I recently finished The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World by the late Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon. As you might expect from an Episcopalian, his theology is not perfect. Particularly troubling is his overreaction against creedal Christianity in the chapter “Grim Pills” (see especially pages 37-38). While Capon is right to point out the dangers of rationalism (a danger to which creedal Christianity is definitely prone), he ends up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Consider the following:
The Reformation may have had the grace to spot the uselessness of the cultic aspect of medieval religion, but it fell flat on its face when it came to the dangers of creed. In fact, it worsened the situation. The Reformers took the minimal creedal structure of the medieval church and infected it with the cancer of officially imposed propositional theology. Everybody (Roman Catholics included) was required to sign on the dotted line of long-winded “confessions of faith” designed to give the right answers to every possible theological poser — no matter how far out in left field those answers put the Gospel,” (38).
While it is certainly dangerous to impose “long winded confessions of faith” that put the Gospel “far out in left field”, nowhere does Capon acknowledge the value of a pure confession. Though I suspect he knew better, he nevertheless gives his readers the distinct impression that “doctrine” is a bad word.
There are other problems with the book, but I offer up that example to illustrate that the book isn’t perfect and certainly needs to be read with discrimination. But enough with the prolegomena. The purpose of this article is to provide some insight into preaching by way of annotated quotations from Capon’s book. Whatever his errors, he nevertheless provides some helpful insights for the preaching task.
The problem of low expectations from the pulpit: “Most of what’s expected from sermons, on both sides of the pulpit light, is nothing but a thick, soggy blanket thrown over the only Good News there is: the Passion of Jesus,” (9).
Preachers as naughty children: “I think good preachers should be like bad kids. I think they ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills, spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross — and then be brave enough to stick around while it goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms. But preachers can’t be that naughty or brave unless they’re free of their own need for the dope of acceptance,” (14).
The importance of a penitent preacher: “If a sinner can’t proclaim forgiveness, who’s left to preach? Who, for that matter, could preach better, or with more passion? Of all the deaths that are available to us before we’re stone-cold dead, our death in sin is the most embarrassingly convincing share in the Passion most of us will ever have. The church is not in the world to teach sinners how to straighten up and fly right. That’s the world’s business; and on the whole it does a fairly competent — even gleefully aggressive — job of it. The church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business. Its job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit that they’re sinners and mean it. It’s supposed to take sheep who can be nothing but lost — sons who can accept their failure as sons, crooked tax collectors who can stare at their shoes and say they’re worthless human beings — and stand them up to proclaim that lostness, deadness, uselessness, and nothingness are God’s cup of tea,” (24).
Even an Anglican knows FiveTwo is enthusiasm: “Moreover, it makes even less difference if your religion of choice is a fine, uplifting enterprise like spirituality or sanctification — or a mere superstition like the church-growth movement, seeker-oriented approaches to piety, prayer walks, inner harmony, or not stepping on sidewalk cracks. All those enthusiasms are what Jesus called “tithing mint, anise, and cummin” (KJV): they trick you into living by coming up to pharisaic scratch rather than by lying low in Jesus’ death. None of them gives you the least relief from the pain of being out of control because none of the controls anything — or comes within even a light year of the Good News you’re supposed to be preaching,” (34).
For all of the problems with “religion”, there is at least one salient feature: “[Religion] does have a redeeming feature: it’s the human race’s historic witness to our awareness that something is seriously out of whack with the way we try to manage life. Even though I’ve said that religion is the largest management error of all time — and despite the fact that it commands us to do all kinds of things we would never have bothered with if we hadn’t invented religion in the first place (there was no religion in Eden when it was under God’s management) — it stands as a testimony to the fact that we owe both God and our neighbors an apology for making the world such as mess. In short, religion reminds us that we’re damaged goods. Having given it that much credit, though, it’s still a loser: after 10,000 years of religion, the world is not noticeably a better place. Indeed, under our religious manipulations, it’s gotten decidedly worse. Here, therefore, ends the kind word,” (37).
Sermon preparation & the content of preaching: “Our dealings with Scripture are not to be learned studies, or the drawing of pious conclusions, or the discovery of lessons that will lead us into spiritual growth. They’re to be blind searches in which we have nothing to guide us but “the drawing of this Love and the Voice of this calling” (T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding). Good preachers come to the Bible as Saul came into Damascus: with their eyes and mouths shut and their ears and hearts open. They don’t try to hear the odd snatches of cult, creed, and conduct they can arm-wrestle out of Scripture — not the tough stuff of religion and moralism, but the Good News about which God wants the world to trust him. Moreover, since the blind alone understand the importance of that and of listening, no preachers will hear Jesus until the refuse to see anything else. “I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” (46).
Preachers as a line cook/housewife: “[Rating sermons tempts] congregations into the grandiose notion that they’re hiring homiletical chefs to serve them four-star food, when what they should be doing is marrying themselves to someone who, with a little help and a bushel of luck, may turn out to be a decent household cook. To use a word that’s momentarily out of fashion, parish preachers are supposed to be housewives. Their principal job is to serve their family nourishing and flavorful meals. That’s an illustration I can accept. It give us all the nice, low expectation that what they feed us will be conducive to health, not Christian dyspepsia. If God can manage to keep the human race alive and well with the assortment of average-to-worse home cooks he puts up with, he can certainly do the same for the church,” (56).
The key ingredient in preaching: “…it’s the ingredients of a dish that good cooks and good preachers most delight in. They revel in the fascinating strangeness of the stuff they’ve got to work with. A real cook, for example, will regale you with his or her delight at the way flour and fat combine to thicken a sauce. A good preacher will speak enchantingly of the startling seasoning that Jesus pokes into his parables — or be astonished at the lardoons of craftiness and criminality with which the Lord laces his life… the most important ingredient of preaching with which the preacher must play [is] the Scriptures. There is no substitute (and certainly no doctrinal or ethical substitute) for the preacher’s playful astonishment at the strange comestibles with which the Scriptures are filled… So it simply won’t do for a preacher to come at those peculiarities with the doctrinal mind-set of a dieter. You have to taste their odd flavors, not analyze them or put an intellectual straitjacket on them. You’re a cook, for God’s sake, not a critic. How then do you go about that tasting? Well, like a cook, you have to spend a lot of time dipping your finger into the sauce of Scripture just because you like to dip. There’s nothing worse than preachers who come to a Bible passage thinking they have to get something out of it, or worse yet, trying to work into it some concoction they’ve had in the freezer for years… make Scripture the pantry of your preaching. In particular, learn how to appreciate the unique flavors of its bounty of calf’s feet, Calvados, and tripe. Sniff at its basil, marjoram, rosemary, and thyme until you discover how to use them as the spice of your homiletical cooking,” (60).
Why the lectionary matters: “the best resource you have [to prepare your sermons] is the Eucharistic Lectionary for the Sundays and Holy Days of the Church Year. First of all, use the Lectionary. Don’t give me that old line about wanting to choose your own lessons because it will help you speak from your heart. You must not use your so-called heart — or any of your other devices and desires — to cook up some topical marvel of a sermon. Topical sermons are like topical anesthetics; they don’t go deep,” (63).
The value of the original languages: [In order to really listen to a text], you’ll have to break your dependency on the English versions — either by reading the story in Greek (if you can), or (if you can’t), at least by having a go at the Greek words to hear if they ring any bells in your head,” (63-64).
The importance of context: “[A pericope] sometimes begins or ends its appointed readings by cutting them off from material that’s essential to hearing them correctly. This is particularly a problem for preachers who take the shortcut of picking up a preprinted lesson insert for the Sunday bulletin and work on their sermons from that without ever cracking a Bible. That lame approach to sermon preparation leads them away from the text in context and makes them swat a lot longer trying to break through to what the passage is really saying. Therefore, Rule One of a list that contains but one rule: Trust the Lectionary, but cut the cards. Always open yourself up by opening the Scriptures themselves. Start your preparation by searching the Bible and checking out what comes before and after the pericope you may be preaching on. Check as far forward as you must to get a firm grip on where the Holy Spirit (or his flunkies, authorial and editorial) seemed to be heading in the passage. Check as far back as you must in order to notice what they had in mind before they got to where you are. You’re dealing with the work of a very talented committee here: neither the Spirit nor his agents were slouches when it came to structuring. There’s a marvelous architecture to what they produced… Back to the Lectionary’s faults. Besides lopping off the proper beginnings and endings of pericopes, it frequently chops hunks out of the middles — and for almost universally irrelevant reasons. On the one hand, it does so (presumably) to spare the troops the agony of having to listen to large doses of Scripture. But if “sermonettes make christianettes,” lessonettes make preacherettes. On the other hand, it more probably does its chopping to spare the clergy the embarrassment of having to preach on verses that the compilers of the Lectionary found objectionable,” (73, 75).
Not taking preaching seriously: “Sadly, a lot of preachers make the same assumption as the laity. They think their homilies don’t have to be serious sermons. If they can manage to make solemn noises for nine minutes, they consider their day’s preaching done… …you do indeed have other obligations; but you don’t have a bigger one than this. Attend to it, devoutly,” (81, 90).
Cut the chaff: “When you’ve done the job you went to the pulpit to do, shut up. Don’t keep hammering on the homiletical woodwork till you put half-moons all over it — not to mention your congregation. Its a lesson mostly lost on preachers whose sermons are all front porch and rear deck with no discernible house in between; but if you’re committed to the house of faith, you may find it helpful. So my first piece of advice to you, whether you preach from notes or manuscript, is to forget about fabulous beginnings and compelling endings and spend almost all of your preparation time developing a meaty middle. Give the Word of God a break, for Christ’s sake! Starting your sermon with anecdotes about your high-school gym teacher or your Aunt Helen’s shopping habits is pre-empting the Word’s time. Winding it up with a poem and a prayer is nattering on after he’s stopped taking… Windy beginnings, no matter how well-wrought, are just throat-clearing. Gassy endings, however satisfying to the preacher, seldom amount to much more than a belch. All they do is take up too much of your preparation time: your Friend does have a prayer of getting anything else to come out of your mouth,” (82, 83).
Sermon length: “A good sermon is one that’s long enough to go from its beginning to its end without passing through anything but its own middle,” (106).
On style: “Don’t be afraid of slang: it’s the salt of speaking. Too much of it, of course, will make your style off-putting; but just enough makes your sermon sound as if you mean it… Writing a sermon is not an exercise in scholarship,” (128).
Edit ruthlessly: “Above all, though, trust your God-given ear for windiness — and turn it on yourself with a vengeance. Delete! Delete! Delete! until your soporifics have been banished, and only crispness is left,” (130).
A helpful writing trick: “When you write, never interrupt yourself (unless the house is on fire) at the end of a paragraph, section or chapter. Always take your break in the middle of something,” (131).
Preaching with authority: “Most of your people haven’t a clue as to what you’re supposed to be up to in the pulpit — and the few who might have an inkling of what you were ordained to do still have no idea what it’s like to produce a sermon every seven days for at least forty-eight weeks a year. All that should matter to you is that you have a clue. And a lot more than a clue: a conviction. Nobody says stuff like this anymore, but I’m going to say what that conviction is. As their ordained preacher, you must know in your bones that you’re in a position of authority over them… You’re not just a nice Alex up there entertaining them with routines they want to hear. If you give in to them and preach jolly anecdotes, old jokes, and ethical bromides, they’ll smile at you — mostly, I think, because they know they’ve won you over. On the other hand, if you preach them the weird Good News of the God incarnate who makes the wrecks of their lives his favorite workshop, they’ll frown — and give you all the hassles they can dish out. They don’t like being bitten by the Gospel. They’d rather be gummed to death by platitudes… You must always be patient with them, of course. They’ve sat too long under preachers who catered to their enthusiasm for uplift by their own bootstraps — and you’re probably the first one who ever tried to take away that security blanket. In the long run, though, what you must say to them is what Luther said at the Diet of Worms: “Hie steh’ ich; ich kann nichts anders”: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” You must make them know that you’re under authority in the pulpit — and that you’re nothing less than the voice of that authority. You were not sent to spout opinions they can dismiss. You were sent to proclaim the sharp, authentic Word to them — the Word who isn’t NutraSweet,” (133-134).
Steadfast Throwdown: http://steadfastthrowdown.org/
Around the Word Bible Studies: http://www.whatdoesthismean.org/bible-studies.html