We all stand on other people’s shoulders. We all benefit from the boost offered by those who came before. There is a sense that this dependency is to be despised – that greatness is defined by an absolute inventiveness. But this idea that we ought and could create out of nothing is both foolish and arrogant. The wise ones among us understand how to benefit from and build upon work done already by others before. In so doing, we pay these people honour and we extend the legacy of their offerings.
It is particularly important for preachers to understand this standing upon shoulders. The prevalence of sermons on the internet has empowered a wave of pulpit plagiarism. Pastors fear the real possibility of dismissal should they rely too heavily on the work of others, which is difficult because there is so much good work being done by others. Why should we deprive our congregations of the excellence that is available and which has fuelled our love for our craft and calling? If a sermon on YouTube is more compelling than what I could put together on my own, would it not be better that I offer that to my people? It would certainly save a lot of time and effort.
Most of us understand the falsity of this question of expedience. We understand the value of the preacher bringing original work, forged in the fire of a particular context with a specific group of people. At the very least, we can understand that this is what people feel that they are paying for and that it would be dishonest for us to represent the work of others as the fruit of our own labours and the congregation’s investment. For most of us, the real issue takes on a deeper nuance.
This morning I was going through some old notes, and found some jotted comments from my hearing of a friend’s sermon. It was a great sermon and I found myself thinking that I might like to preach it. Well, not his sermon exactly, but certainly his text, and probably its general direction. If God had been pleased to bless me by the work of my friend, I ought to be able to offer that same blessing to others. The text is the text. The truth is the truth. How would this be any different than my singing someone else’s song or playing someone else’s video?
There would be no difference, of course, so long as I was willing to tell everyone that the sermon had been written or substantially built by someone else. The fact that I would find it almost impossible to do so, tells me all I need to know about the propriety of such a thing. My people expect my sermon, forged in dialogue with a God by his Word and by his Spirit. To admit that I was preaching someone else’s sermon would not fly, at least not very often.
But this is not to say that I could not, nor should not utilize the value of my friend’s sermon. In fact, I believe that it would be honouring to his work if I did. Of course, I must go further. I must stand on his shoulders and in so doing, see if I could see a little further. We see this when we share in conversation. One person offers an idea. The next person hears it and comments on the first, intending to advance the understanding of them both. The second comment stands upon the shoulders of the first, with the third and fourth comments reaching even higher.
Of course, it would be disingenuous then for me to take the result of this homiletic conversation and own it entirely as my own. If I were, rather, to share the source of my original thoughts, I bear tribute to my friend and I elevate the authority of what I have offered. People see that there is a progeny to my thinking which gives to it a greater credence.
Perhaps this is exactly what we should be doing. Would it not be awesome if we could grow to celebrate the preaching of each other’s sermons in the full light of day, paying full tribute to each other, while consciously advancing the effects of one another’s work. This would be like we treat our sermons as open source materials, expecting and even hoping that others will take what we have given and make more of it for the good of God’s Kingdom.
This might require a culture change, but I believe that such a change could draw us closer to the culture of the Kingdom, because of both the improving content of our preaching, but also for the spirit of it.