” The gospel was not good advice but good news.”
— William R. Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, 1911—1934.
Dean Inge was right. The preacher’s primary task is not to tell people what to do. It is to proclaim good news. Inge’s younger colleague at St. Paul’s, Canon V.A. Demant, put it thus in his book Christian Polity:
Tell people only what they must do, and you will numb them into despair; you will turn the gospel into a shabby replica of the world’s irreligious and nagging moralism, with its oceanfuls of good advice. But tell them what they are, of their dignity as made in the image of God, and that their sins are wicked perversions of their nature; . . . tell them that the world with all its horrors is still God’s world, though its true order is upside down; tell them that they can do all things through Christ, because in him all the powers of their nature are directed to fruition . . . and you will help to revive hope in this dispirited generation.
It is a paradox, but one easily verified, that preaching morality will never motivate people to be good. It will discourage them. It will inevitably bore them. It may even drive them to despair, because of the suggestion, implied if not stated, that if they are not good God will not love and bless them. But the proclamation of the gospel, the good news of what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do for hearers and preacher alike, will motivate people to love God and neighbor as nothing else can.
To be effective, therefore, preaching must be in the indicative mood, not in the imperative. Today more than ever, those to whom the preacher addresses himself are there voluntarily. The Newark priest and former Anglican, Fr. Alvin Kimel, wrote recently in the Internet journal InsideCatholic:
In my 28 years of pastoral ministry and experience, I have learned that Church-going, Mass-attending Christians do not need to be constantly informed that they “should” be good people; they do not need to be harangued to avoid sin and do good works. They already know all of that. They know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil.
A Protestant preacher, W. Floyd Bresee, makes a similar point when writes:
Nearly all the most successful preachers have accentuated the positive . . . . One best overwhelms evil not by focusing on the bad but on the good. “Whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Phil. 4:8). . . . The Lord lays upon no man a message that will discourage and dishearten his congregation. Don’t send your people home on flat tires. Touch positive emotions by preaching hope.
Those who come to Mass on Sunday need reassurance—more than exhortations to be good—that God continues to love them despite their failures. The preacher who presents the moral law as the standard we must meet before God will love and bless us betrays the gospel. God’s law is a description of our grateful response to the unmerited and unconditional love which the Lord showers upon us—not because we are good enough, but because he is so good that he wants to share his love with us, despite our unworthiness. There is a place for exhortation in the pulpit. But it belongs at the end, when the overwhelming message of God’s unmerited love and goodness has prepared the hearers’ hearts and minds to respond to his love through grateful obedience and worshipful self-sacrifice.
Mediocre preaching is not the result of poor technique, but of empty content. Courses in public speaking will never produce good preachers if the preacher has nothing to say. Remedying that defect (the root of almost all bad preaching) requires hard work. It includes, at a minimum, familiarity with the great theological ideas of Holy Scripture, mediated (in the Catholic view) through Church tradition: God’s self-disclosure in history, election, grace, atonement, sin, repentance, forgiveness. Those ideas are exciting. People have fought and died for them. How can the preacher who has never tasted that excitement communicate it to others?
Are today’s Catholic seminarians seriously wrestling with those great themes and trying to master them? I like to challenge seminarians by asking them to find out how hard their peers in medical and law school must work; and then to ask themselves whether their own studies are equally demanding. If not, then they, and the people of God whom they are preparing to serve, are being short-changed.
“Nothing is so fatal to the effect of a sermon,” wrote John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University, “as the habit of preaching on three or four subjects at once.” To avoid this danger, I formed the habit, when I first embarked on the ministry of the word over a half century ago, of writing out in one concise sentence the aim of each sermon or homily. I continue this practice today. If the preacher cannot say what he is aiming at, his hearers will never guess. The resulting discourse will inevitably lack that conciseness which Newman called “the life of preaching.”
Concentrating on the aim of this particular homily means ruthlessly eliminating everything, however important and true, which does not serve this aim. If useful, it can be saved for use on another occasion. “You can never guard yourself against the charge of heresy in a single sermon,” a veteran preacher told me when I was just starting out. What he meant was that one can never get the whole of our Christian and Catholic faith into a single homily. Trying to do so is a common fault of novice preachers.
Preaching is communication of Jesus Christ himself,” Fr. Alvin Kimel writes. In an earlier age pulpits often displayed inside, for the preacher to see, the text from John 12:21: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” That is the deepest desire of the people of God, even if many are unable to articulate it. To fulfill that desire, preachers must themselves “know” the Lord, not just with the head, but with the heart. Acquiring that knowledge takes place outside the worshipers’ view: in the “secret place” recommended by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:6).
Even the casual reader of the gospels cannot fail to note the time that Jesus spent in solitary, private prayer. It was in those hours alone with his heavenly Father that Jesus developed the spiritual power which enabled him to say to rough working men, “Come, follow me”—and have them obey him on the spot. It was in prayer that Jesus became the preacher of whom Mark writes: “And they were astonished at his teaching, for he spoke to them with authority and not like the scribes” (Mark 1:22). If Jesus needed those times alone with God, we preachers are fools and guilty fools if we neglect prayer.
If preachers want to speak with an authority like his (and which of us does not?), we must spend time alone with God, waiting upon him in silence, day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year—even when, indeed especially when, God seems to answer only with silence.
Our goal should be preaching that causes our hearers to say, with Cleopas and his unnamed companion (perhaps his wife) on the first Easter evening: “Did we not feel our hearts on fire as he talked with us . . . and explained the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). We can preach like that—but only on the condition that our hearts have first been touched by the divine fire. For that we must spend time alone with the Lord. There is no other way but the way described by a young African-American Baptist pastor:
There is no substitute for preaching. I don’t care what else a preacher does in the community or what cause he promotes, the people want to know on Sunday morning whether there is a word from the Lord.