Early in my first pastoral call, I preached a sermon on the Trinity. I figured my little congregation knew that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all one God, but I wanted to help them understand why that matters for our salvation. As I was shaking hands after the service, a woman came up to me, smiling, and said, “As a lifelong Unitarian, I just want to tell you that was a wonderful sermon.”
Bemused and taken aback, I thanked her and watched her go, wondering what on earth she had meant. Unfortunately, she took sick and left the community soon after, so I never had the chance to find out. I’m still wondering what, as a lifelong Unitarian, she actually understood that sermon to mean, and how it affected her.
This isn’t the only puzzling reaction I’ve ever had to a sermon, of course. Another example among many is the woman who thanked me for making it clear that Christians must support the government of Israel, leaving me thinking, I didn’t say that. At least, I don’t think I did. I think most pastors can relate to encounters like that. Over the years, I’ve heard a number of “But I didn’t say that!” stories from various colleagues. Sometimes, the messages people have taken away from sermons I’ve preached have been more insightful than anything I actually said—which is a humbling thought.
But then, that’s part of the reason for such experiences, isn’t it? God uses them to keep us preachers humble and to remind us that the work of preaching isn’t nearly as much about us and our skills and talents as we like to think it is. My preaching professor in seminary, the Rev. Dr. John Zimmerman, used to tell us, “One sermon preached, a hundred sermons heard”—an axiom that in my experience varies only by size of congregation. He often said that what really matters in people’s lives isn’t the sermon we preach, but (in his words) the counter-sermon they preach to themselves as they listen.
Sometimes congregants hear what they expect to hear, rather than what we’re actually trying to say. That can sink even the best-crafted sermons. Often, though, such sermon reinterpretation is clearly the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts and minds, using our words to address individual realities of which we are unaware and telling people things he knows they need to hear, even if we don’t. In either case, what’s really going on is outside of our control, and not finally the product of our work and skill at all. That doesn’t mean the sermon is irrelevant, just that the credit for whatever good may come of it belongs not to us but to the Spirit of God.