Martin Luther regularly collected and published his sermons following the calendar of the church year. They were known as “postils,” and during his life they were some of his most read and beloved works. Luther himself was pleased with them but lamented that some “lazy” preachers read them word-for-word from the pulpit:
There are some lazy, no-good pastors and preachers who depend on these and many other good books that they can take a sermon out of. They don’t pray, study or read, pondering nothing in Scripture, just as if we need not read the Bible, using such books as a template and calendar to earn their living (LW 6281-85).
I appreciate Luther’s point, but I am conflicted. Let me explain.
On one hand, preaching verbatim another person’s sermon detracts from the essence of preaching: the pastor stands among his or her congregation and in the power of the Holy Spirit speaks the Word of the Lord as it is refracted through his or her unique humanity. That refraction, or mediation, is what makes preaching different, more even, than simply reading the Scriptures aloud. It affirms the goodness of creation as it is experienced in the preacher’s own humanity (docetism always lurks in the wings). So, beyond Luther’s point about the pastor’s engagement with the Scriptures through prayer in preparation for delivering a sermon (certainly right), there is also something distinctly human about preaching that is lost when a sermon from someone else is delivered.
Further, a sermon is spoken in the midst of the particular moment of a church’s life, a moment surely common to others but one that has never before occurred and never will again. The time in which a sermon is proclaimed is unique in the history of the cosmos: this pastor, in the midst of this congregation, at this moment in history! The human and historical essence of preaching is depleted by preaching a sermon that is not native to a community.
In Luther’s case the pastors forthrightly read his postils, but today it often happens without anyone’s knowledge. The son of a nationally known author and speaker told me that his father was once visiting a church and heard one of his sermons preached. Even the personal illustrations from his family’s life were used! I have also known several churches that removed their pastors for preaching sermons they found on the internet or borrowed from others. Pastors are under much pressure to perform in the pulpit, and the internet is an easy source of content.
On the other hand – hear me out – perhaps a pastor can rightly do what Luther lamented. Pastoring a local church and preaching weekly is hard! I know this. Despite Luther’s strong words, I can imagine situations in which a pastor might openly and forthrightly voice the sermon of someone else. For instance, I have known a pastor who went through a season of spiritual dryness and exhaustion. He was simply unable to preach. In his dark night he received sermons from a group of supportive pastors. Tragically, he was not forthright with his congregation. But if a congregation knew then perhaps the practice could be a form of authentic communal support. I have also known pastors who perceived themselves as “poor” communicators. They were not “effective” in their own eyes, so they believed that using content from others bolstered their weaknesses and better served their church.
However, even in such cases, I still believe it depletes the essence of preaching: the authentically human moment in which a congregation listens for the Word of the Lord as it is refracted through the preacher’s unique humanity in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Here is my recommendation, more gently than Luther (I have more in common with the temperaments of Bucer and Melanchthon than Luther). For the preacher in the dark night: invite others to preach (elders, deacons, etc.), and let your congregation experience someone willing to be carried in times of need. For the preacher who laments their communication skills: find a mentor and play to your strengths; your church needs your voice! For the preacher tempted to deceive your congregation by preaching a sermon as if it was your own: your church deserves better; neither you nor they are served by your deception. Please, don’t do it.