Thursday, July 12, 2012
The Preacher’s Corner
Americans put great stock in the power of words
This summer we’ve been having church upstairs and downstairs depending on how hot it is. Our AC works very nicely when it is below 95.
Otherwise there is too much hot air in the high ceiling of our upstairs church. Speaking of hot air, last Sunday we were delighted that it was about 20 degrees cooler, and decided at the last minute to go upstairs for church. I quickly gathered up all the things I had brought down to lead worship the previous week. Everything — that is — except the notes for my sermon.
I did not remember that I had forgotten my sermon notes until the very moment in the service when it was time to go to the pulpit. I could have preached without my notes, except that I had some nifty quotes written out that I would have hated to go without. I told my congregation the truth. I said that I had left my notes downstairs on the pulpit in the lower church. I said I was tempted to let them vote on whether to dispense with the sermon this week, but that I suspected the result would be deflating to my ego.
So, after obtaining the concurrence of our good organist, Mr. Hiltonsmith, I suggested we go ahead and receive the offering and while the deacons were doing that, I would go downstairs and get my papers. I felt so embarrassed and discombobulated! One thing is for sure: my sermon would have been much longer if I had not used my notes!
Preachers, like newspaper editors, make their living by words. As a result, we may put more confidence in the ability of words to make sense of life and offer direction to people than is wise. We Americans, with our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, put great stock in the power of words to order our civic lives. Many, if not most of us, also believe the Bible offers guidance on the great questions of life, spiritual and secular. The divergence of claims that the two parties are making in the upcoming election arise, different as they are, from appeals to various parts of our constitutional and biblical heritage. These diversities among sincere people should make us modest about the clarity of our own claims, but that is not the American way. But as a preacher and as a citizen I remain hopeful.
One thing is for sure. People (at least white people in North America and Europe) expect shorter sermons than ever before. That is a phenomenon of our times. In Africa or South America, “church” takes up most of the day. The arrival of “noon” in our country empties churches almost as if a tornado siren had sounded.
It has not always been so. In the nineteenth century, the Rev. Gideon Blackburn, a Presbyterian minister of Nashville, Tenn., once preached to a crowd of 1,500 in a graveyard for two hours while a constant rain fell.
About 1820, Governor Carroll of Tennessee listened to Blackburn preach a sermon which lasted three and a half hours. The governor asked a companion how he stood a sermon of such length, and the companion replied that he could have listened until midnight!
Belle Strickland, of Holly Springs, in 1868, reported an evening service conducted by the Rev. Samuel Irwin Reid, a local schoolmaster, in which Reid preached until ten o’clock. She said, “I became very sleepy, and so did some others that were there.” In earlier times, Bishop Forbes, a bishop of the Church of England, is said to have preached for five hours.
Records of long sermons from the period contain no complaints about the length of sermons; rather, ministers were occasionally dismissed because their sermons were too brief. Sermons were news events, as any newspaper of the era will show, and as American frontier historian Walter Brownlow Posey remarks, “Having spent all week writing down every word of a sermon, the preacher had no aim to be hurried in the delivery of his discourse.”
Moreover, those who heard the preacher had taken trouble to attend his preaching and expected sufficient homiletic effort for their sacrifice to be there. By Posey’s account, preachers of the frontier period often spoke for two hours or more.
I suppose if you lived in isolation out in the country and had saddled a horse or hitched up a wagon and driven for miles and perhaps forded a stream or two just to go to church, you’d also want to spend some time with your friends and neighbors once you got there.
There is something to be said, though, for pithy communication. Twitter proves that, and the Sermon on the Mount takes only ten minutes to read aloud. We all remember what happened when Paul went on all night and poor Eutychus, sitting on a second-storey window-sill, went to sleep and fell to the ground. Paul worked a miracle and brought him back to life.
I’d be happy if a “miracle” happened next Sunday, and all my people stayed awake!
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