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Jason Byassee

Preaching Is Hard

Always has been, always will be.

Preaching is hard. Anyone who has ever sat with the Bible open, surrounded by commentaries, with a date circled on the calendar, knows what I mean. Words don't jump to life by themselves. When it happens, it's hard to explain how it happened. When it doesn't, it's just depressing.

This set of books about preaching tells us something about the difficulty of preaching. To read great preaching is to open oneself to homiletical despair. Sure I can see that Will Willimon is hilarious, Barbara Brown Taylor gentle, Marilyn McCord Adams brilliant—but how's that make me any more likely to be hilarious, gentle, or brilliant on some upcoming Sunday morning at 11?

Adams will seem like the one who doesn't belong among these homiletical greats. She's better known as a philosophical theologian whose work on such difficult late-medieval thinkers as John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham has bailed out many a graduate student facing exams. In the best Anglican tradition she is also a priest, and has spent her teaching years at UCLA, Yale, and now Oxford, stepping in at local churches with charming names like St. Augustine's-By-The-Sea.

For a philosopher with a penchant for nominalism, Adams is a surprisingly accessible preacher. A dandy sermon on Trinity Sunday starts with the throat-catching premise from Bernard of Clairvaux that his Cistercians shouldn't preach that day. What words do we have adequate to the mystery of the triune life? Even the seraphim can only stammer, "holy, holy, holy." But this is not holiness as exclusivity, the three persons as "gated community," since we only know this God in personal, ecstatic form among us in Jesus and the Spirit. Adams concludes, "The funny thing is, Divine Being can't be literally holy. God's very nature explodes the meaning of that word. Who God is makes it impossible for God or any of us to be separate or isolated, ever. And that, my friends, is a good joke!" Parishioners poised for dry "philosophy" that morning were pleasantly disappointed!

Despite a light touch and often stirring biblical exegesis, Adams' preaching elsewhere has a kind of monotony to it. She introduces her work as "sermons preached for those who find God's Goodness problematic," and piles up vignettes about those whose experience of abuse has left them with mistrust of God as father, or the church as a place of healing. To her credit she does not simply replace one idol with another—God as mother comes in for scrutiny, and Adams loves traditional church teaching too much simply to throw it overboard. Yet she so regularly signals disappointment with the church's refusal to sanction same-sex relationships that she comes off here as something of a single-issue-preacher. By the time we reach sermons entitled, "Queer Variety," "Gay Pride, Humbled Church," and " 'Coming Out' in the Power of the Spirit," things have become a bit predictable.

An alternative to the monotone of the single-preacher collection is the multi-preacher collection, here represented by two books of sermons celebrating the university. Yale threw a preacher series in 2001 for its tercentennial, inviting some unevenness—exactly how many times do we need to hear Yale graduates invited back to preach at Yale patting Yale on the back for how religiously diverse Yale is? Especially when that diversity is limited to those inclined to praise diversity, and who have some means to pay Yale's tuition bills. Yet some of Yale's genuine theological greatness is also present in sermons by five former university chaplains, including the great William Sloane Coffin, Jr., still inspiring after all these years, insisting it is God who tells us who we are, and not money, power, America, or the Yale Corporation. One can see why he sent a hoard of students into the streets to protest various outrages and thereon to seminary.

The collection picks up steam later, especially as some of the heavy hitters—Taylor, Willimon, and Peter Gomes—seem to have gotten a little more time to preach than normal and to have brought their A game. Taylor, formerly an Episcopal parish priest in Georgia and now a teacher at Piedmont College there, experiments with the idea that the difficulty of Jesus' claims on his disciples means that most of us aren't actually his disciples. In fact, the church wouldn't have survived if all of us church folk actually did what he said—hated our families, gave up all our things, took up the instrument of our execution. So the preacherly tendency to let hearers off the hook by softening Jesus' demands may be, in fact, right: "along the way they found a third way to live with his high call to discipleship—neither turning away from it nor lowering it but allowing it to shimmer high over their heads—where it provoked them, disturbed them, inspired and strangely reassured them."

What Taylor says here may recall a Catholic two-orders social vision (in which Jesus' greatest demands are for monks, nuns, and priests only) or a Lutheran law/gospel dialectic (in which Jesus' unrealistic words drive us to the need for grace), but in fact it's something different. Taylor sounds like someone who really wants to follow Jesus, knows most days she doesn't make a very good job of it, but holds out hope that God might get her yet. To all of us, Jesus says, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." With Taylor's wise graciousness suddenly evangelism doesn't sound heroic, but like something I, and the ordinary people to whom I've preached, could do.

Gomes' sermon made me wish I were present that day in Battell Chapel. Undoubtedly in his best Boston Brahmin accent, honed by decades as Harvard's chaplain, he told of a friend in London who, "knowing what a terrible snob I am," arranged for them to attend the Queen's private chapel for Sunday worship. So in a royal lodge "filled with flowers and aged well-bred people and little dogs running around," Gomes lied to the Queen Mother and told her he liked the sermon. She replied, wisely, "I do like a bit of good news on a Sunday, don't you?" For Gomes that sweet but wise piety gets at the heart of Yale's present and future, not just a relic of its past: that "the whole ideal of Christian learning and public service in the middle of a large, prosperous, and frequently hostile university is the struggle that remains ahead of you."

Willimon draws on his long experience as Duke Chapel's dean (before he became a Methodist bishop in Alabama) to describe the way the university rules out any sort of knowledge that cannot be measured, fixed, stapled down, and quantified—in short, any knowledge that involves God. Then he counters with stories of university people—students, professors, snobbish townies—who've been caught up by this God nonetheless. "Think of a lot of this—the buildings, the curriculum, many of the faculty, the beer—as an elaborate, subtle, really effective defense against the incursions of a living God." What is it about the best of today's university preaching that it refuses to bow to the idol of the university, and in fact names that institution's competition with Christian discipleship, preferably with disarming humor?

It wasn't always so. As Willimon's collection of sermons from Duke Chapel shows, mainline preachers once delivered sonorous, learned discourses, punctuated by grand introductions ("The theme to which I wish to invite your attention is …"), quotations that nod to erudition ("let us remember the words of the poet …"), and a confidence that they held the ear of America. At mid-century one preacher could open with a premise that 96 percent of Americans claimed religious adherence, and then criticize the absence of works from that faith accordingly. By the 1970s, the preachers are fighting for a hearing with an audience not only less inclined to be impressed by learning and less biblically steeped, but also arrogantly condescending toward religion and most all else "institutional." Yet, wonder of wonders, they still came to hear great preaching. This is the volume most inclined to gobble up your whole day if you're not careful, for you can watch the history of American Christianity unfold before your eyes in these sermons. And the result is not all bad. As Willimon confides in his introduction, "I had assumed that preaching was in decline from its former eloquence and brilliance. But now … I think that many contemporary preachers are more biblical, more engaging and more theologically faithful than some of our predecessors."

Some sermons here do seem included simply because the preacher was famous, as with a predictably Tillichian sermon by Paul Tillich. Some mid-century efforts at experimentation, such as a sermon-length conversation with Death of a Salesman, or a dialogue between two preachers, seem more quaint than inspiring now. It is also striking how often Willimon's introductions to each sermon praise the celebrity of a preacher now rarely read or remembered—and indeed, how lovely their preaching was. At other points the rage of a tumultuous era is stirring, as in the mid-1970s when Baptist prophet Will Campbell equates abortion, war, and capital punishment as moral evils before concluding, "Jesus came that we might have life, not that we might deceive ourselves into thinking that we can take it away." Elsewhere Martin Niemöller, then head of the World Council of Churches, must've floored his hearers when he recounted his time in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau: "Every day … the idea arose: If these people will pull me out of my place here to that gallows, I shall shout to them, 'You criminals, you murderers, wait and see—there is a God in heaven and he will show you!' And then the torturing question: What would have happened if Jesus, when they nailed him to his gallows, to the cross, had spoken like this and cursed his enemies? Nothing would have happened, only there would be no gospel, no Christian Church, for there would be no message of great joy." I'd almost flipped the page on Billy Graham's closing altar call, until I saw him address the chapel of the still-Methodist university thus: "George Whitfield, one of the founders of Methodism, preached every night on the subject, 'You must be born again.' Some of the leaders of the church came to him and said, 'Why don't you change your text?' He said, 'I will when you become born again.'" Point taken, we are Methodists still, strike up "Just As I Am" on the Flentrop organ!

The most bracing thing for me in reading these sermons by such luminaries as Jürgen Moltmann, Howard Thurman, Eberhard Bethge, and dozens more, is that I've preached in that pulpit. Willimon was a beloved mentor of mine at Duke, and a childhood friend (on whom I have dirt) is the current associate dean, so I was invited last summer. To touch that stone pulpit, and look out on those learned faces underneath James B. Duke's "great towering church," was, shall we say, a bit humbling, and not less thrilling. That's an image for the preaching task as such—standing where ages of saints have stood before and doing as they did, not as a burden or imposition, but as a gift. Preaching is surely difficult, only a fool would doubt that. Yet there is grace equal to the difficulty, enabling us to stand where we do not belong on our own merit.

Of course, the humbling and thrilling company in which every preacher stands extends much farther back than the early 20th-century founding of Duke Chapel. Duke Divinity School's Richard Lischer has collected Wisdom on Preaching from Augustine to the Present in what immediately became the standard anthology for homiletics classes in English upon its publication. Lischer's most ancient selections are often the most precious, as when Alan of Lille says apropos of Jacob's ladder that preachers "are the 'angels,' who 'ascend' when they preach about heavenly matters, and 'descend' when they bend themselves to earthly things in speaking of behavior."

The ancients can also be the hardest on the poor preacher. Lischer observes in his introduction that the holiness of the preacher is a universal concern among ancient homileticians, but is only recently making a comeback these days after centuries of silence. So John Chrysostom, with the loveliest surname a preacher could ever want ("golden mouthed"!), counseled preachers to "despise praise," for if a preacher is "impudent and boastful and vainglorious his superior may as well pray daily to die." Spoken like a true bishop! And since, as John Cassian points out elsewhere in the volume, preachers are particularly given to being "puffed up with the love of vainglory," they cause not a little woe in the church. Perhaps the difficulty of preaching can be salutary medicine for our all-too-common pulpit pride.

One strength of this volume is the diversity of voices among the modern selections. Jarena Lee, the former slave turned preacher, and Frank Bartleman of the Azusa Street revival, describe dramatic empowerments in which the Spirit commanded them to preach and pray in tongues, no matter what human strictures against it. We have the great Protestant German theologians of the early and middle 20th century, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolf Bultmann, and Karl Barth (the latter in a particularly non-Protestant mood, insisting on sacramental practice as regular as the church's preaching), alongside great Catholics such as John Henry Newman, Nicholas Lash, and Oscar Romero—he in his last sermon ordering Catholics among El Salvador's cutthroats to desist from oppression, in the name of Jesus. Now that's a sermon! Two selections after the great liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick describes preaching as pastoral counseling writ large, P.T. Forsyth takes issue: "preaching is not simply pastoral visitation on a large scale." Rather, the evangelical Scot insists, "The preacher is not there to astonish people with the unheard of; he is there to revive in them what they have long heard, He discovers a mine on the estate." That is to say, the church is the one true preacher, as it offers treasure from one time and place in its life to those elsewhere. Boom! Any one of these excerpts could become foundational for an entire preaching life, as Lash's "Performing the Scriptures" and Richard Hays' "Hermeneutic of Trust" have for me.

This anthology's glory helps offset some of the disappointment of O.C. Edwards' A History of Preaching. Edwards, emeritus at Seabury-Western Seminary, is something of a dean among historians of homiletics, such that this volume has no lack of praise on its jacket. It is astonishing that someone has read enough to write about the use of rhetoric throughout the entire history of the church, from the Scriptures themselves until now. The only problem is that the book is surprisingly dull. Rhetoric, classically that exercise in learning to "instruct, delight, and move" an audience, in the tradition of Cicero, is here described in such a way as to anesthetize the reader's imagination. When we describe the rhetorical abilities of, say, Chrysostom, surely we have to capture something of the greatness that led someone to say he had gold in his mouth, or that led his congregation to applaud him after one sermon. He upbraided them, insisting that if they liked his words, they should show it by changed lives of greater holiness. They responded to this unexpected rhetorical encore by … applauding again. Rhetoric has its place, no doubt, though churchmen have tended to express their worry about "empty rhetoric" even as they employ it to the best of their ability while quoting masterful rhetoricians. It's striking how hard it is to write about great rhetoric in a rhetorically appealing way.

A late medieval English preacher lamented, "Nowadays three things are loved by many people: short skirts, short masses, and short sermons. It is their shortness that is loved, rather than their nature." According to Siegfried Wenzel of the University of Pennsylvania, English churchgoers from 1350–1450 got more than they asked for. Though a book entitled Latin Sermon Collections from Later Medieval England is not going to fly off the shelf at Barnes & Noble, I found it the most pleasant surprise of the bunch. For one could argue that there are profound similarities between medieval churchgoers and those in our day. Church leaders then lamented the woeful state of church catechesis, as our leaders would be right to lament the state of learning among most of our lay people and not a few of our ministers today.

Late medieval English bishops did something about it. They mandated that all preachers instruct their people annually with set homiletical pieces, including the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Our Father, the seven deadly sins, the seven virtues, and so on. Such dreary lists have often led historians to say that preaching in that time was dull, but Wenzel insists to the contrary. Preaching in that century is marked by a freshness and originality not matched in the years before or after, to the point that Wenzel can even call it "creative" in its own way, not marked by the kind of "repetitive and undisciplined ramble that occasionally comes from modern pulpits."

I'll go further and say the examples he gives are frequently stunning. For example:

As long as the beginning and the end of a circle are not fitted together, the circle is imperfect. But God and man are the circle of the whole creation … through God's power, in the union and conjunction of the two the circle was perfected, for through God's power divinity and human nature are in one person, the beginning and the end of the circle so joined and united that they can never again be separated from each another.

With good historical work like Wenzel's we're approaching the day when the old canards about allegory being lifeless and arbitrary will be no more, and we might even be so bold as to learn from medieval exegetes. For the work of our ministers is more like than unlike theirs, if such evaluations as this from the 14th century are to be believed: "A priest's office is to regulate the moral life of his subjects, to drive off their errors, to solve their doubts and answer their questions, and to preach elegantly well-constructed and moral sermons" (emphasis his).

Indeed, it still is. If only it weren't so difficult.

Jason Byassee is an editor at The Christian Century.

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