Not long ago, my friend and teacher Buddy Shurden jogged my memory about something author Kurt Vonnegut once said about his “rules” for writing a short story. One of those rules was: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” Though I am fortunate that I do not preach week by week to total strangers, I am keenly aware of my responsibility not to waste the time of those who give me the great gift of listening–at least listening until I give them reason not to do so!

If 500 people hear me preach on Sunday, and my sermon lasts 20 minutes, that means, collectively, the congregation invests 10,000 minutes in hearing my sermon. That’s over 166 hours in one Sunday. If I don’t thoughtfully prepare and deliver a sermon, I have wasted an unbelievable amount of people’s time, and I am a very poor steward of the responsibility entrusted to me. Every week, as Sunday approaches, I think about the cumulative time people will give to what I hope to say.

And that’s not the only, or heaviest, responsibility I feel as each Sunday nears. I am aware that there will be people present who, though they will not say so aloud, are desperate for some hope to cling to, or starving for love, or looking for guidance. There are others who need help voicing their thanks, speaking their praise, and singing their joy. My words could help or–this weighs heavily on me–hinder a person’s hearing the “word” they most need to hear.

Vonnegut concluded his last speech with these words: “I thank you for your attention, and I’m out of here.” When preachers preach, we incur a debt of gratitude to those who have paid attention. And, before we say, “I am out of here,” we need to be sure we have left people with something that matters, And, for goodness sake, we need to be sure that we haven’t wasted their time.