Sunday, August 26, 2007
This morning I served Orthros and Liturgy at Kimisis Tis Theotokou (Dormition of the Theotokos) Greek Orthodox Church in Aliquippa, PA in the absence of the vacationing pastor Fr Christopher Bender. While I often prepare the basic themes of my sermon earlier in the week, I am often struck--as I was this morning--of the importance of the congregation and their response in the final content of the sermon.
Much Orthodox preaching makes use of a very formal rhetorical style that seems to be modeled on 19th century translations of patristic works. While there are any number of problems with this style of preaching, I think a central problem is that it is a way of preaching that obscures the person of the preacher.
Whether the sermon is long or brief, it is usually the only opportunity that most of the congregation has to get any insight not only into the Gospel as a living reality, but also the character of their pastor. Sometimes I will listen to a sermon and be struck by how anyone could have preached the same sermon. The sermon is so formal or abstract that I have no sense that the preacher is preaching to me.
In these cases the sermon, no matter how rhetorically polished or theological sound, remains a dead word; there is no sense that the sermon is an act of living speech between preacher and congregation. What makes the sermon alive is that it is, or should be anyway, uttered under the inspiration and authority of the Holy Spirit. The sermon is not simply a lecture, but a prophetic utterance and preachers needs to take seriously their prophetic office in the life of the congregation.
But a prophetic word must rise above the purely formal. To do this it will necessarily reveal not only something of God but also the preacher and the congregation. The preacher's own spiritual life and struggles are the material out of which the sermon is crafted. And the preacher's desire to change the hearts of his listeners--to draw then closer to Christ or to turn from sin--is also necessarily a personal work.
As I preach, I pray attention to the faces and reactions of my listeners. Are they understanding? Are the thinking about the sermon? Is there any connection between us as speaker and listener?
This style of preaching makes great demands not only of the preacher but also the congregation. A purely formal sermon that does not engage reveal the heart of the preacher, or seek to engage the heart of the listeners, is certainly easier and safer. But this kind of preaching will never change the heart of either the listener or the preacher.
None of this is to suggest that the sermon is about the preacher--far from it. But if the preacher does not communicate to his listeners that he knows from his own experience, his own struggles, his own failures and successes, that what he is saying is true, he commits a fraud against the congregation.
Henri Nouwen puts the matter this way:
In order to bring any kind of message to people there has to be a willingness to accept the message. This willingness means some desire to listen, some question that asks for an answer, or some general feeling of uncertainty needs clarification or understanding. But whenever an answer is given when there is no question, support is offered when there is no need, or an idea is given when there is no desire to know, the only possible effect can be irritation or plain indifference (Creative Ministry, p.25)To avoid preaching the results in irritation, or worse indifference, Nouwen says that the preacher must "be willing to lay himself down and make his own suffering and his own hope available to others so that they too can find their own, often difficult way" (p. 40) But, he warns us,
Nobody can ever claim to be a real preacher in this sense. Only Christ could, since only He entered into full dialogue with those He loved by laying down His life in total availability. But out of all those who witnessed His death and saw blood and water come His pierced side, only a few were willing to cast off their indifference and irritation and come to the liberating insight" "In truth this was the Son of God." (Mt 27.54)
A purely formal style of preaching--whether or the part of the preacher or his listeners--will never bring us to saving faith. And in fact, this purely formal sermon contradicts the reality that "every time real preaching occurs the crucifixion is realized again" in the life of both the preacher and his listeners. For this reason, the preacher who hopes to bring his listeners closer to faith, cannot hope to do so except himself "having entered the darkness of the Cross." For this reason, Nouwen says, "let us hope that there always will be men to endure the hardship of preaching and lead their people through their own darkness to the Light of God."