Lately I have noticed that what was once called a "sermon" is now described in many an order of service as a "reflection" or a "meditation." I suspect this is the result of the term sermon falling out of favour because it evokes an image of a stereotypical boring and lengthy monologue from a pulpit. When people use the word "preach" in conversation it is usually to say something like "Don't preach to me." Preaching is taken to be a moralistic, even aggressive, in your face type of speech. Of course, good preaching is none of this. It is never boring and, if lengthy, one only realizes how long the sermon has been when you look at your watch after and wonder at how the time flew by. As Walter Brueggemann has said when asked how long a sermon should be: "A good sermon is never long enough ... and a bad sermon is never short enough." A good sermon is, like the gospel, surprising and challenging. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "A truly evangelical sermon must be like offering a child a beautiful apple or holding out a glass of water to a thirsty person and asking: Wouldn't you like it?" With the recent commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination we were reminded once again of the power that preaching can have for inspiring and uplifting a people. Martin's preaching was anything but reflections or meditations. His were powerful orations that can only be described as sermons.
Which leads me to wonder about the wisdom of the move to abandon the title sermon in favour of reflections and meditations. On first glance this move seems more invitational. A sermon is meant to be an announcement delivered by a breathless messenger who has important life changing news to share. Reflections and meditations suggest something less urgent, calmer. In avoiding the stereotypically negative reaction to a sermon these alternatives may change the congregation's expectation of the moment when the Word is proclaimed. Of course, just as the preacher may preach a bad sermon so a reflector or meditator may well offer a good reflection or meditation. In the end, it is not what it is called but what is delivered that matters. Nonetheless, I fear that this shift in name will lead congregations to forget the purpose of preaching - namely, that it is intended to be a daring proclamation. In response to bad memories of preaching in the past I suggest not abandoning the sermon but surprising the church with sermons that delight and engage with a Word that is unusual, unexpected and inviting - the good news in Jesus Christ.