I used to cook lunch for the staff of my old church about twice a month or so, and I almost always started from scratch. Fresh tomatoes, raw veggies, onions, garlic, raw meat… Lunch didn’t involve opening cans, it involved cooking, cutting, chopping, squeezing, and afterwards the kitchen and my fingers smelled…like…food, and the kitchen was a mess. A friend at the time asked why I did things the hard way when I could just open a can or two and dump. “Its not the same,” I said, “there is no love in it,” and that’s the way I feel about canned sermons, like taking credit for intellectual property that is not your own.
You miss the experience of letting it change you.
Of course with food carrying artificial ingredients, Suzanne gets sick right away. My allergies to milk products takes longer. Here in Ghana those allergies are on sabbatical, I can cook with butter and occasionally have pizza with real cheese. I understand what the French say about the three keys to their cooking: butter, butter, and still more butter. The Ghanaians would say palm oil, palm oil, and still more palm oil. A few weeks ago I wrote about that Ghanaian way of cooking and how I couldn’t get used to adding oil like that for flavoring. Well, that very night I was broiling some fresh fillets of Red Snapper, and noticed the skin getting a little dry on top. So what did I do? Reach for the butter, and put two large pats on each fillet, rubbing them around. It was then the Lord convicted me: “Can’t add oil for flavoring you say? Ah! What have you done just now?”
Thing is, each day, each situation, each community of faith deserves a home cooked sermon. It may be the most important thing a pastor does for not only the soul of the community of faith, but for the soul of the pastor. I wonder what happens to communities of faith whose pastors take short cuts, who open canned sermons, and are fed a diet of preserved or fast food sermons?
I think of that documentary about the guy who ate nothing but McDonalds for six weeks, how sick he got. Now I know that canned sermons are not going to make a pastor physically sick, or cause high cholesterol or blood pressure, but I do think it steals a little bit of their soul, their integrity, and the chance to speak into the issues of the day, the ones the church needs to weigh in on. I think that’s what angered me most about that canned sermon I heard this past summer, “she didn’t trust her own voice,” as a friend of mine here says. Events were happening that could have been spoken into—we were a captive audience—but instead we got a timeless, meaningless nice sermon, one forgotten before it was even over. An opportunity for the gospel squandered.
Don’t get me wrong, I like McDonalds, and crave their hamburger and fries, but it’s not a part of my regular diet, it’s more what the Army calls an MRE, Meal Ready to Eat, for emergency only. And I remember, there are weeks like that, when we need an MRE sermon. When I was injured last fall, before I realized how serious it was and that it wasn’t getting better, I was scheduled to preach the Sunday next after the accident and I kept to the schedule. That was definitely an MRE sermon – preached on painkillers, no less. Actually, it was a de-frosted sermon, taken from the freezer of previously preached sermons, and warmed up for this congregation.
But recycling your own, original, work is different from using someone else’s work and not referencing it. That, no matter the context, is plagiarism. It is passing off someone else’s ideas, intellectual property, or words, as your own. Why do preachers, and other people, do that? Do they not trust their own voice? Are they just convinced that someone else can do a better job than they? Are they afraid of being judged on their own merits? As I heard my wife Suzanne say this week, if you don’t do your own work or write your own thoughts, then when will you ever learn how to, and when will you ever learn that you do have a voice, you do have thoughts worthy of being written or spoken or discussed? It’s a slippery slope that I think leads to more and more of the same.
But for pastors, it’s more than that. More than not trusting one’s voice, more than avoiding the issues of the day, it is holding PreachingToday instead of a “newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other,” as Barth would say. When pastors plagiarize, they are effectively leaving their post, letting the community of faith drift without their leadership. They can’t speak out against injustice, they have lost their moral legs to stand on in the community.
But I also understand that sermons alone do not change the world, or a person’s life, it’s the body of the work and the connection to those living it.
I also understand we all can’t be Billy Graham, and hit a home run each time we step to the pulpit.
I understand there will be bad weeks, when someone dies, or paperwork is due, or our family needs us, and preparing a sermon from scratch will be an impossibility.
I understand those times can’t always be anticipated.
But understand if we the pastors cannot be held to some sort of the ethical standard of taking credit for what is ours and giving credit for what is not, then what hope is there in this world, which is careening down so many slippery slopes?