Owing to a lack of vacancies, and a very small district, I don’t have any newly-minted pastors to welcome to my own district this year. But that doesn’t mean that call day doesn’t make me think back to the early days of my own ministry. The most shocking thing to me early on: Everything I’d learned in 4 grinding years of seminary studies was preached in my first six months of sermons. I was fresh out of information to convey. That was when I finally started digging into the texts and learning how to really preach.
But early on, I’d made a choice that really helped me. Looking around at available resources, I realized that, if I used the three year series and I got into homiletical trouble, I would have Concordia Pulpit Resources to help me out of it. Not a shabby thing to fall back on, to be sure.
But if I used the historic lectionary, I would have two different sets of Luther (Church and House postils.) So, when the well ran dry after six months, I starting drinking from a new spring. Drinking deeply. And there is no better teacher outside of scripture. Practical without being shallow, deeply theological without being distant from the real struggles of the people in the pew, Luther tops anyone else I have ever read. There are a lot of books that pastors should read annually, or at least review occasionally: Law and Gospel, Sacred Meditations, and Hammer of God are some that I have heard and recommended myself.
But there is no book in my library so consistently used as Luther’s House Postils. At least monthly for the last 21 years I have read a sermon from Luther. Sometimes each week. A young pastor with nothing of his own to say can do far worse than just summarizing Luther’s sermon. I did it a fair amount. Each paragraph became a sentence in my sermon. I felt guilty at the time because I wasn’t actually writing my own sermon. What I didn’t realize then is that I had adopted an ancient method of learning from the masters. I was teaching myself how to exegete scripture and structure a sermon from the best there ever was, after the time of the apostles. And those lessons are still with me today.
My advice to young pastors: Follow the historic lectionary for at least the first five years. These are the years when you will learn the most about preaching – even (and especially) when you don’t realize you are learning. And these formative years can not be better spent than in Luther’s sermons. Added since those days is Walther and Gerhard. If your church has a budget for continuing ed, get those sermons first thing. Read them as well as Luther. The Baker set of Luther’s Postils is no longer available. But Luther’s House Postils are available freely online in a late 19th century translation, as are the Church Postils. (Google books is your friend!)
You can argue all you want about modern scholarship, exposing people to more of scripture long-term, about the value of the three year series, etc, etc. But the one argument that trumps them all in my mind is that, if you give yourself five years of studying the preaching style of Luther, Walther, & Gerhard, then the rest of your ministry, you could preach on texts from the Boston Telephone Directory and the sermons will be among the best offered in the church. Because you will have been trained by the masters. At that point, switch to the three year if you wish. It won’t matter as much once you’ve learned from the best.
And if you’re in a situation (Ass’t or Assoc) where you don’t get to pick, cross reference and at every opportunity dig, dig, dig into the old masters. You – and your hearers – will be grateful you did.