By Terry Shue
On a warm December afternoon, I did what I knew needed to be done. I loaded three large file boxes on a garden cart, along with a lawn chair and a box of matches and headed out for the family fire ring.
Over the past twenty five years, I have preached most Sundays which was a significant part of my pastoral ministry. I prepared decades of sermons, countless bible studies, 100 plus funerals and 60 some weddings. These boxes held lots of memories. Most of them were also stored electronically, but these were the real notes, printed out and then edited with colored pens before bringing them to the community of faith as a word from God. Monday morning I would staple these notes together with a weekly bulletin and place it in a file. They had served the purpose for which they were created, but I couldn’t just pitch them in the trash. Thus the three boxes full of notes.
Having recently helped my parents clean out closets of stuff they wanted to get rid of, I knew these boxes would be a burden to my children if they were responsible to clean them out, in the event of my sudden departure! So, after talking about it with my spouse Kay, I found the perfect afternoon and went to work.
Oh, I could have thrown them in the recycle bin in town, but that didn’t seem right. The boxes would have short-circuited my personal shredder, so living in the county, I set up the chair, opened the first box and pulled out the most recent sermon. It was easy to recall, the title text filled my mind again with the theme and Spirit which was present in it. Then, with a touch of holy reserve and thankfulness, I put it to the fire. Then I pulled out another one and repeated the process…for three hours. Through these sermons and notes, the memories of my loved community flooded my mind.
If someone had been watching, they would have thought I was crazy as I laughed and cried as I remembered the events from these notes. Looking through the funeral notes and wedding services was equally moving as I recalled people I had stood with, and buried. As I finished, I was filled with a sense of gratitude and awe for the opportunities of my life in these many situations. I was thankful to God for all of these moments. I did keep about 12 sermons from different seasons of my life to help me remember significant events.
Following a short post about my burn on Facebook, some people were shocked at what I did that afternoon, saying they should have been published. Another person thought it was a bit sacrilegious to burn these pages which had been used to communicate a word from God to these churches. Others thought, I should have pulled them out to preach again, if I were to begin preaching again in a single congregation. But if you are a pastor who preaches regularly, you know that does not work, nor should it.Those notes collected over those years were for a time and place, combined efforts of the Spirit of God and my efforts. Pulling out an old sermon just to have something to preach was never an option for me.
I count those hours in that space around our fire ring as holy and sacred. What did I learn that afternoon?
- God is faithful in co-creating these “words” in my pastoral ministry. We often refer to a sermon as a message. I realized this anew while looking back over the decades of work. They were the work of me and the (occasional) mysterious glimpse of God’s Spirit.
- Though God’s faithfulness was again made evident to me that afternoon, God is not only behind us, but before us. God precedes us in time and calls us to join in what already is unfolding. Though there were hours of work put in each one of those Sunday sermons, God’s tasks lay ahead of us, not in a box of memories from the past. To join with God into the future is to trust that what we need to give as a preacher will be provided for in the right time.
- Preaching is a privilege in the community of faith. One at a time, over time, years and decades, these sermons help shape the culture and the personality of a congregation. It may be hard to see or measure, but the gift of getting older is to realize that congregational change does happen; we just need to stick around long enough to see it!
- The sermon notes are not the sermon. The sermon is a point in time where the gathered community anticipates a word to be spoken, a preacher has wrestled and worked with the text and the Spirit to draw together a word for that specific community of faith, and then the two come together in a moment which is the sermon. To refer to the paper and ink in a box from years gone by as sermons is a weak and shallow expression of their partial role.
So what do you think? Did I blow it by burning all of these sermon notes? What do you do with your used sermon notes? I would love to hear your stories.