Thursday, July 8, 2010
Preaching the Word
Woe be unto the preacher who does not tell the truth about the gospel in his/her life! Woe be unto the preacher who asks the congregation to take the risk of believing or living the gospel when there is no tangible evidence that the preacher really believes and really lives the gospel s/he preaches.
The congregation will sniff out that lie in a heartbeat. As Tennessee Williams wrote in his play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: "There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity . . .You can smell it. It smells like death." Elizabeth Kaeton.
My friend and fellow truth-teller, Elizabeth, published a wonderful commentary on preaching today. http://www.telling-secrets.blogspot.com/ Elizabeth and I met when she came to seminary to determine whether she was going to attend my seminary or another. She did come to EDS and it changed her life as indeed, it changed mine. She “got it” as we say in the faith business. She understood or at least opened herself to be challenged by God’s TRUTH—that internal ringing of crystalline rightness or balance that comes when we come to know God.
Now that I am retired, I sit in the pew as much as I stand in the pulpit. It is a good practice. I am not as well-versed in listening to sermons as I am in giving them. Also preaching has changed since I started preaching. Sermons used to be essays that hung together with some interesting doctrinal point to them because many of the people knew those doctrinal facts and wanted to be able have a type of faith that they could proclaim or perhaps argue with others. But today sermons are less well-developed. We are told that the crafting of sermons is not to be well-reasoned arguments as they need to be stories that people can grasp.
The well-published authors of sermons are those who can spin a story—a short one that has a moral or a point that illustrates that crystalline rightness that . Story-telling is a lost art in today’s society. No longer do we sit and listen to the story-tellers of society. We get our messages of the important things from TV, or various forms of visual media. We still are drawn to the comedian who can tickle our funny bones with stories, but we find sermons—especially long-drawn out ones eye-glazing.
I remember being fascinated by the sermons of Lancelot Andrews when I was in seminary. He was one of the translators of the King James Version of the Bible and the Bishop of Winchester. His prose was from the same era as Shakespeare and their compositions helped shape the English language. Reading one of those sermons would take me several hours and I wondered how he kept his audience with the intricate crafting of his sermons. He would weave Latin, Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic into his sermons. Word-plays were as important to his sermons as were the word-plays of Hebrew Scripture. His sermons were preached for King James I of England and his family and addressed the issues that faced a head of state and the affairs of his day. There were no “feel-good” sermons to remind the listener of how generous God was and how just the listener was. The sermons were calls to righteousness, calls to changing people’s lives. They rang with an understanding of the God who was portrayed in both the Hebrew and Greek Scripture so that the 16th century could embrace a God who loved creation. Andrews never understood Scripture as inerrant or infallible. He understood that the process of translation was an attempt by humanity to express what had been written in other languages was always an approximation of what was originally written. But it was his attempt to express the TRUTH of God’s presence that made the KJV’s so enduring.
One time I listened to a bishop preach, and somewhere in the relating of his story, I realized that the tale he was expounding was not the Truth. It was a story that I believed that he wanted to be true. It was one of those examples of faith that you wanted to be true. It was a moral story. But there was something that I knew deep in the center of my experience of the Holy that his story was a lie. That ‘crystalline ring of TRUTH’ was not only not there, it rang with a shattering dissonance. I felt betrayed by his willingness to tell a story that was not rooted in reality.
The preaching of the Gospel must resound with God’s truth and that is what makes it such a difficult vocation. When my friend, Elizabeth, writes that it takes a life-time to write a sermon, she is so right. It takes a life lived in a relationship with God to preach a sermon. It is not just a matter of the getting the words right, or the various points to converge or for it to be doctrinally orthodox. And it is not just a matter of telling our own experiences of God. It is a matter of telling whatever story so it is through our transparency that Christ can be seen, so that the unequivocal truth of God’s love is known.
There are always going to be those will betray the high calling to preach the story of God and serve themselves rather than those which serve principles of shalom, righteousness and holiness. But for those who know the power of God’s love, they will ignore those sermons. The problem with those who are ordained to preach but who are unwilling to open their lives enough to preach with integrity harm the Gospel. Those who know God, and are delivered sermons that are not rooted in God’s truth, walk.
The styles of preaching have changed over the centuries. Not too many people can spend the time listening to the 3 hour sermons of Lancelot Andrews. Now, sound bites speak louder than intricately woven treatises or even the spell-binding stories of grace. But whatever forms our communication of the Gospel for the future takes, it will still need to communicate that vision of the Incarnation in its Truth. The message of God will always need to be rooted in the reality of our experience of God. And sharing the story of Jesus will always need to be rooted, not in the historical facts of 2000 years ago, but in the continuing relationship of God with us.