Religious Language Update

I promised during the sermon on religious language a few weeks ago to investigate the word “sermon.” I didn’t like what I found. Indeed, the negative connotations of the word have been built into the current dictionary definitions. Words like “reproof,” “exhortation,” and even “tedious” come up. Sermons, indeed, seem to be about making judgments and calling listeners to account. That’s not what I learned in my preaching class with now-retired UU minister Judy Hoehler. Nor is it my experience with well-developed sermons by the best preachers I have heard. (And, I know, “preaching” has many of the same disturbing connotations. Sigh.)

I have always used the word “sermon” in order to distinguish it from other kinds of talks: “lecture,” which is primarily about conveying information; “discourse,” which has a more philosophical feel; “oration,” which is way too grand; “speech,” which is what politicians give; “homily,” which traditionally has been very short; and just plain “talk,” which doesn’t say muchat all about what it is.

The question, it seems to me, is about what we intend to do in the time we spend together on Sunday mornings. For me, we are crafting an experience that we share as a gathered congregation that will invite us into deeper reflection on our values and on the meaning of our lives, as we strengthen and develop the bonds of community. Everything that is part of the service – the music, the readings, the story, the Joys and Sorrows, the offertory, the announcements, the people in the room, the aesthetic setting, everything – should work together to create that shared experience. The goal, then, of the words offered during that twenty to thirty minute chunk of time that I, or someone, is talking, is to contribute to the experience. So, how do we bring together values, meaning, and community through those words?

A couple of people have used the word “provocation” to describe what I have called a sermon. True, that time should provoke us to think more deeply about our lives – not in a way that says “do this, not that” – but in a way that invites examination, meditation, perhaps even change. But “provocation” doesn’t seem to be exactly the right word, because there’s more. This talk may also offer comfort, raise a new way of looking at something, remind us of an old way of looking at something; it may reinforce our thinking, or overturn it; it may fill us full of emotion or leave us longing for something that is missing.

For the time being, I have decided to use the word “reflection” for the talk I offer during the service. I like that reflection can mean thoughtful consideration on a topic, and also that its other meanings imply a relationship between surfaces and light that provide a metaphor for how such a talk works in a congregation. When my reflections are at their best, they will reflect, or bounce back to you, what I am hearing in the congregation, but perhaps through a different lens. At any rate, I hope my words – whatever they are called – are helpful in discerning meaning, examining values, and strengthening community.

See you on Sunday,

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