is that it would never occur to me to play a tune once—either in the practice room or for a performance—and then put it away and never play it again. Instead, I work on a single tune for ages. I learn the melody, I learn to hear the chord changes so that I can solo over them, I listen to recordings of other people playing the same tune, I analyze the harmonies. My goal isn’t to get through the tune, it’s to really learn it, deep down.
I play the same tune over and over again. I never play it the same way twice, but I keep what works and get rid of what doesn’t. A certain phrase might show up in many solos, while another phrase only shows up once. I revise and refresh. Constantly. Every time I play the tune.
And realizing that made me wonder: why don’t I do that with sermons? In fact, why am I so resistant to the idea of taking an old sermon that’s been lying around—maybe even for three years or so—and reworking it, keeping what works and getting rid of what doesn’t, revising and refreshing? Note that I am not suggesting simply reusing the same sermon. But why not take something that worked once and see if I can make it work better?
Of course, there are challenges to doing that. As I wrote above, I’ve been using the Revised Common Lectionary, which means that I only get the same texts once every three years. And this spring, I’m planning on switching to the Narrative Lectionary, which runs on a four year cycle! But… the Narrative Cycle doesn’t have any prescribed readings during the summer, which opens up some options. Maybe I could take a Sunday or two during the summer to rework an old sermon.
Or maybe not. Preaching isn’t the practice room or a gig. But surely we shouldn’t just let old sermons lie around collecting dust. There must be some way to reconsider, rework, and revive the work we’ve put into them.