1. My twenty years of preaching
In nearly twenty years of preaching I rarely ever "ratiocinated." What I tried to do habitually was to tie the meaning of local worship to the worship of the universal church(es) by attending to the scriptural readings of the day and to the lives of the Christians worshiping with me. It was all about the meaning of redemption of our lives now and in the future. I was helped by a particular occurrence at the College of New Rochelle when, one Sunday in the prayer of the faithful, an older and wiser Ursuline nun prayed thus: "that celebrants realize the difference between the pulpit and the lectern." I was ratiocinating on Bultmann's Form Criticism."!! That "learned me." and confirmed me. Whether my preaching was about spirituality is arguable. What I meant it to be about was the church's God, me and them. I always sensed that the Holy Spirit was with us, calling us steadily out of the darkness into the Light which Jesus proclaimed. I loved preaching but I was and remain relieved that I didn't have to do it any longer after twenty years. It was a burden of responsibility, a weight, as well as a joy and a deeply moving experience.
Whenever the topic of preaching comes up I recall the comment of R.W. Emerson in his Divinity School Address. He recounted listening to the preaching of the Concord church minister and remarked on the doctrinal "ratiocination" that could be given by anyone since it showed no sign that the minister even lived a life. Preaching is about our life understood on the pattern of the Man who loved us unto death.
Bill Shea, Holy Cross, Wshea@holycross.edu
2. Being able to recall the readings of the day
A wise mentor told me that if we left the church after mass and couldn’t recall the readings, the sermon did not do its job. That’s a fairly low bar to set, but not a silly one. What is it that sticks inside of us and won’t leave us alone when we’ve heard the scriptures?
Preachers that help the readings find the deeper levels in us don’t do that by domesticating them or resolving them easily. I should leave the church arguing with the readings, but having more to work with than when I entered the building an hour before. Should there be intellectual value in the sermon? Of course. Should the sermon be carefully researched, exegetically sound, and theologically insightful? Of course. Sermons are not less than ratiocinations, but they are more. They get inside the structures and the thinking we brought with us, and then mess them up.
Dan Finucane, Saint Louis University, email@example.com
3. Reply to Dan
Dan, you mention that preaching should be resonant of the scripture, researched, exegetically sound, and theologically insightful. Absolutely correct! What you neglect – and for me this is key – is that maybe it's a good idea for the preacher to pray on the readings himself (and maybe someday "herself'). Without the input of the spirit directly into the hearts of those preaching, homilies can be a visit to the front porch of the preacher and never into the core of his being. They prompt old ladies to take out prayerbooks or rosaries (as my mother did) to pass the time until the homily is done.
Luke tells us that disciples found their hearts "burning within" them when they encountered the risen Christ. John's first epistle reminds us that the experience of Eucharist is a palpable meeting with the Christ in whom we believe. Those who preach need to be that Christ in the words that come from their own encounter with Christ. Touching all hearts is the work of grace, not our work. But if we preach, we can do more than just be dutiful scholars.
(Funny story: years ago, the director of my Masters' thesis on John was presiding over a Benediction service. At the last minute he asked me to preach. The reading was from John. I was SO pumped up with my vast knowledge of exegesis and the particular gospel at hand that I delivered a perfectly brilliant talk. After the service, Joe Nearon noted that it was a great scholarly note, but not at all a homily.)
Dee Christie, dlchristie@AOL.com
4. Biblical texts as trump cards, black wholes of “truth- ness”
I too value the possibility of pushing back on the text – God knows there are plenty of texts that demand being called on the carpet – but I wonder if we have elevated Biblical texts so high that we can't take them seriously any more. They become trump cards, show-stoppers, black holes of "truth-ness" that have to be danced around but never finally called to task. So when we preach from them or teach them, how much is our impulse to give in to a kind of moral agnosticism? For example, I would never be ok in the "real world," with someone killing (or attempting to kill) their child because "God told me to," but preachers and theologians still read the Akedah (GN 22) and want to find something beautiful or inspiring there, rather than simply raging against it as a text of unbelievable divine violence. Feminist and womanist theologians (among others) have done a lot on that front to help us engage with that kind of "text of terror," but from what I see among my students it is clear that those of them who participate in just about any kind of organized religion are taught to treat the Biblical text with kid gloves.
I had the incredible privilege of studying under Walter Brueggemann as a grad student, and one of the things I most appreciated about him was his insistence on rubbing our noses in the unsavory texts, precisely so that in our adoration of the big themes like the love of God, we don't run too quickly past those texts that tell a different story. As David Blumenthal put it in his chilling work Facing the Abusing God, “God is abusive, but not always.”
I start my Theological Foundations class with the Masterpiece Theatre film God on Trial, which is both a crash-course in theodicy and a masterclass on the doing of theology. It is set in Auschwitz, hours before a group of men are taken to their deaths; at the end of the film, the men find God guilty, and as they are being taken away, they pray. What does it mean for them to pray to this guilty God? What does it mean for us?
Patrick Cousins , St. Louis University, firstname.lastname@example.org
5. An empirical dimension
Many thanks to the many insightful contributions. I would just like to add an empirical dimension. I agree with Eugene that “if we left the church after mass and couldn’t recall the readings, the sermon did not do its job.” Indeed, but who preaches on the readings? In a sample of over hundred homilies recorded and analyzed, about half did not refer to the readings of the day, and the other half used the readings as a springboard for religious generalities. Consider the following six minute homily given on November 6, 2016, less than a week after All Saints Day, hence the general topic of “life in heaven."
There is also much to be said about the difference between the pulpit and the lectern, preaching and lecturing. “If we preach, we can do more than just be dutiful scholars.” This is a constant issue that I have noticed about the biblical reflections published by America over quite a few years. Here is a commentary of February 26, 2017 on Mat 6:24-34 in 5 paragraphs:
2. “ Scholars debate about how to translate Mammon.
3. “Mammon itself is not an evil thing” but one can “fall into a type of idolatry.”
4 “Don’t worry.” “Jesus illustrates this with examples from nature.”
5. “Thou shall not worry! This command comes from the fundamental ethical code of the Christian community."
If the most educated among us, namely theologians, and the successors of the apostles, the bishops, often fail in their homilies to go beyond socio-cultural ratiocinations or and pious generalities, how much spirituality is there in the theological discourses which may be very “religious” but not very “spiritual?” A challenging question.
Pierre Hegy, email@example.com