By Roger Ferlo
For years I have thought about rifling through old sermon files to see whether there is a book lurking there somewhere. I suppose that publishing a book of sermons is every priest’s fantasy, after preaching week in and week out year after year. Surely there must be something valuable and permanent to make up for all that Saturday night angst and sweat. But sermons are by their nature ephemeral, or at least they ought to be. Permanence and preaching have always seemed to me contradictions in terms. Besides, it’s hard to imagine a vast reading public out there waiting to snap up a full volume of published sermons. For most people outside the churches (and not a few in them), the very word “sermon” smacks of pedantry and sanctimoniousness. Hey, don’t preach to me!
Preaching is by its nature of the moment. That’s perhaps its saving grace. When a sermon is good, it’s closely attached to a specific text, a specific time, a specific place, and most of all to a specific and particular group of people with whom the preacher is in some kind of continuing relationship, rocky as that relationship sometimes can be. It’s been years since I wrote out my sermons word for word. I am always a little shamefaced to admit that I preach from notes, and sometimes even without them. I tend to be at a loss about how to respond to requests for printed copies of a sermon I’ve preached, or even worse, requests for a tape. It usually means I have to go home and reconstruct what I said, which sometimes varies considerably from the notes I’d prepared in advance. It’s what my wife calls chewing your cabbage twice. I’m daunted by that character in Marilynn Robinson’s novel Gilead, old Reverend Ames, who estimates that in a lifetime of preaching to people week after week in the same little country church, he has accumulated thousands of sermon manuscripts, now stowed away in crates in the attic. What I’ve got is three thick manila files stuffed with piles of notes, carefully sorted into Year A, Year B and Year C—that odd preaching calendar of scripture readings that Episcopalians and like-minded liturgical Christians have long held dear. Not a very promising start for assembling a best-selling book.
Nonetheless, now that I no longer preach regularly, having left parish ministry after almost twenty years to teach in an Episcopal seminary, I’ve decided it’s time to take a second look. There won’t be any sort of systematic theology emerging from this material any time soon, which should come as a relief to a worried public. If there is a book submerged in this stuff, it won’t be the book I imagined when—earnest and naïve—I started preaching two decades ago, writing out every paragraph, reading the manuscript aloud word for word. Thank God that obsessive behavior didn’t last. But the upshot is that my surviving notes provide less a well-worked out theology or a consistent scriptural hermeneutic (a word I would try never to use in a sermon), than an oddly inadvertent and sometimes comic record of my life as a parish priest, and of the three or four congregations that have patiently put up with me.
That’s what happens when you preach in the moment—the moments come back to haunt you. There are the baptism sermons, where I seem to have taken great pains to incorporate the names of the about-to-be-baptized-babies into the text, only to discover that now, twenty years later, I have only the vaguest memory of who those children are or what their parents looked like. Then there’s the sermons about money—I know they’re about money because the notes tend never to mention the topic directly, an occupational hazard for Episcopal clergy in my generation. I served for several years in a tiny progressive parish in Pittsburgh, a diocese both then and now notorious as a hotbed of evangelical schism. There’s some censorious attention paid in these sermon notes to Episcopal church fights, again mentioned obliquely, but I suppose the message was clear as day to those who knew the score. And I find more than a few sermons that begin by describing incidents from my Italian Catholic working class childhood—memories of candles burning in grottoes in front of a whole line of life-size plaster statues, or of that cleverly wired confessional box where a green light over the door signaled that the coast was clear to enter. The light turned red when you knelt down inside, and then turned green again when you got up to leave—shriven, forgiven, green light good to go. My memory is that people enjoyed stories like these, which crop up often in my notes, but to listeners who had not grown up Catholic themselves I must have come across like a messenger from an alien planet.
The notes I am most interested in are the most recent ones, though, the notes of sermons I preached in New York in the months and years following the attacks on the World Trade Center, just twenty short blocks from the parish where I served. Like many of my colleagues in New York, in the immediate aftermath I found it hard to find words equal to my own deep sense of loss and fear and anger, and then, in the months that followed, equal to the mounting sense of frustration at the growing vindictiveness and xenophobia that have since proved so toxic in our public culture. I was out of the country, on a long sabbatical, on the day of the attacks. For complicated reasons, my wife and I didn’t return to New York until Halloween. My first sermon was at a parish baptism on the feast of All Saints. As I look at these notes, I realize that I was functioning in two worlds at once. In the pulpit, I was trying to shape the complexities of people’s pain to the promise of the Gospel; in my own inner life, I was trying to make the Gospel somehow answer to my sense of loss and fear. I suppose that any energy that preaching had derived from the struggle between my preacher’s vocation to let the Gospel speak to people’s hearts and my own heart’s deep sense of anger at my own inadequacies.
I always meant to reconstruct those notes, but discovered one Sunday morning, while I was browsing in a Washington bookstore, that someone else had beat me to it. It turns out that one of the authors of Killing the Buddha, a kind of po-mo anthology of post-Christian writing, had been in my church that All Saints Day in New York. Without identifying the preacher, he had reported my sermon almost verbatim in the first chapter of the book. Coming across the book by chance, I felt angry and violated, as if someone had eavesdropped on an intimate family occasion and blabbed about it to the world. I’ve calmed down since then, and am even grateful to that writer (whose account of the sermon, I had to admit, was both accurate and sympathetic) for doing what I never really have had the wit or courage to do—to share with others that remarkable moment of grace that allowed me to reconnect to my parish in those dark days in late 2001, a moment of grace that offered room to those of us gathered there on Hudson Street to reconnect, however tentatively and skeptically, to the hope of Christ that was in us.
Maybe reconstructing those twenty years of sermons is not such a bad idea after all.
The Rev. Dr. Roger Felo is Professor of Religion and Culture, Associate Dean and director of the Institute for Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary.