bulletin 2/2013

What does a sermon do?

By Otto Schäfer.

“A sermon is quite like opium to me,” Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate confessed in one of her letters. She had made it her habit to take naps in church. At the same time, she was an upstanding and pious woman who read the Bible daily and, when she thought no one was watching, sang from the Geneva Psalter – quite a daring act in Louis XIV’s court. The latter used to nudge awake the lady sleeping next to him at mass – she complains about it in the same letter – and apparently paid a great deal of attention to the sermon himself. However, there probably was a large gap between listening and acting. As we can see, the challenges of the sermon are old and spanning the denominations.

There would be nothing wrong with sleep-inducing sermons if we could be sure that God revealed Himself in our dreams as straightforwardly as he appeared to Jacob, Ezekiel or Paul. Even if this were the case, the argument would somewhat miss the point: for dreams need interpretation, even the ones in the Bible, lest they remain mere nocturnal fantasies. Joseph, who explicates the Pharaoh’s visions so lucidly, down to the practical consequences, thus delivers that which a good sermon must deliver as well. In Pharaoh’s dream, there are seven fat cows and seven gaunt cows – this message must be taken seriously. It is not self-explanatory, but it is what is given. And the practical consequence is: prudent granary management. This is not even a particular touching interpretation, but it is indeed vital.

Thus, interpretation in general and sermons in particular are acts of mediation: mediation between a given testimony and life as it is lived, with all of its questions, its joy and courage, with its choices, plans, suffering and eventual end. A sermon that does not come alive will not succeed in touching upon life. It will either remain caught up in what is given, retelling it clumsily, or it will reduce the impulses radiating from this testimony to the commonplace, seemingly calming but actually sleep-inducing: strict dogma or rigid morals, polite pampering or contemptuous reprimands, maybe verbose bashfulness, political correctness or self-contained verbal flourishes.

The sermon as mediation is crucial wherever the given testimony is set down in writing. Writing records the testimony of past witnesses, thereby making it accessible to mediation. It preserves and stores the testimony; as a text, it passes it on, but also locks it into this traditional form. The testimony of the written word must occur once again – as the Word. This is the real significance of the sermon. The Reformers were all people struck by the Word. Going through spiritual crises, they had found, in the Holy Scripture, the Word that spoke to them and gave their life meaning. Through the Scripture, they had heard God’s Word as a liberating and creative Gospel – for their life and their time. From this time on, the proclamation of God’s Word became the defining characteristic of the churches of the Reformation and the Protestant worship service. The church is a “creatura Verbi,” a creature of the Word; clergypersons hold the title of “Verbi Divini Minister” (today also “Ministra”) – they are servants of the divine Word.

Creative brooding

The conviction that this Word is revealed through the handed-down text explains the significance of the original Biblical languages in the education of Protestant theologians. The acquisition of the biblical text is more honest if the reader is aware of its idiosyncrasy and strangeness. Therefore, there are good reasons to hold on to the obligatory learning of Hebrew and Greek, even though the classical languages as a whole are mostly marginalized today. Working on the original text is an important moment of preparing a good sermon, a creative “brooding” over the Scripture with the goal of finding the Word in it, and not looking for it – neither inspired nor docile – somewhere in its vicinity.

As stated above, a sermon is a creative act. The sermon changes us. It opens our ears, eyes and hearts. St. Luke the Evangelist tells stories of people who are on their way, heeding the Scripture, how they get close to the Scripture as interpretation and ultimately as the spoken Word in the sermon, and how they find faith through it (Walk to Emmaus, Luke 24; the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8). This can and should occur in a way that relates to the individual community: as sermon preparation and sermon follow-up in a communal context.

Fantastic examples of the sermon as a speech with transformative powers can be found all the way back in antiquity: “How lovely is the spring,” the great Greek church father John Chrysostom rhapsodizes in the first sentence of his Lent homilies on the Book of Genesis. He takes his community on a flight of fancy through landscapes full of flowers and to the sea, now calm after the winter storms, where the ships are circled by frolicking dolphins. Even lovelier yet is the Lenten time, he goes on, the spring of the soul, in which we are promised a floral crown of spiritual mercy and in which the storms of passion are replaced by cheerful serenity. In a wholly sociable, amiable, but also very clear and purposeful manner, this great 4th century preacher picks up his listeners where they are and leads them to where he can build them up. Much later, in his 12th homily, he talks about the effects of the sermon after the listeners have left the church and gone home. In impressive phrases are biting but not prone to bitterness, he whets their conscience with a plea for the many poor lining the streets of Constantinople in late antiquity. A political sermon? Yes, that too, a sermon for the polis, for the commonwealth, for everyday life. “Golden mouthed” is the meaning of his epithet Chrysostom. Even today, we can learn much from this colleague.

If the sermon also includes the community beyond one’s own parish and church, then how about the other way round? Is the sermon perceived as a part of public culture, as verbal art, as a special form of literature? This is what we should try to achieve, as truly as the church tries to shape and support public life in general. It is not just the writer pastors who bear witness to the literaturecreating power of the sermon – from Jeremias Gotthelf to Kurt Marti. Pieces and fragments of sermons can be found in entirely secular authors, in André Gide’s Symphonie pastorale, but also in younger contemporaries (e.g. the pendulum swing between narrative thread and New Testament quotes in Blaise Hofmann’s Estive.) As cultural geographer Emil Egli has shown, a significant part of geological, paleontological and landscape-geographical literature in 19th century Switzerland is influenced by the style of the Reformed pulpit speech: the sermon radiates into areas that seem to be far removed from it, and this shaping power, beyond the church, is what we should continue to hope and work for.