And That Was The Sermon

The following excerpt is from a lecture on preaching that Buechner delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary's Henderson Conference in 1986.

Then there is the idea of preaching as the village wise man or wise woman, the village sage. There shouldn't be a place for that kind of sermon. And I think my weakness as a preacher is that I don't preach enough of them. Issue-oriented sermons which are important to you--the preacher speaks about sexual morality or speaks about divorce or speaks about nuclear disarmament or speaks about self-confidence or something like that. All important crucial issues, some of them. But I always think of what I think is the basic question, "is it true?"

Beyond all those issues, important as they are, that is the real issue that I feel should be addressed in a sermon. Out in that audience, in that congregation, there is a woman who's facing hysterectomy, there's the man who has thought about suicide, there's the kid on drugs, there's this, that, and the other. And no matter how relevant what you have to say is to the great issues of our time it's not relevant to that basic issue. How can I survive, how can I believe anything in such a world?

I remember going to an Easter sermon once at a time when I was in bad need of nourishment of saving; depressed and confused. The preacher addressed himself to the question of faith but as he put it, it was important to have faith in yourself. We must have faith in our self--it was a good--we must of course that's true. There was a good elucidation of that idea, but faith in myself? That was the last thing I was looking for and the sermon just fell like a rock as far as I was concerned. I wanted to hear about faith in Christ, or faith in God. The sermon preached, oddly enough, ultimately to me that day was not anything the man said. But as I left the church, the reason I was depressed and so on was that depressing things were happening in my life which he knew about and he said, "I hear you've been having a hard time lately" and at that he threw his arms around me for a moment. And that was the sermon. That was enormously moving and healing and impressive but the words themselves were nothing.