Friday, April 27, 2007

A Little Incarnation

Came across an intriguing posting this evening by my old friend Mike Kruse, at, on originality and plagiarism in preaching. Added a couple comments of my own, which see.

In Christian ethics, it's never a matter of the lesser of two evils, but the greater of two goods. So which is better-- preaching a doctrinally-sound sermon that is not one's own? Or coming up with something original that may be poorly-researched, badly-organized, and maybe heretical?

But why should that be a forced choice? Most weeks we don't have three funerals and two parishioner operations and a lost child or (append your choice of pastoral emergency) to attend to. Most weeks, our Sunday sermon is the focus and summation of our ministry for the week. Most weeks, the Lord expects us to put in the work to come up with the words to contain the Word He wants us to give our people, whether by study and writing or out of the sweat of the pastoral trenches. It's like a little incarnation, what God does with us in the pulpit. He calls us to the ministry of the Word and says, "I want to work through you. I want to bring the Living Word to these people in this time and place through you." How's He going to do that if we're cribbing other people's work?

I know it does happen. When I did my parish placement as a second-year theological college student, I regularly visited the elderly widow of a certain clergyman. This reverend gentleman had published two or more collections of his sermons for use by hapless preachers. But, said his widow, "My Eric always put some preposterous statement or other somewhere in the middle of each one, to make sure the preacher looks it over first and makes an effort to make it his own." Some subscribers only learned of those little traps while blithely reading out the borrowed work in the pulpit. Oops! "I'm sorry, dearly beloved, Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt, not into a slotted spoon!" But whether that sermon-mining device ultimately works for or against theological candor, I'm still struggling to say.

Now, the last thing I want on my gravestone is "Here Lies an Original Theologian." All truth is God's truth and we share it together. And if some preacher thinks another's words are exactly what his congregation needs to hear on a given Sunday, for sweet honesty's sake, let him give credit to that other servant of Christ! But how can anyone justify using another's sermons as a matter of habit? Wouldn't the water get a little stale?

But maybe I'm committing a worse sin-- going on about a fault I have no temptation towards myself. As an itinerant supply preacher, I feel guilty if I revamp and re-preach sermons of my own!

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