Are There Good Echoes?

Yesterday I echoed the terminology used in Fred Lybrand’s book as we considered whether it is possible to steal your own sermon.  If it is, then there would be a hollow echo in our preaching.  Today I want to ask whether there might be a good echo in our preaching?  I think there is.

It is the good echo of a genuinely influenced life.  It’s not the stealing of a sermon, but the marking of a life that makes for a good echo of others.  Consider those who have taught you, mentored you, influenced you and marked you.  Surely in your preaching their influence will resonate for all to hear.

People do not have to recognize it in order to hear it. You don’t have to speak like them, sound like them, gesture like them.  Mimicry may be flattery for them, but it probably falls into the category of “hollow echo” for you!

Unless you point it out, others may not know how your enthusiasm for the Bible was caught from that Bible survey teacher, or how your passion for accuracy has resonated from the call of that other prof at seminary, or how your theology was forever shaped by encounters with another who remains a good friend, or how your longing to know God was inspired by the genuine example of one close to retirement as you had just begun.  (I could go on describing those who I hope echo in my ministry; Bruce, John, Ron, David respectively.)

Perhaps it would be worthwhile thinking prayerfully through those who have left an impression on you through the years.  What was it about them that made a difference to you?  Perhaps you will have reason to rejoice and express gratitude for good echoes still resonating from your life and ministry.  Perhaps you will have reason to pray and ask God to make more clear in you what you heard so genuinely from them.  (Perhaps their vulnerability was so powerful, yet it is somehow limited in your ministry.  Their precision in wording so effective, yet of a level rarely reached in your preaching.)  What might be found lacking as you look back to others and listen for the echoes in your own ministry?

I think there can be good echoes in our preaching.  The difference is that these echoes don’t bounce around an empty space and come out as feeble hollow echoes.  Somehow these good echoes come from the very fiber of our being, from a life marked rather than a good thing mimicked.

Plagiarism and Echoes

At some point I will write a review of Preaching on Your Feet by Fred Lybrand.  I need to finish it first.  Today I’d just like to raise an interesting thought.  Is there a connection between plagiarism and the way most preachers preach?  To put it another way, is it possible to steal your own sermon?

Stealing sermons isn’t good.  Maybe you’ve tried it.  Maybe you’ve heard it.  (Maybe you do it every week – and sing private praise songs about the internet!)  No matter how good the original, no matter how well-crafted the wording, no matter how inspiring the passion, or amusing the anecdotes, somehow a stolen sermon can only be, as Phillips Brooks described it, a “feeble echo” of the original power.  It seems to bounce around in the second preacher’s head and come out as an echo.  It doesn’t resonate from every fiber of his being, it pings out with all the added noise and cavernous emptiness of  a poor recording from a low quality cassette player.

Lybrand raises the possibility that preachers of integrity (ie. not verbatim sermon stealers) might still preach with the same kind of echo.  It’s easy to preach on Sunday morning, referring to notes that prompt your thinking back to your preparation on Thursday.  It’s easy to be preaching trying to recall exactly how you had it before.  It’s not as hollow an echo as a sermon that has bounced through cyberspace (or even through history!) and landed in your memory.  But there is still a hollow-ness.  Still an echo.  Somehow we can fall into preaching the sermon of another preacher – that is, the sermon of you three or four days ago (and God has changed you since then).

I won’t offer Lybrand’s solution today.  I’ll just leave this as a point to ponder as we wrestle with how to really preach, how to really connect with real people at a real moment in time.