The Place of the Sermon in the Work of God

The front of St-Sulpice, Paris.

The Proto-Protestant says, against the 40 hours some claim to put into sermon preparation,

I understand the necessity of needing to study and be careful in researching what one teaches. First I kind of question what’s been done with the whole idea of the sermon. I’m not sure rhetorical craftwork is what the NT has in mind. Frankly I think someone who knows their Bible can prepare a sermon in a relatively short time. I’ve heard some pastors say the use the full 40 hours but then when I listen to what they’ve produced I’m immediately led to the conclusion … that they should quit and go find a job. Because if that’s what they came up with after a whole week of work … then they lack the basic gifts to handle the Word of God. That’s harsh sounding, but I’m serious. This is all part of the problem with the seminary system and the way these men end up in these pulpits. Many of them shouldn’t be there. But there are also problems with the whole way it’s being done … this attempt to ‘craft’ a liturgy and to make the lesson or homily into some kind of piece of oratorical sculpture.

I think part of his point is undeniable: The sermon should not be the highlight of a church service. Not once does Scripture teach that a church service must have a sermon. And if Scripture does not once command that sermons be preached when the congregation gathers, then it makes no sense for man, upon his own pretended authority, to not only treat sermons as essential but even make them the centrepiece of a service devoted to the worship of God. In fact, it is edifying, I think, once in a while to omit the sermon, simply to remind the worshipper of the point of gathering for worship. The point of gathering for worship is never to hear a sermon, and so the way we conduct our services should acknowledge the biblical foci.

There also is a lot of mediocre or even bad preaching, such as cannot warrant either that the speaker keep spending 40 hours preparing, or that he continue to have a stipend for preaching. In any case, the Apostles and their successors seem to have done much more than preach. Let all the other things be done, too. Let the clergy catechize those who are young in the faith, and let them lead Bible studies, and let them visit families at home and (if possible) at work, and let them help settle disputes among Christians as St Ambrose did. Indeed, if mediocre preaching be the issue of 40 hours of work, the preacher should find something that he does better. Harsh, but true. And if the sermon’s being the highlight of the service be the reason people are reluctant to change things, then all the more reason to take this icon down.

At the same time, I have no desire to abolish all sermons, nor would I discourage all rhetorical craft. That elders of the church should use their literary skills in teaching the people is not a proposition I would dispute: as they can read, so they should speak. If they be literate (and who says they are all literate?), then let them use their literacy in speaking. The role of the sermon is exaggerated, it is true, and above I have opposed this exaggeration, calling for a chastened preacher who knows that preaching is not everything. And it is indeed possible to make preaching an act of theatre, complete with inordinate recourse to hand gestures; and those who do so are wrong. But I hold that, if rhetoric is ‘the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion’, there is a place for rhetoric, and even for studied use of it in sermons. Scripture has a power that belongs to no mortal man, but it must be intelligible. Translation is a rhetorical act, and so is preaching. Both mediate by human means what the Scriptures deliver in order for readers and hearers to understand what God says and what the implications are, both in the reason and in the affections. It was a rhetorical act for St Philip to explain the oracles of Isaiah to the Æthiopian eunuch, and it is a rhetorical act today to proclaim the word of God and declare how men must respond. Let it be acknowledged, and let it be done.

Let me move on, then, to the rhetorical considerations for the sermon’s form. The form will depend how much the preacher has to actively defend the truth and press the point to its logical conclusion in a call to action. If a great deal, then the sermon will be forensic and deliberative in nature – treating of the past and the future – and likely take a somewhat polemical tone. If very little, the sermon may be more epideictic and simply teach the truths revealed in a portion of Scripture as part of an act declaring the greatness of the God; for perhaps this Lord is about to be received in the Holy Supper.

Or, rhetorically, the occasion may call for something that is not a sermon at all: a seminar or forum with audience participation. As Dominic has noted, Jesus and the Apostles freely entered the synagogues to debate and discourse with the people there. Likewise an elder, or a deacon if no elder is present, can read a portion of Scripture and then lead a discussion. This rhetorical form might be more suitable in connexion with Morning and Evening Prayer than with Holy Communion, but clerics should not be too pompous to use it if it would edify the people in a way that was conducive to their worship. Indeed, something like it is already ordered by the Book of Common Prayer (1662): ‘The Curate of every Parish shall diligently upon Sundays and Holy-days, after the second Lesson at Evening Prayer, openly in the Church instruct and examine so many Children of his Parish sent unto him, as he shall think convenient, in some Part of this Catechism.’ While not the same, the classical Prayer Book practice does suggest that a freer discourse with adults is not out of order, and that no one should elevate the sermon at the expense of other ways of teaching, depending on the occasion.

So let sermons continue, but let them work together with many other ways of instruction, each serving the purpose of the service in which the people are gathered. If for Holy Communion, let the sermon stir the people to increased devotion for the sacrament; if for Morning and Evening Prayer on a feast day, to greater love for hearing and doing the word of God, and for songs of his praise. There are times to preach like Bossuet, Bourdaloue, and Massillon, but there are plenty of times to do otherwise; good rhetoric would inform us what to do.

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