by James Woody
Translation Louise Thunin
It’s often said that the sermon is the center of Reformed Church worship. That’s my opinion as well. However, it’s not enough that a person should speak for about twenty minutes, after having read a Biblical passage, for the members of the community to derive any benefit from the sermon. Even if it falls about halfway through the service and is the lengthiest element, that doesn’t explain why I feel like attending services, even when I’m tired and even when the weather’s bad. A sermon is worthy of its name when it announces, indeed, proclaims life at its most incandescent.
Preach on Life
A sermon is meant to make life available to us in the way Jesus Christ manifested it. That presupposes that the preacher has listened to life, that she has observed it at least a few times, and that she has tried to live life. Not just to survive but to live freely in such a way that her life corresponds to the hope formulated in the Bible : this is what a sermon ought to offer.
In his Speech to theology students at Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) tells a frightful story : « I once heard a preacher who made me want to say to myself, I’ll never attend church again ! ˝ (…) A snowstorm was raging all around us. The storm was real, but the preacher was only spectral ; and one was struck by the sad contrast between him and, seen through the window, the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He spoke not a single word that might have let one think he had ever laughed or wept, been married or in love, that he had been the object of praise, duplicity or sorrow. (…) The great secret of his profession, which is to change life into truth, is something he had never learned.˝*
A sermon is not literary analysis. There are Bible study sessions where we can show our talent for interpretation and point out the history of the text and its interaction with the culture that was contemporary to its writers. There are sessions where we can give our impressions of the text and say how we understand it or what our difficulties are. But a sermon revives the spirit which led to the Biblical passage that has just been read and makes it contemporary to the audience. The sermon is that moment during the service when ˝ God speaks˝: its words put a bit of coherence into the chaos of the listeners, according to the hope expressed by Karl Barth, who wrote that a listener expects the preacher to understand the passage better than he understands himself, to take it more seriously than he takes himself (Divine Word and Human Words).** The preacher’s words must make room for and give meaning to everything that makes up our world, making it more liveable, as expressed in Genesis 1.
The great truths expounded in sermons do not concern Christian doctrine as it might be explained by teachers of catechism. The great truths expressed in sermons are those that make the people who came to the service return home a little more conscious of their humanity and of the fact that it is possible to experience the happiness and grace that the Gospel promises. Preaching the Gospel doesn’t mean providing ready-made phrases that the parishioners will be ble to repeat to their families or colleagues. It involves directly reminding those who are right there before the pulpit of some good news.
Yes, a pulpit has a function in preaching. It doesn’t separate the preacher from the faithful. It doesn’t make of him a person apart. It allows him to engage in a dialogue with each one, to have an interpersonal relatioship with each listener. Thanks to its location and its elevation (as in some French churches, translator’s note), it lets the preacher look into the eyes of his audience, lets him be easily heard and seen (since verbal communication is only a part of what we transmit). As for the pulpit, there is also a need for sound amplification. It all depends on the place and on the size of the group. A sermon is an act of communication. It’s not a question of keeping parishioners busy with a Biblical passage for twenty minutes and then being done with our responsibility. In order to be audible, the best is to speak slowly, taking time to articulate and to pause now and then, so that listeners can absorb the message. Moreover this neutralizes any echoes that might spoil the quality of the sound. In order to be understood, the best is to understand what we’re talking about. Many sermons are incomprehensible, because the preacher himself doesn’t know what he means. Therefore he can’t speak simply, without using technical vocabulary behind which he hides his intellectual poverty.
In the same way, we have to keep our audience in mind when we write a sermon. Alexandre Vinet, in his book, Théologie pastorale, suggests that if the congregation is composed of forty-nine scholars and one ignoramus, it’s for the ignoramus that one must preach, specifying moreover that the preacher works toward the disappearance of singular man and makes room for universal man. We might say that it’s necessary to preach to the atheist, taking into account his life experience, independently of any ecclesiastical concerns, for all men are to be called anew, should they be pillars of the Church.
Is it necessary to preach on the Bible ?
To a student who asked him about the possibility of not preaching on a Biblical passage, legend has it that Karl Barth replied:
˝Begin by preaching on all the Bible…˝ In my opinion, it’s better to preach the Gospel without having read the Bible than to have read the Bible and not preach the Gospel. A Bible reading during the service is no guarantee that there will be a sermon, rather than verbiage or a collection of thoughts. Indeed, reading the Bible can be an obstacle to the Gospel, when the preacher imagines that his mission is to do justice to scripture, as that thing toward which all our thoughts ought to converge. What is the Bible ? The sage Chuang-Tse, in The Way to Heaven, reports the following dialogue between a chariot driver and a duke: ˝May I ask what you are reading ? The words of great men, replies the duke. Are they still alive ? No, they are dead. Then what you are reading is the faeces of the Ancients !˝ The Bible is faith digested. It is life in the face of God digested. We cannot be satisfied with the Bible alone, scripture alone, to help us discover the grace that has led generations of individuals to arise and become souls who have transcended their human condition. We have to go beyond the Bible. Taking up the distinction between what is written (scriptus) and writing (scriptura), which I borrow from my colleague Jean Dietz, I would say that the preacher looks beyond what is written (the Bible), because only the writing, that is the interpretation, which is an infinite process of reading and re-writing, leads us to the Divine.
If we conform our lives to what scripture says, we will make faeces of our lives. Yet we are worth more than that (warning : this is a sermon !). A sermon allows us to transcend the text. It’s true that referring explicitly to the Bible guards us to some degree from projecting our ideologies onto our audience and delivering a sermon in the form of a campaign speech. But please, do not turn the Bible into a screen between us and the abundant life contained in the promises of the Gospel. Jesus, according to the gospels, rarely quoted scripture, except to regenerate the spirit in which it could be understood, to cut sterile debate short or to remind his listeners of the life force it contains.
Preach to know yourself better, to understand life better, to render it more beautiful, more interesting and more enjoyable.
*I have translated back into English Pastor Woody’s quotation of Emerson; I do not have access to the original wording of Emerson.
** My own translation into English of this title
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