I've been reading several books on the history of preaching, most recently Richard Lischner's excellent The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr and the Word That Moved America.
I am about to make some sweeping generalizations, in order to encourage discussion.
I think the concern some have expressed over plagiarism in preaching is misplaced. It seems that our concerns in this area come from a desire to make a connection between preaching and academic research - that the work of constructing a sermon is comparable to writing a term paper or essay. And this is not surprising. After all, most of us learned the means of constructing a sermon from our professors - academics at home in the world of research and necessarily obsessive about documentation.
However, preaching is not really like writing a research paper. It is the telling of a story. Really, it is the retelling of a story. And we pull as much from the "oral tradition," the years of hearing the same story told multiple times, as we do from any commentary or other secondary source.
An illustration: I suggest that it would be pedantic if we were to hold FDR accountable for failing to attribute his famous quote, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," because he neglected to document the quote as a paraphrase from Seneca the Younger. Of course, you would lose points on your high school paper if you did not do so - if your high school teacher knew enough to accurately translate Seneca, or even knew enough to look it up. However, we recognize that FDR had more important things to do in his first inaugural address than cite proper sources. Nor do we criticize MLKJr for misquoting FDR as "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." My point is - we don't care whether or not the statement is original to FDR. We only care that it was exactly the right thing to say to move a nation to action in the middle of the Great Depression.
The problem comes, it seems to me, when we are forced to suggest that anything we are saying is an original idea. Not only is what we are preaching not original, but we should not strive for it to be. If I am telling the story that has been told for thousands of years, if I have an original thought or perspective, that should serve as a red flag that I am not correctly telling the story. After all, my task as preacher is, in the words of C.S. Lewis (note the attribution) not so much to offer something new, as to remind the congregation of that which they have heard many times but seem to have forgotten. Possibly more accurately, we are called to be like the grandparent who, sitting on the front porch or around the campfire, is asked to "tell us the story again," the story that was told to me by my grandparents.
When I was a college chaplain, I had the opportunity to bring to our campus a gifted preacher and storyteller. Now I knew that some of the stories he told were not original to him, even though he presented them that way. (Truthfully, he did receive some flack for this from other well-known preachers, but he really didn't care.) All I know is that the students who heard him, some 20 years later, still speak of these moments in chapel as seminal to their walk with the Lord.
Now, this is not offered as an excuse for preachers not to do their homework, to reference the scholarly research in order to rightly divide the word. Nor am I suggesting it is appropriate for preachers to pull entire sermons off their shelves or off the internet and present them as their own. What I am suggesting is that we do a disservice to the preaching enterprise when we tie it to the rules and rigors of academic research, an activity that is meant to enlighten, but not meant to move people to passionate action, as preaching is called to do.
Do we really think anyone in our congregation wants to hear multiple citations? Are we expecting every preacher should have the burden of writing "original" material every Sunday? I don't think so.
What do you think?