I’m currently reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, in the course of which my attention was grabbed by his almost throwaway remark about preaching, in which he describes sermons as:
that peculiar, intense form of dramatic mass communication that early Christianity seems to have invented: a struggle between the speaker, his God, the text of the Bible and an audience of believers.
That ‘struggle’ is a good word… Preaching is not about a speaker learned in theology who pours his or her knowledge into the empty minds of sheep-like hearers who know so much less. However much some (chiefly Evangelical) preachers seem to think it is, or would like it to be. Those hearers will always have their own ideas about whether, and how much, they will accept the speaker’s words as true, helpful, credible or relevant. They may have been schooled not to voice their dissent, or indeed to offer any comment beyond the conventional “Lovely sermon, vicar”, but whether they will allow what they’ve heard to change their lives or not, is another matter. And then there are the other characters in the conversation: God, and the biblical text, both of whom may have something to say about it, whether the preacher will or not.
For 37 years, and to some extent still, from time to time, I have dared to venture into that struggle. I’m ashamed to say I have sometimes believed that I was the one who knew, delivering the very word of God to those who knew not. After all, it can’t have been for nothing that I had spent all those hours and years studying the Bible and theology – can it? But as the years passed I came to what I thought in the end was not only a more honest, but also a humbler and more effective attitude to what I was doing in the pulpit. No longer the purveyor of all truth, but someone who had been given the privilege of standing among believers (and sometimes unbelievers, too) with the Bible open, and saying to them as it were: “These are the words which many of our forebears have believed to be, or to convey, the Word of God. A message from God! Let us sit here together and see if we can make sense of it: discover if it is indeed such a message to us, and if so, what it is saying to us.” Of course, I may have been in the position to have learned more of the text and its background that some of the listeners; but many of them knew much more of life than I did. My sermons were rarely in the form of a dialogue or discussion; but I hope they came to be speech in which I imagined and offered not only what I (the expert?) had to say, but also what any of the hearers might have had to say in response.
And one of the questions I found myself asking, and asked myself again as I listened to this morning’s preacher, was: Who are we preaching to, when we dare to stand in the pulpit and open our mouths about God? So often (like this morning) I think we preach with the assumption that out hearers are unbelievers whom we are trying to convince. Really? There may be some churches where people with no faith or understanding pitch up on a Sunday morning thinking, “I’ll just go in here and see what these Christians have to say for themselves.” But I’d be astonished if they were ever more than the tiniest minority. Perhaps – in the spirit of the shepherd who expended such effort in searching for the one sheep out of a hundred that was lost – we should preach to that person. But this morning I found myself thinking: Most of the people here believe, in some sense. What is the Gospel message, the good news, for those of us who believe?
I wasn’t sure that there was much that wasn’t thin fare indeed. It seemed to amount to: If you believe this, go out and tell everybody! Which seemed more guilt-news than good news. But I don’t mean this as (much) criticism of this morning’s preacher. I have been there myself, and done just the same. But now that I’m not so preoccupied with what I am trying to feed, and to whom, I find myself thinking more and more about what kind of spiritual nourishment I and others need to receive.
Often the words, and the preacher who delivers them, seem to be more of an obstacle to nourishment than a provider. We love our words so much! But sometimes I feel less nourished by the sermon, than by the words of the liturgy, or the words or melody of the hymn (not so often the ‘worship song’) we are singing, or a picture. It’s hard to depict the Resurrection… so I find myself wondering why one of my favourite representations of it is Piero della Francesca’s, dating from around 1460. It captures a moment before the women arrived at the tomb, when Christ rose triumphant while the guards were sleeping (Matthew 28.13). The risen Christ stands with his (curiously English-looking) victory banner in hand, his foot raised to lift himself out of the tomb (a very Italian, above-ground kind of burial place). But why does he look so spaced-out and joyless, as if he’s just awoken from a bad trip? His gaze is directed straight at us, but I wouldn’t call it warm, or attractive, or inviting. When, or if, he opens his mouth to speak – what will he say to us?
Will thinking and wondering about a question like that, do as much or more good, than all the words of those of us who preach to the unbelievers who aren’t even there?