Chapter 8. Teller of Tales and Maker of Metaphors
"He did not speak to them without a parable." Mark 4:34
Many summers ago, when the supply of topics for senior highs at a church summer camp ran thin, I opened up a subject dear to my heart but boring to their ears: namely, the sermon as a dramatic art. An adult counselor who had endured her share of homilies which were neither dramatic nor artistic cornered me after the teenagers had drifted away, saying, "Aren't you trying to make art out of a necessity?" Had I the presence of mind then which I usually muster only in retrospect, I would have rebutted her implied criticism with the adage that anything that needs doing needs to be done well. Fifty-two times a year - add seven for Lent, subtract five for vacation; double the number if the church worships Sunday night or mid-week - the preacher must have something to say. With that many chances an effective pastor will perfect his preaching skills, that the sermon may become what it promises: a tool, like hammer and chisel in the hands of a sculptor, for shaping the life of a Christian fellowship into dimensions pleasing to the Lord.
Toward this goal of sermonic perfection one of the best guides will be the preacher's own listening experience. What mode of address rivets the pastor's attention when he is in the pew? What devices usually serve to retrieve his wandering attention? What messages are retained one, ten, or twenty years later? The Golden Rule, if not going on to homiletic perfection, would seem to require the study of the limits of human attention spans and the means by which they are expanded.
I report what I have found.1
First and most basically, there should be point to the message, a sense of direction; that, if the listener is not entirely sure where the preacher is headed in his discourse, there is a degree of confidence the preacher knows. The bane of the pulpit are sermons without a beginning or an ending, just a muddle, like Tenderfoot Boy Scout stew, lots of ingredients without much preparation, nourishing enough but who can stomach it. Evident structure's ally in listening pleasure is suspense. Even when I can predict the eventual destination, I like to be surprised en route with novel vistas or fresh perspectives on old ones. The sermon, I was taught early in my career by Dr. Paul Scherer, ought always to lead to the foot of the cross. But, like the spokes of the wheel, the route to that meeting place should be as varied as the separate lives which gather there.
Secondly, to woo attention to the Word it should be clothed in phrases, events, incidents, and illustrations cut from the fabric of the hearers' life and times. Jesus peopled his teachings with Samaritans and Pharisees, lilies and sparrows, widows and kings, fathers and sons, lost coins and found pearls, all common currency of the first century Palestinian scene. He did not suffer as we do from the intrusion of sociological and psychological terms, abstractions dear to the textbook but deadly to the pew. Our Lord (and Leviticus), for instance, is quite specific in the second greatest commandment about loving neighbor as oneself. Translated into modern sociological language it might read, "The proper analogue for our relationships to others is our positive relationship to our own selves." Snore. Concreteness is the cure.2 Identifiable names, places, and persons quicken the attention. Truth, living truth, wears dirty sandals, smells of the sweat of the open road, weeps in grief, sups by the seashore, dies with nails in hands and feet, stands on the mountain top. It is not a mathematical equation. Perhaps the proper study of theology is literature, and not just the Library of Modern Classics, but novels, magazines, and poetry, in which the world is reflected in a raindrop, or a love affair, or a little larceny.
Thirdly, through the Gospel address there should be sprinkled, like pictures among newsprint, illustrative stories.3 Jesus' own example in this respect might inspire the aspiring homilist to collect and, on occasion, create anecdotes4 that speed the message to its target. The wisdom of the drafters of the lectionary is evident in their selection of Scriptural passages which form often self-contained narratives. Despite the endeavors of Rudolf Bultmann5 to purge the Christian faith of its myths, the human brain is incurably mythopoetic and will have its truth in stories; or, at least, will hear and inwardly digest it best in that mode.
There is, of course, the danger that stories may become addictive: that, like cream puffs and chocolate bars, they will be desired in their own right whether or not they carry soul nourishment. Sermons afflicted with this malaise sound like a less humorous segment of the old radio show, "Can You Top This"; which maybe fun for the worshiper for a month of Sundays, but quickly wears thereafter because most people really do expect from the pulpit truth, direction, spiritual insight, and not just entertainment. The story must serve the message, not overpower it.6 For instance, however varied the treatment given the Parable of the Good Samaritan - and I've listened to or developed sermons on it three dozen times - the punch-line, "Go and do likewise," will never be obscured. The Word is to be enhanced, not inundated, by words.
Fourthly, a memorable sermon, one whose message is retained beyond the next Saturday, to decades even, will usually lend itself to epigrammatic summary. School children, for example, can readily identify the preacher who intoned to the throng near the Washington Monument, "I have a dream"; and, hopefully, will report also Martin Luther King, Jr's, vision of black and white together. And is there a United Methodist clergyperson who has not excused excursions into the bounds of other parishes with Mr Wesley's declaration of evangelistic imperialism, "The world is my parish"? The Sermon on the Mount reads like a string of epigrams, each worthy of life-long meditation. Jesus, the master of many things, was the master also of the message, and how to get it into the heart and the head. The effective pastor preacher will go and do likewise: fashion epigrams and catch phrases that lend themselves to repetition. During the riots in Black communities in the late 1960's, a Baptist preacher in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section, voiced the frustration of the flock (who quickly picked up the refrain) in a sermon that hinged on the theme, with variations, "It's a long way from my house to the White House." I remember the sermon, and I wasn't even there!
Epigrams should not be confused with cliches. Cliches, banal and threadbare thoughts, can be reassuring, like Linus' blanket, familiar and therefore comforting; but epigrams bear fresh insights. For instance, how many times have pastors listened patiently to this pale justification for ecumenism: "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you do believe." One can almost hear Pople John XXIII's bones rattle in protest. Yet preachers themselves are among the chiefest of sinners in cliche-filled speech. The next time I overhear a sermon on the third greatest commandment, about loving oneself before being able to love others or God, I shall be strongly tempted to waltz to the pulpit wrapped in my own embrace. Not that cliches cannot have their uses: with a change in a word or two they can be transformed like slugs into butterflies. A sermon on the Don Quixote theme7 could be entitled, "Believing Is Seeing." Surely many pulpits have nodded in the direction of women's liberation with the topic, "The Motherhood of God." An exhortation toward greater zeal for righteousness might be organized in the pep song of the Broadway musical, "Damn Yankees: (1) You Gotta Have Smarts; (2) You Gotta have Spleen; and (3) You Gotta Have Heart. Next to people, the minister's favorite stock-in-trade should be words, his desk littered with pens and paper the way a carpenter's bench is cluttered with wood shavings and saws. A finely tuned phrase can be as enduring in the soul as a handcrafted table in the living room, and far more important for the soul's salvation.
Fifth and finally, almost as an afterthought because so obvious, and yet so frequently violated,8 is the sermonic rule to say whatever is to be said loudly and clearly. Audio systems have lulled preachers into a professional carelessness on this matter so essential and elemental to the whole preaching endeavor. One of the most eloquent Lenten meditations I almost heard was offered by and Old Testament professor9 whose voiced seemed to thunder like Yahweh in his classroom, but evaporated in the high-ceilinged interior of a spacious church; and, adding irony to injury, his theme was "To Hearingly Hear." Projecting one's voice loudly is a form of self-assertion which embarrasses many genuinely humble people who happen to be pastors. But a quiet voice would never have reached much beyond the front row on the Galilean mountain; it would hardly have gotten the attention of miners streaming from the pits in 18th Century England's coalfields; and it will leave to their reveries the members of nursing homes waiting for preacherly consolation. What will it avail a preacher if his exegsis is sound, his hermaneutic refined, but his voice a whisper?
A pastor beamed upon receiving a glowing recommendation from a parishioner for his homiletical skills. The young woman had written it in response to an inquiry about what she liked about her pastor, that his sermons in particular pleased her, especially the one the Easter just past, about a waif named Gloria10 and an Easter bunny, how you should love your enemies and feed them chocolate if they are hungry. What makes the testimony very special is that the respondent was a ten year old child.11 The challenge and the promise of preaching is to reach other human beings (all ages and hearing abilities) with God's saving Word, a task which will exhaust whatever wit, imagination, and intelligence a pastor, an effective pastor, has to offer.12
Second Thoughts after Twenty-Five Years
1. In my unsought retirement I have visited, to date, some thirty different churches. My basic recommendations, the five of them listed here, continue to be relevant... no, urgent. The office of the preacher has been diminished in recent years. The bureaucratic leadership of mainline Protestant denominations values other talents higher than preaching, such things as administrative skill, prophetic ploys on behalf of justice and peace issues, and, in the denomination in which I served, United Methodism, loyalty to and energy expended on connectional programs. When local Methodist parishes go looking for a pastor, they are prohibited from visiting the church in which the candidate presently preaches: an audio tape of a sermon (can you believe!?) is considered sufficient basis for judging preaching skills. Where this de-emphasis began, I can only speculate. It probably has much to do with the academic and non-practical orientation of most seminary professors, especially in the prestigious (formerly, anyway) interdenominational seminaries. What does a professor of New Testament, who rarely has had more than a couple of years of experience in a local church leadership, and that often unhappy, really know about preaching to a congregation of blue collar workers? Ditto for Old Testament, Church History, and Theology. This transformation of seminaries, from institutions where seasoned preachers taught those just starting, was well underway when I attended Union Theological Seminary. But, thank the good Lord, Paul Scherer was on the faculty, after a lifetime of pastoring and preaching in New York City.
2. The open secret of any arresting writing and speaking is concreteness. Garrison Keillor, of PBS's "Prairie Home Companion," now an occasional essayist for Time Magazine, should be mandatory reading for preaching classes: he has perfected the art of the telling detail. My favorite high school teacher, Marguerite Favrao, made those of us in creative writing class read the bi-weekly column in the local newspaper written by Billy Rose, another exemplar in this skill of using the telling detail which speaks of a grander truth. And, by the way, Jesus was no slouch in this ability.
3. Recently I spoke with a college classmate, an oncologist in Boston. He is a Jew and has a nephew struggling with the stress and strain of the rabbinate, which, I gather, doesn't differ much in people problems from the Christian pastorate. He delighted in telling me his own special way of observing the High Holy Days. He goes with his grandchildren to the services the rabbi conducts for the young of body and mind. My friend explains that he gets more out of these sessions than attending the formal services because he gets turned off by the repetition of the ritual and the reading of prayers he has heard a hundred, if not a thousand, times before. Not surprisingly, I have overheard the same conclusion reached about my preaching, that congregants enjoyed and took more from my Young Christians Sermon than from my carefully prepared and printed sermon for the mature of mind, body, and faith.
4. I have some misgivings about the suggestion that preachers might make up an illustration. What I mean to suggest is that real life anecdotes can sometimes be bent for sermonic purposes: foreshortening and simplifying a personal experience, adding more colorful words to the dialogue, and changing details to hide the real people in the episode. In my Sunday wanderings this past year, I have heard several sermons with pat illustrations which made me want to blurt out to anyone who would listen, "It's funny, but it was probably made up by a comic writer." Like those Email Forwards about cute things children are supposed to have said about church or the Bible. Trust me (though I don't know why you should), someone somewhere sat down and composed 90% of the darlings' cuties, like "Lead us not into Penn Station."
If one has preached long enough (and I have, I have), one can tell the difference between an authentic illustration and one made up for the occasion. Been there, done that myself.
5. Rudolf Bultmann, now here's another "blast from the past." He was the great German de-mythologizer of the Bible. Paul Tillich, an equally eminent German theologian, countered Bultmann with the observation that the choice isn't between mythologizing and no mythologizing; it is between mythology and re-mythology. My grandson attests to Tillich's conclusion. The other evening, struggling with a 5th Grace assignment to explain why people and cultures need to tell stories, the grandson observed, without much prompting from me, that we all have to have our myths. Not for him the pejorative meaning ascribed in mid-20th Century religious dialogues to "myth," some of which lingers in the popular mindset that "myth" means unreal or fantastic.
6. On a few occasions I have listened to a preacher so enamored with story-telling that the entire sermon was pretty much an extended allegory. Think of the one about the town that built a lighthouse along the shore. If you don't remember it, ask me sometime when you I have twenty minutes to spare. The temptation is to get so caught up in elucidating detail that everyone, especially the preacher, forgets the main point. Better with illustrations to limit them to a single sentence or, at most, a single paragraph.
But I may at this point be missing the main point! Namely, that the sermon should always be imbued with a moral imperative. Making this emphasis eloquently was an early 20th Century Scottish preacher-theologian P. T. Forsyth, whose books were brought to my attention by a seminary professor who taught me many useful things, the late Robert McAfee Brown.
7. Read or reread Chapter 5 to catch my drift about the blessedly incorrigible dreamer.
8. Audio equipment is better than ever, yet I have found in my travels to other people's houses of worship, that many churches have not updated their sound system... or the clergy using it have failed to become adept at its use. I do become impatient on this matter. I refuse to accept the excuse of professional people that they don't have the time or the inclination to master audio equipment, especially when getting heard is so integral to the effectiveness of their leadership.
9. None other than Professor James Muilenburg, the Union Theological Seminary prophet, a veritable reincarnation of Jeremiah and Isaiah, his white hair flowing, his chiseled profile hinting at a holy asceticism. He was so rousing in his classroom, yet so roundly unheard that evening at St. Mark's United Methodist Church, Brooklyn NY.
10. Ah, I remember Gloria. I remember her every time I trace the scar on my upper left thigh, the consequence of a burn I received from large metal steam radiator into which she pushed me in Kindergarten at Hart School, Stamford CT. And, yes, she did steal my chocolate Easter bunny, and my mother explained to me that the poor child was envious and probably needed the chocolate more than me. But, then, I never did like chocolate.
11. One of the greatest satisfactions of the last ten years of my pastoral work was the inclusion of a message each Sunday morning in worship for the children. I had more fun (and sometimes they did too) with various show and tell strategies than a year full of Easter mornings preaching to a full-house.
12. Were I to append a catalogue of pet peeves about preacherly pulpit habits that provoke me (like the alliteration?), at the top of my list would be hand gestures that reek of studied rehearsal in front of a mirror. I've seen them on television, where they might be expected. But I've also been turned off by their appearance in one of New York City's most prominent pulpits. That morning the preacher, like some Shakespearean rhetorician strode to a corner of the platform, raised his arm and pointed his finger (at no one in particular) as if in imitation of MacBeth in the dagger soliloquy. Awful! Phony!
Gestures in the pulpit should be contained and reflective of the personal style of the preacher, provided they are not so repetitive as to drive the listener to distraction. Authenticity in all things, including the use of one's hands.