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ON PREACHING
Sermon at the Installation of Brian Mason
Wausau, Wisconsin
November 5, 2017
The Rev. Earl K. Holt III, Minister Emeritus
First Unitarian Church of St. Louis

George Burns once said that, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.”

Well, I think that’s good advice…but don’t get your hopes up!

I was honored to have participated this past spring in Brian’s Ordination Service, held in the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis, where he did his Internship, and I feel equally honored that he invited me to share in this occasion as well.

Ordination and Installation services are both rare and important. Rare because they do not recur often in the life of any given church, important because they are the most conspicuous example of our congregational polity, whereby the only ecclesiastical authority resides not in Bishops or synods or any hierarchy, but solely in each local, autonomous and self-governing church. The power to choose and call its own minister is the most visible symbol of that authority, and it is part what we mean when we refer to ours being a free church.

Congregational polity has a much longer history than Universalism or Unitarianism, which like most of the major American Protestant denominations were formed in the 19th century. It is rooted in practices that stem from, of all people, the Puritans of early New England. Back then the Parish Church in each of the widely scattered towns was the pre-eminent institution of the town, and the Minister almost always its most influential citizen. The Puritans went to church a lot. And the famously long sermons – apparently there wasn’t much else to do – filled out most of each service. And people listened to them.

Well, times change. But under their circumstances it’s no surprise that they took the Ordination and Installation of the clergy very seriously, though the eating and drinking that accompanied the celebrations held afterwards indicate that the Puritans were far from the cold and dour folks that many today imagine them to have been. But they did take religion seriously.

In those early days, historians tell us that the common practice at the Installation was for the new Minister himself to preach the sermon (and of course back then it was invariably “himself”.) But for well over two centuries now the tradition has been to import some distinguished – or at least gray-haired – colleague to preach. I’m glad to take part in this service, marking as it does a new chapter in the ongoing life of this significant congregation, as you and Brian enter into a relationship that will surely change you both. Together you will shape the future of your church.

The conventional purpose of the Installation sermon is to offer some reflection on the cultural and religious conditions in which the new minister takes up his or her calling. The American Unitarian founder, William Ellery Channing, offered the prototype in the title of a sermon preached in 1824, entitled “The Demands of the Age on the Ministry.”

Frankly, I’m not sure I would want to enter the Ministry at this particular moment. But fortunately, I don’t have to. And even more fortunately I know there are fine young ministers, women and men, Brian standing high among them, who are more than willing to do so. Still, the fact of the matter is that the demands of this age – this era — upon the ministry, and upon the church, are manifold and profound. After 17 years the shadow of fear cast by 9/11 has diminished to some degree, but it is ever present in the background and unfortunately is fed and reinforced by every act of terrorism anywhere in the world, which are reported with frightening regularity. When people are fearful they are never at their best, their capacity to reason or sometimes simply to function is impaired. And these days the words crisis and conflict fill the headlines of the newspapers and broadcast news. Conflicts abound in our politics in particular, but they don’t stop there. Altogether, we are experiencing what the theologian Paul Tillich called in a famous sermon, “The Shaking of the Foundations.”

So it is, to say the least, a challenging time to begin a new ministry. But when anxiety is high, when the crises mount up, when the earthly foundations of our world are shaken, people still turn to the church and to their ministers, seeking many things: solace and comfort, a word of hope, a sense of order and stability — something to hold on to. But as the world is forever changing, the church’s primary business is with the continuities, the eternal verities, the things that do not change, what T. S. Eliot called the “Permanent Things.”

Part of what churches provide in such circumstances of course is simply the comfort of human community: the physical reassurance of one another’s presence to remind us that we are not alone.

But it is evident that in going to churches, people are also looking for something more — and the question needs to be asked, whether and how well our particular tradition is equipped to answer satisfactorily to those deeper, spiritual needs. We are movement and not a doctrine, and therefore technically, less a religion than a way of being religious. Our way of faith is characterized by individual freedom in belief, freedom of conscience, so differences in ideas of is expected and at least in theory, embraced. More recently we have emphasized other kinds of diversity too, not just religious, but ethnic, racial, relational, cultural and socio-economic as well. However, simply agreeing to differ and to be different is an insufficient basis for community, a word whose roots to refer to what is common and uniting, a common unity. And since we do not unite around common beliefs, we need something else, and as I see it the only substantial thing we do have in common, the strongest thing that can hold us together, is a common history — a heritage, tradition — which gives us a sense that we are on a journey together, a journey that began somewhere and is going somewhere, which is what a tradition is. We cannot know where we are going without knowing where we have been.

Membership in a church has a theological meaning. Joining a church is not the same as joining a bridge club or the PTA. It is an affiliation in the deepest sense of that word, a commitment to a real relationship, to become truly a part of the living body of the church, the congregation. This is a long process. It cannot happen in a Sunday, or by taking a three-session class, or by signing a membership book. It is an old saying in our church school programs that our faith is “caught not taught.” This is true equally for adults as for children.

But there does need to be teaching. And for adults, realistically speaking, most of that teaching must come from the pulpit. The hour of worship is the primary place where our tradition is both caught and taught. With luck you can get a few people out for adult education classes on Sunday evening or during the week. You may even get a few others away for a weekend spiritual retreat. But the time when the vast majority of the congregation is present and at least moderately attentive (even though some are not always awake) is on Sunday morning.

I look back with some amusement to the years in which I was in seminary – the late 60s and early 70s. In Berkeley, California. The conventional wisdom current then was that the sermon was on its way out. It was a time similar in many ways to the present, when all the traditional institutions and authorities of society were under assault, figuratively and sometimes literally. Amid this, the very image of preaching appeared hopelessly antediluvian: an authority figure — in those days almost invariably male — addressing a passive, polite and even if slightly bored still generally receptive audience. Within the liberal churches back then there were movements to “unscrew the pews” and sit in circles, to facilitate dialogue and participation and community — three of the big liberal buzz words of the day. It was easy to embrace the prevailing wisdom that the church was going to have to change radically, and might likely even disappear. To those who lived through it, it was a confusing, and I would say now, a confused time.

If you had paid any attention to history then — which of course, almost no one did — you would not be surprised by the fact that, for example, over my 40-plus years in the ministry I have spent the vast majority of Sundays preaching a sermon in a setting that would not be unfamiliar, say, to a Salem, Massachusetts farmer in 1631, or a Boston merchant in 1785, or a Gloucester seaman in 1851. (You can tell that my background is from New England.)

In fact, if you think of all the changes over the last 400 or more years of American history, you can find virtually nothing more constant than the weekly gathering of congregations, large and small, for worship. And for all the variety in religious traditions and practice, ever expanding as religious diversity has steadily increased, especially in recent years, almost always it contains the element of preaching. Even in this age, which is rightly characterized as secular, still vast millions keep their Sabbath in this way. The speech of a person to a people has remained central to the spiritual life experience of Americans through all the momentous changes of all this time.

We should never underestimate the enduring power and significance of the preached word, the value of one individual standing up week by week and sharing with a people the struggles and searching of mind, heart and soul.

When people ask me how long it takes to write a sermon, I used to say, “a lifetime plus one week.” Later on I changed that to, “one day longer than I have.” Ministers are often asked, “How do you manage to come up with a sermon every week? The answer is very simple: “Because Sunday comes.” Inexorable as fate. One of our great preachers (the late Peter Raible) observed that, “The reality of deadlines, like a noose around the neck, increases perception and output.”

We tend not to give sufficient attention or value to the things in our life that are common, ordinary. And truly in historical perspective almost nothing in American life is as common and ordinary — nor as enduring — as the sermon. And now even in this so-called “communication” age, when we are awash in information, overwhelmed at times by an endless and almost inescapable barrage of words and image, it is still here, a reliable and for many apparently still meaningful part of life.

So we come finally to consider the heart of the matter. What is a sermon? What is it to preach? A sermon is not words on paper, nor a tape recording, nor a clip on You Tube, a voice abstracted in time and space speaking for twenty or thirty minutes on some topic. A sermon is a live, unrepeatable event that takes place within the context of a religious community, following its traditions of ordered worship. Although there is ordinarily only one person speaking, a sermon is nonetheless a communal and collective event. This is key. Even though it is the self-conscious expression of only one person, it arises out of a religious community. If it is a personal statement, as it must be, it is because truth is personal. Yet at the same time a sermon at its best transcends the personality of the preacher. A sermon to be true to life must be true to the life of one person — the preacher — but also true to the life of the community of which the preacher is a part.

Every minister who has preached for a while can tell you of an experience similar to the following. Someone comes forward after the service and says: “Something you said in the sermon really hit home with me. Could you send me a copy?” And so you do, and a few weeks later you ask the person if they received it. And the response is something like this. “Yes, but you must have sent the wrong one. What I was looking for wasn’t there.” But you did send the right one. The words you spoke were there. What was not there were the words that person needed to hear, and did hear, even though you did not speak them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that, “the true preacher deals out to the people his life — life passed through the fire of thought.” Phillips Brooks similarly defined “real preaching” as “Truth through Personality.” And Henry Ward Beecher observed that, “All true preaching bears the impress of the nature of the preacher.” In other words we can never expect to abstract or separate a preacher’s truth from a preacher’s personality because for us, by nature, truth is personal. Every truth communicated is a human truth.

When the true preacher speaks truly, he (or she) says more than he can say; if he reaches deep enough, he reaches where the words almost cease to matter, where a direct communication occurs that moves from heart to heart. It is in those depths of communication that the listener hears words that are not spoken, hears truths that may indeed be unspeakable.

This cannot happen except over time, which is why it is that a typical church is always more full to hear the old codger they’ve listened to a hundred times before than the occasional pulpit guest. It is a deep reason why in an over-informationalized age, preaching endures. Because we go, most of the time, not to learn something new, not to hear what we never heard before, but to be reminded of the basic enduring truths that we may have neglected or forgotten. The Permanent Things. We go because we do tend to forget.

Emerson also provided a comforting thought, comforting at least to preachers. In his famous Divinity School Address at Harvard in 1838 he said that, “a sermon though foolishly spoken, can be wisely heard.” Over the years I have come not only to believe this but to depend on it. And this capacity also grows over time. A ministry is a relationship between a person and a people, and preaching is key to that relationship. Only on the surface is it individual enterprise: Like every aspect of ministry, preaching is part of the subtle but real interaction between an individual and a congregation, a person and a people. Congregations and ministers influence and change one another and, as in any real relationship, for better or for worse. A congregation can support or impede the growth of its minister as a preacher — and in many other ways as well. I have come to believe in the truth of something I read while I was still in high school in a book by the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, that “the strength of our free religious movement depends primarily upon two things: great congregations — whether large or small — and great ministers; and that, the most important fact of their relationship is that they create one another.”

In contrast to the lessons I learned years ago in seminary, I believe preaching to be the heart of the congregational ministry. I learned this primarily through a 27-year relationship with one congregation, whose members were my guides, teachers and inspirers, and not as it may superficially appear my listeners.

Like every preacher I try to bring my best to the task. But what makes it all possible is the knowledge that it is not so individual as it appears, that preaching is supported by a community at worship, by a long heritage of religious devotion and practice, and by a spirit that moves among us and beyond, a holy spirit that can bring us through even the darkest and most lonely hours of life. Often in the past, on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning I would get to wondering whether anything that I had said made any difference, whether anything had been worthwhile. I was reassured in those times by the knowledge that the unspoken word may be strong even when the spoken word is weak, that the spirit does communicate heart to heart, that we are able to hear more than can be told — and that when our need is great enough we can and we will hear the word we most need to hear.

I pray that you and Brian as congregation and minister will grow together in this spirit, this holy spirit, that the promise of this day may be realized, by God’s grace, in a mutually fulfilling and enriching relationship, by which you will, both and all, be blessed.

Amen.