Friday, August 15, 2008

The Preacher, III

I don't write sermons, I preach them.

This is related to my previous Preacher post, a corollary, really. For, as I believe to be well established, the Gospel is primarily meant to be proclaimed aloud before it is understood as something written down. This I have claimed and demonstrated in the previous post (Faith cometh by hearing, etc.), and Blessed Martin Luther has also shown. In his postil for the First Sunday in Advent, he explains that the meaning of Bethphage is "mouth-house," and goes on to explain that the Church is the mouth-house of God. The Gospel is meant to be proclaimed aloud.

So, although the Gospel certainly can be written down, and is written down, yet this is not the mode that is to be preferred for it.

Agreed, everyone?

If so, then perhaps we could also begin to suggest--in spite my awareness of the opposition of a long list of preachers whom I admire and respect--that the preferred mode for the entire process of the making and delivery of a sermon might also be oral and not written.

I do not preach from a manuscript, as many who know me are aware. And I rarely carry any notes into the pulpit.

I admit that I did so for a dozen years or so before I began preaching, as it were, without a net. But since then I have adopted the method of preparation that I understand to have been the method of St. Augustine. He did not write his sermons either. He mused, he meditated, perhaps several times, on the pericope appointed, and then he preached it.

There's a story of how once Augustine was supposed to preach on a certain psalm, but by some mistake the psalm read prior to his preaching turned out to be a different one than he expected. But after making a brief reference to this error, he simply went on to preach the psalm for which he was unprepared.

There's a saying that you can't understand what someone is saying until you know what he's talking about. This is most especially true of the Sacred Scriptures. And conversely, if you know what the Scriptures are talking about, you will have an easier time knowing what they are saying, and you will be the more capable of owning it, and preaching it.

I have heard the arguments in favor of a written sermon manuscript, and I often have found myself halfheartedly agreeing that there are many benefits. Indeed a preacher who is unprepared, or who, shall we say, has "an impediment in his speech" (St. Mark 7), might well be advised not to do what I am proposing here. After all, this is why Luther wrote his postils: not for himself (for he also preached without a manuscript), but for others to preach, who did not have the requisite capability.

But Preacher, I bid you to strive for excellence.

A friend of mine once commented that in order to preach without a manuscript, one must get into a zone. This is true. You must become united with the words on which you are preaching. If you don't understand them all (which is sometimes to be expected), don't preach on the parts you don't understand. On the rest, get into your zone.

Learn to own the Gospel on which you preach. Make it your own. Let it edify you in mind and soul as you meditate on it. Find yourself encouraged by it. Then find a way to put this into words. And then, learn to master the words you speak. Learn the art not of producing a sermon manuscript, but of preaching. Invest your energy in the latter rather than the former.

To be sure, sometimes my sermons are less than I'd like them to be. But the same can be said of manuscripts, as far as that goes. And, on the other hand, if I am not bound to a manuscript, I sometimes pick up things I had missed in my preparation, right during Mass, and have the freedom to incorporate them into the sermon. As I read the Gospel aloud for the people, I might notice something else, especially now that it is found in the midst of the live setting of its hearers, and within the context of the liturgy.

All of this takes work, of course. It is a developed skill, and it presupposes many learned techniques about public speaking.

Preacher, strive for excellence. Make it your aim to learn how to preach.

1 comment:

TE Schroeder said...

I have always used a manuscript for the sake of discipline in preparing what is to be preached. Without it, I am sure that I would ramble on and be less intelligible. I would end up schwaffling from the pulpit, giving people the impression, "This man has no idea what he is talking about." That being said, once the manuscript is done (after relentless editing) I rely on my manuscript as little as possible from the pulpit because, like you, I believe the sermon is to be preached.