How to listen to a sermon?

Most pew jockeys ride out 20 odd minutes of preaching per week without considering what makes it godly odd or simply odd. Congregants often opine that a sermon was good or bad, but few know how to figure. They adopt Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 comment about obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” (Some sermons may be obscene, but let’s not go there!)

Many listeners know a good sermon when they hear one, but since I am vested in both the preaching of sermons and the listening to them, allow me to proffer a few hearing aids.

“A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard that way.” So says the Rev. John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s luscious novel “Gilead,” which is a noble paean to the ministry of ministers, along with the straight skinny on preacher work. While a sermon has to be preached that way, the preacher knows it has to be heard that way as well – with equal conversant passion.

Rev. Ames: “There are three parties to [the sermon] – the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord.”

All three parties must be accounted for. Those who come to preaching bring unpaid bills, relationships on the brink, dreams unrealized, sins unforgiven, and hidden carryovers from growing up. Preachers know they have struck a nerve when the other side of the conversation gets passionate – whether by tears or fears drawn.

Listeners should give thought to the other side, too. What is the preacher saying? This seems obvious, but random personal comments about the preacher’s hair or outfit, about whether she seemed troubled, or if he had put on weight do not go to substance. Seeking weightier matters more worthy of worship makes sermons matter more.

I tell parents to have their children write down three things they hear the preacher say in a sermon, then talk about them on their way home. Adults could listen for one, two or three striking things that stir the mind to think, the heart to feel, or the will to act.

Lastly and firstly, account for what the Lord might be saying through the preacher’s sermon. The Word becomes flesh and fresh in preaching. Preachers can’t account for how that happens, but we all know that God sometimes speaks through us.

Listen mostly for that.