During my first semester at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the fall of 1979 I had the privilege of taking a course on Job that was taught by Dr. Clyde Francisco. One day Dr. Francisco was talking about the 1974 tornados that had caused so much destruction in Louisville. His garage had been hit and he was working with a claims adjustor to determine the value of the garage contents, which included what Dr. Francisco described as a “sack of sermons.”
“You should have seen us trying to figure out what a sack of sermons is worth,” the good professor joked.
It’s a good question, isn’t it? “What’s a sack of sermons worth?”
I still have the notes or manuscripts of nearly every sermon that I’ve ever preached. The more recent ones exist in digital form, of course, but I still like to keep a hard copy. I keep my sermons in boxes rather than in sacks but sometimes I still wonder what the lot of them is worth.
They are worth something to me, of course, for they after all represent a huge portion of my working life. Preaching is my first vocational love; when I first felt the call of God on my life, it was a call to preach. Since then I have also fallen in love with pastoring and with teaching but my primary call is still a call to preach; indeed, my pastoral work and my research feed back into my preaching and it is through my sermons that I can do some of my best pastoring and teaching. I guess that’s called a reciprocal relationship. Untold hours and much effort have gone into producing the mass of sermon material that occupies so much space in my study.
Those sermons represent a large part of my life with God, too, since they contain the overflow resulting from my encounters with the Holy Scriptures and with the Holy Spirit. One reason that I am glad that I am a preacher is that my vocation keeps me involved on a regular basis with the Bible. I would hope that I would have maintained a committed Bible reading schedule had I not gone into the ministry, but the truth is that I’ll never know since I’ve never been anything in my adult life, nor was I anything through most of my adolescent life, but a minister (that’s what happens when you announce at age 14 that God has called you to preach!).
I truly believe that sermons emerge from the personal encounter of the preacher with (1) God (2) the Bible (3) people and (4) events. The preacher encounters people in the course of doing the work of a pastor and events in the course of living life and paying attention. But the preacher encounters the Bible through concentrated study and the preacher encounters God through prayer. I’ll tell you this much ”many of my most agonized prayers have been prayed over my efforts to find the right words for a sermon, the words that will do honor to the text, to Jesus, to life, and to the truth.
So there is no doubt that my sermons mean a lot to me.
But do they mean much to anyone else?
I used to keep a short prayer posted at my work space that said, “O Lord, please let me say one word today that makes a difference to one person.” I meant for that prayer to apply to my conversations but I also meant for it to apply to my sermons. Sermons are supposed to bear the Word of God to the congregation; they intend to channel a part of God’s revelation to the listeners. Whether the people “get it” or not is not entirely up to me ”it may in fact have precious little to do with me, since God is ultimately responsible for communicating God’s truth and since I can’t control the level of openness that the people bring with them to the service. Still, it is a part of God’s plan to use the foolishness of preaching to communicate God’s wisdom, and so how well I and other preachers do our job must matter.
Sometimes I just wish I knew what good my sermons have done or are doing. Oh, people sometimes say “That was a powerful sermon” or at least “That was a nice talk.” But people down here in the South tend to be polite. Every once in a while, though, someone will take my hand following a sermon and just give me a little shake of the head and I will see a trace of a tear in her eye and I feel my hopes rise that maybe something in that one mattered. Maybe. I guess that I and all preachers just have to trust that God is doing the unspeakably wondrous work that needs to be done through the rather feeble medium of our human words. On my best days I have such trust.
I think that what troubles me the most is my hope that my sermons are worth something to God. It seems ludicrous to think that, much less to say it, given that I’m talking about my hope that the meager words that come out of my mouth mean something to God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. But I have to believe that this calling of mine is real; I have to believe that this vocation of mine is my offering to God; I have to believe that God has always chosen to use people to embody and to speak God’s living Word.
After all, in Jesus Christ the eternal Word of God became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth. And before Jesus lived, the prophets of old embodied and spoke that Word; after Jesus lived on the earth, the preachers of God have embodied and spoken that Word. Somehow that same Word is born in the lives and words of Christians; somehow that same Word is born in the lives and in the proclamation of preachers.
I have to believe that such living and proclaiming not only matters to God ”it matters very, very much.
I still don’t know what a sack or a box or a hard drive full of sermons is worth.
But I believe that somehow in the purpose and plan of God, in ways that go beyond and beneath my understanding, they are worth just about everything and anything.
Michael Ruffin is pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. This column appeared previously on his blog.
Curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.