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This I wrote and posted in two parts back in 2008 entitled "Preaching: Why we do it" Parts 1 & 2. Here it is combined and re-posted.
"For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God."
- 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, James, 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
Let us now focus on the rhyme and reason for entering the pulpit in the first place. These are practical items.
1. Preaching must be pastoral.
A good sermon need not be the most clever, the finest writing, nor a brilliant display of theater or performing arts. On the other hand, it must not become merely a ceremonial routine, something to get through because, well, there it is in the rubrics. A good sermon must come from a pastoral heart, and be delivered by a father who loves his congregation and wants to feed them. It must come from a physician who wants to heal wounds, diagnose illness, and provide a cure. This is why I advise you who preach, not to look at the ceiling, the door to the church, or any other fixed point, but to move your eyes across the congregation, engaging people face to face, while you speak to their minds and hearts. This is about feeding them, curing their souls, helping them to know the Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (John 17:3). It must never become anything less, and it is your responsibility to see that it does not.
2. Preaching must be theological
By "theological" I do not mean academic, since the challenge in preaching is not to speak to scholars and theologians, but to communicate to everyone. That, far more than academic speaking, is the more difficult. By "theological" I mean that it must be based on the revelation of God in scripture, and it must bring out the true meaning.
Believe it or not, people really do want to understand their Faith. Some clergy think that people will choke on theology, and that it is best not to present it to them. The people have just said the great Creed of our Faith, a creed filled with the most profound words that summarize the whole Bible, and therefore contain the height and depth of Divine revelation. It is a literary puzzle also, jumping from metaphor to direct statement of fact; for example: "...light of light, very God of very God..." If they can say these words, they deserve some explanation. And, it is your responsibility and office to teach them.
The Incarnation, which includes the entirety of the Gospel, is theology- real theology as revealed by God. In order to meet the needs of the people, in line with point number one above, this is the medicine, and the food.
3. Preaching must be Biblical
You are called and ordained to preach the Word of God, not your own ideas; not even your own good ideas. The scriptures have been read to the whole congregation, and you have no need to find anything else for your material. Furthermore, you must not draw from any other material as your main text and direction. You must draw out the meaning of the scriptures.
At the risk of looking egotistical, I will quote another earlier post:
"While walking the earth, the Son of God proclaimed that the Old Testament scriptures were, in fact, actually testifying about Him. After His resurrection He expounded on the meaning of all the scriptures as the things concerning Himself, and opened the minds of His disciples to understand them.
"So, too, the New Testament is rich with the reports of Christ’s actions, His words, His life, His death and His resurrection. They tell us, also, who He is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,2, 14).” It goes on to tell us how His Incarnation is extended in this world through time and space by His Church, founded by Him and indwelt by His Spirit. The doctrines of that Church are forever enshrined in the Epistles, and our hope made firm by the last prophetic Revelation.
"This is the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces, a fire that bursts forth and blazes, consuming everything, and making new life. It is a power that transcends every natural force, and every embellishment of those forces, electric or atomic. “The voice of the Lord is mighty in operation; the voice of the LORD is a glorious voice…the voice of the LORD shaketh the wilderness (Psalm 29: 4, 7 BCP).” The scriptures kill and make alive, meeting the truest and deepest needs of man. And yet, many clergymen struggle very hard, trying to think of something to say. Why?
"Every seminary everywhere ought to teach a very important principle: It is not the duty of the clergy to blunt the sharpness, to soften the hammer, or to quench the fire. Woe to the preacher who protects the people from the word that kills, because he protects them also from being made alive- truly and forever alive. Woe to the preacher who acts as a buffer, deflecting the force of the scriptures to soften the blow, because in protecting from the stroke, he prevents the healing. If his labors in the pulpit amount to a lifetime of standing between the people and the word of God, reducing its effect, taming it and making it polite, presentable and harmless, he will have nothing to show for it in the end but wood, hay and stubble instead of gold, silver and precious stones.
"It far easier to preach if a man will ride the scriptures like a wave, letting them make their own point, and arrive at their own destination (informed by the Tradition of the Church). If the passages that have been read speak of life and death, then elaborate on life and death. If they speak of repentance then preach that men should repent. When they encourage faith, proclaim faith. When they warn of Hell and the judgment to come, then blow the trumpet as a faithful watchman on the walls. When they comfort, speak as a pastor who feeds the sheep. Let the meaning of the scriptures be expounded to their full effect, proclaiming from them the truth that affects the eternal destiny of the souls in your care."
There it is: 1. Pastoral 2.Theological 3. Scriptural.
One last word of advice: If all this seems a bit too much for a mere man, all the better. Pray earnestly for the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, both in giving you grace and power to preach, and to the people the grace to hear and receive. None of us can afford anything less than prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit.
1. Hebrews 13:10
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