Guest Post: How to Hear a Sermon by Rosemary Hannah

In this guest post, Rosemary Hannah reflects on how to hear a sermon. Rosemary teaches in TISEC, has just written the definitive biography of the Third Marquess of Bute and is a member of the congregation at St Mary’s.

‘I always listen to the sermon, knowing the word of God will reach me through it,’ he said, his face that misleading mask of innocence his class knew so well. We waited.

‘Of course,’ continued the Rev Jim Whyte, later to be Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, ‘Usually the word of God comes to me that the sermon is quite wrong.’

To sit and listen to a sermon is a spiritual exercise. You settle back, and expectantly open yourself to God, and almost always he does speak. If you are listening to one of the Jim Whytes of this world, His word can be astonishingly direct. If you are listening to one of those who preached to Jim, it may easily come in other ways.

Listening to a sermon is like beach-combing. Who knows what delights lie ahead? Anything from old rubbish through to bleached driftwood, birds crucified by the sea, or polished gems and gold rings. The important thing is to be awake to what may be there, for it may be anything.

Each preacher has their own style. Generally Kelvin prefers a beguiling circuitous route to lead his listeners, apparently effortlessly, where he wants them to go. But there is also the sermon which takes the hard direct route to lead you into the experience of faith, sharing something of the anguish of the preacher; sermons it is a privilege to hear. Or you may get a discussion of any number of issues in a passage; something to puzzle over. I once sat for some years and listened to a preacher who specialised in picking Scripture apart so you could see the warp and weft of it, and I think I learned more from that than any other set of sermons I have heard; not so much the content of the passages, but how to square up honestly to the writing, and to trust the writer’s intelligence. Just occasionally there will be the sermon which suddenly throws open a door to a Biblical passage so that you see for the first time what it really means. This is for me both the most exhilarating and the most meaningful and the rarest of sermons.

Then there are the sermons which start up some little wader on the shore. Sermons where you stop listening to the content being laid out from the pulpit and follow some delightful distraction set off by it. So the Good Samaritan used oil, you find yourself thinking, which is not so different from the ointment you buy to heal the dog’s cuts. You wonder how effective old remedies actually were, and how many scars the poor man who fell among thieves ended up with, and did he get word to his wife, and did somebody ever … That is all fine. Contemplating what childhood traumas caused the preacher’s attitude to life, or what execrable theological education formed his thoughts may seem less noble but be equally useful to those with responsibilities along those lines, or those seeking to awaken the need to care compassionately for the speaker in daily life – and dear knows our preachers often need care.

But as you settle back into your comfortless seat (and actual chairs are far less accommodating than pews and nothing is at all like the squashy sofa I always think would be best place to listen to a sermon from) as you settle back, just remember to be open to everything, including the small voice which tells you God is actually nothing at all like the preacher imagines She is.