A Priest to the Temple — The Parson preaching
Here’s the latest post in my Herbert Festivall. My comments on Herbert follow, after the jump.
CHAP. VII. The Parson preaching.
THe Countrey Parson preacheth constantly, the pulpit is his joy and his throne: if he at any time intermit, it is either for want of health, or against some great Festivall, that he may the better celebrate it, or for the variety of the hearers, that he may be heard at his returne more attentively. When he intermits, he is ever very well supplyed by some able man who treads in his steps, and will not throw down what he hath built; whom also he intreats to press some point, that he himself hath often urged with no great success, that so in the mouth of two or three witnesses the truth may be more established. When he preacheth, he procures attention by all possible art, both by earnestnesse of speech, it being naturall to men to think, that where is much earnestness, there is somewhat worth hearing; and by a diligent, and busy cast of his eye on his auditors, with letting them know, that he observes who marks, and who not; and with particularizing of his speech now to the younger sort, then to the elder, now to the poor, and now to the rich. This is for you, and This is for you; for particulars ever touch, and awake more then generalls. Herein also he serves himselfe of the judgements of God, as of those of antient times, so especially of the late ones; and those most, which are nearest to his Parish; for people are very attentive at such discourses, and think it behoves them to be so, when God is so neer them, and even over their heads.
Sometimes he tells them stories, and sayings of others, according as his text invites him; for them also men heed, and remember better then exhortations; which though earnest, yet often dy with the Sermon, especially with Countrey people; which are thick, and heavy, and hard to raise to a poynt of Zeal, and fervency, and need a mountaine of fire to kindle them; but stories and sayings they will well remember. He often tels them, that Sermons are dangerous things, that none goes out of Church as he came in, but either better, or worse; that none is careless before his Judg, and that the word of God shal judge us. By these and other means the Parson procures attention; but the character of his Sermon is Holiness; he is not witty, or learned, or eloquent, but Holy.
This is a big one for Herbert. Preaching. Something with which too many clergy can hardly be bothered. Why parishes put up with mediocre or terrible preaching is beyond me. Maybe they don’t know any better? When is the last time you heard a sermon that inspired you, that caused you to change your life, or even to want to change your life? In Herbert’s mind, this should be an every Sunday occasion. In mine too.
Mind you, I’m not saying I’m God’s gift to preaching. Far from it. But I spend time getting ready for it (most weeks). I work hard to make sure my sermon is not just the basics or just enough, but something that might make a difference for me and for my hearers. When I was a grad student at Yale, I had a job working in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. One of my main projects there was to catalog some 1,500 manuscript sermons from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
I learned a lot about preaching doing this exercise. Preachers then just about always ended with an exordium, or an exhortation. The preacher asked the listeners to do something. Maybe it was ponder a question. Maybe it was a charitable work. Maybe it was a pious act. But it was always something. For these preachers, there was no doubt that the Christian life is hard fought, and there was certainty about the need for fresh struggles to live well in this earthly pilgrimage.
One of my professors at Yale used to say that a well preached sermon is like a fruit tree. People will grab one or more pieces of fruit, and you can’t always be sure which pieces go to which people. In the parish I now serve, I seek to use examples that will make sense to a four year-old (kids are in church here) and some to an eighty year-old. Occasionally, these signals get crossed. You can’t ask rhetorical questions with six preschoolers in the front yard, or you’re sure to get an answer. And when they answer, I know they were keenly listening, all the while they were playing with crayons and blocks.
So, if you’re a preacher, work hard. Try to be inspiring. Ask something of your listeners. Expect that they’re ready for something beyond the usual pabulum that passes for Episcopal preaching. You don’t need a Ph.D. or even a D.Min. “[T]he character of his Sermon is Holiness; he is not witty, or learned, or eloquent, but Holy.”
(The illustration is George Whitefield, provided to evoke old-timey preaching. There’s no Polaroid of Herbert preaching. Also, you can get the full text of the Herbert excerpt here.)