On the day of the first sermon at my internship site, I walked throughout the sanctuary greeting people. I was nervous. I would spend the next nine months with these strange faces and I hoped they would like me. I introduced myself to Max, an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair sitting on the front row. Later I would learn that Max was a retired executive, out of the era many now watch with fascination on the TV series, "Mad Men."
Despite his frail health, Max hadn't lost his strong handshake. He looked at me with piercing eyes and said, "Are you our preacher today?"
"Yes, sir. I am the new intern here at the church and I will be preaching today."
"Well, I like a strong sermon, young lady. Do you understand what I mean?"
"What do you mean?"
"Speak in a strong voice and give us a strong message."
Honestly, having grown up in Baptist churches with altar calls each Sunday, I wasn't at all sure what a strong message meant to a lifelong "greatest-generation" Presbyterian like Max. Our backgrounds were so different. But I wasn't sure I would measure up to his expectations. My demeanor tends toward the gentle rather than the forceful. I am more likely to quote the nature-loving poet Mary Oliver than fire-breathing John Calvin in a sermon. I am more interested in getting the congregation to reflect and ask questions rather than giving them all the answers.
Max never told me if I hit his mark, though we developed a warm relationship over the months. Max was the first, but not the last to warn me against weak preaching. Just recently, without ever hearing me preach, another person warned me against preaching a "sermonette." Despite my suspicion that there is some gender bias in these comments (I cannot imagine these suggestions being made to my male counterparts from seminary), it is an interesting question to ponder. What makes a good (not to mention strong) sermon?
Depending on your tradition and preferences, there are different answers. It may need to be biblically-grounded or be a call to social justice or have lots of great illustrations or make you feel warm and fuzzy or completely convicted. The challenge for preachers is that there are a multitude of expectations sitting in the congregation on any given Sunday.
While each preacher must journey into her or his own way of preaching, I think an essential quality of a sermon is that it is authentic. When you can make a true human connection to those listening, you have earned their attention and consideration. People want to know that you know the joys and struggles of life and that you find the Word of God living in the midst of it.
Authenticity is not an abdication of authority but a redefinition of it. Life in our flattened world demands with-you authority not top-down authority. Authenticity is what we uniquely have to offer in a world where people have unlimited access to information and other's perspectives. While this may be a newer concept in business schools, it is rooted in the incarnational foundation of Christianity where we worship the God who is with us.
When I find a way to speak about how a text engages the mess of my own life or the messy life of the world, I see excitement in people's eyes. They recognize their own fear, joy, and pain and are invited to allow the Word to address them. This kind of preaching takes boldness, courage, and hard work. It pulls us away from the denominational party line to real engagement with the mystery of God. It requires us to be honest with ourselves about where we are or are not connecting with God in our lives. It asks us to look into the eyes of those we preach to and see their longings and embrace their questions, rather than run from them. It is not a 10-step plan to success but a slow movement of faithfulness.
Pastoral authenticity is a work of humble love that acknowledges it is God who transforms, not our winning words and brilliant theology. And when we live in that space, we preach faithfully.