I Corinthians 1:17, 18
"If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God."
I Peter 4:11
I know that some priests consider preaching to be a necessary evil, straining to get through a mere seven-minute homily. One priest asked me how I felt about preaching (why are we Americans so obsessed with how we feel anyway?), and I told him how much I feel at home and in my element when in the pulpit. Like Jeremiah, the word of God is a fire in my bones, and I simply have to proclaim it. He shook his head, and he told me how it was with him: "I try to play it down, so it doesn't get in the way of the sacrament." I told him I was not buying it. The word of God and the sacraments of his Church are never in competition, and without sound preaching, how do we prepare people to receive the body and blood of the Lord? I did not say, but thought later, that of all the excuses for dereliction of duty, a sanctimonious one has to be the most odious. Recall that last part of the Imperative Prayer in the Ordinal: "And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."
Before I make my major point, I want to ask why it is that any priest has trouble thinking of what to say in a sermon? For crying out loud, we have the greatest writers of all behind us. Moses, David, Isaiah, David, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, along with Peter and Paul, to name a few. Everything they wrote came straight from the Holy Spirit. As the papal document Dominus Iesus put it so well about the books of scripture: "These books have God as their author." Just lean back into the scriptures, pray for the power of the Holy Spirit, and let the truth flow out like living water. You have it in you: The part that is knowledge by diligence, and power and charisma through the laying on of the bishop's hands.
Is the sermon merely a little instruction, something mild and short and tasteful? Too many Anglo-Catholics have decided that good preaching is a Protestant sort of thing; so, to prove what good Catholics they are, they aspire to be lousy preachers. All too often they accomplish their goal. Have they never heard of the great Catholic preachers in the ancient Church? Was Chrysostom so named (Golden-Tongued) because he offered forgettable seven-minute homilies? Furthermore, why do we preach at all? And, for that poor clergyman who feared that he might compete with the sacrament, it is because of the sacrament that your preaching must be excellent.
I believe we ought to take a good look at where the sermon is placed in our Liturgy (yes, in our Liturgy, not as an extra tacked onto it). It is followed directly (in the BCP we use) by the Offertory, and prayer. But this leads to the General Confession. What is this all about? The General Confession is a prayer of cleansing, followed by a General Absolution that only a priest may say, which rubric itself shows that the act is sacramental, not merely ceremonial. Unless it is intended as a real Absolution it would not be reserved to the priesthood. Look at the words which preceded it:
"YE who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling."
In good Evangelical terms, we may call this an "Altar Call." The difference is, "we have an altar"1 unlike many others. The call goes out to the people that in order to approach in a few minutes, to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, their hearts must be cleansed, their consciences must be healed from sin. This is the laver, and it is the fountain of cleansing in Christ's blood.
After the General Confession, note what is said by the priest, with the rubric itself included here for your attention:
"¶ Then shall the Priest (the Bishop if he be present) stand up, and turning to the People, say,
ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Look at both the call to confession and the Absolution, and notice the conditional nature of both. It is no small matter that the 1979 so-called Prayer Book, in its Rite II, removed the conditions, and made the whole thing a matter of mere priestcraft and magic. The General Confession must be accompanied by the sincerity of true repentance, a condition that is always necessary for the efficacy of the sacrament of Absolution, whether General or private.
The call to Confession is conditional as well, a reminder before the confession is made that "hearty repentance and true faith" must be present at this point. To replace this Call with something else, such as I have heard among even Continuing Anglicans, is a grave mistake. I have heard it replaced often with this insufficient and disappointing formula: "Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church, beginning with the words of the General Confession." Then the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church is skipped, and the Confession is said without this eloquent invitation that our Anglican fathers had the wisdom to provide.
Consider the importance of this: The people are about to come forward for the Food and Drink of Eternal Life. 2 They are about to receive one of those two sacraments that are "generally necessary to salvation."3 The sermon that precedes this must have an aim not unlike the best preaching of some of the finest Protestant Evangelists, such as Billy Graham. These men see the purpose of their preaching as no less than the salvation of souls, the difference between something far more important than life and death. The difference, as I said, is that "we have an altar" and on that altar the sacrament of Christ's body and blood, "the food and drink of eternal life." Our altar call has this substantial reality that theirs lacks. All the more reason, because the people come forward to eat and drink Christ, and they are in a state that is either worthy or unworthy. They must first have their consciences cleansed, their souls washed by a sincere confession "with hearty repentance and true faith," so that the priestly Absolution is received into the good ground of a believing heart. So, they come, they eat and drink, and they live forever.
Preach as though the souls of those who hear you depend on what you say. Endeavor to bring them, by your words face to face with Jesus Christ. For, indeed, "in so doing thou mayest save thyself and them that hear thee."4
2. John 6: 53-58
3. Anglican Catechism: "Question. How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?
Answer. Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord."
4. I Timothy 4:16