Sunday, December 1, 2002

How preachers figure out how to do what they do

Most sermons used to be heavy on theology and theory. "The typical mainline sermon in the 1950s would have been fairly didactic," said Thomas G. Long, Bandy professor of preaching at Emory University's Candler Theological School in Atlanta and a nationally recognized preacher. "Students were taught to take the biblical text, find the idea, break it into its constituent parts and let those parts be the parts of the sermon."

That kind of sermon is still preached in places but is not prevalent. Yet although many pastors try to be more relevant in their sermons, their efforts often fall flat. Experts say ministers are often too busy with other pastoral duties to do the necessary hard work of reflecting on Scripture as they prepare their sermons. Some preachers, out of fear of offending the congregation, avoid taking strong moral or political stands. And several pastors say too many of their colleagues have a misguided belief that sermons are primarily for enhancing their listeners' spiritual self-esteem.

"I don't think Jesus spent two seconds thinking about his own self-esteem, but most homilies have to do with 'I'm okay, you're okay' stuff, and I've preached all of those homilies," said the Rev. Raymond B. Kemp. Powerful sermons, Kemp adds, instead remind listeners of "the constant call of Jesus to conversion and to action."

Kemp is coordinator of Preaching the Just Word, a program conceived by the Rev. Walter J. Burghardt, a nationally acclaimed Jesuit preacher, because of his concern over the thin content of much Catholic preaching. The program, which operates out of Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, offers five-day workshops that show priests and ministers how to address social justice issues more effectively in their sermons.

This approach keeps congregations engaged but not always in agreement with the sermonizer. "I just got off a call from a woman who said I used the pulpit for political purposes," said the Rev. John J. Enzler, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac and a graduate of Kemp's program.

The woman, he said, was upset about a recent sermon in which he questioned going to war in Iraq and imposing capital punishment on the accused sniper suspects. But Enzler said such complaints should not deter pastors from preaching about difficult moral issues. "It's pretty easy to just get up and talk about Scripture," he said. "What is not so easy is to say, 'I think the war in Iraq is wrong,' or 'Capital punishment for . . . snipers is wrong.' "

Here's what I want to know: Why doesn't Fr. Enzler use the unease caused by the possibility of war or of the random murders of the snipers to address deeper spiritual questions that nag at all of us - am I prepared to die? Am I really aware of the brevity of life? How does that impact me? Am I open to God's forgiveness, or am I wasting the time I have on earth in bitterness and anger? Am I living in fear or am I trusting in God's care?

I am all for tying everything together - including the political and social ramifications of the Gospel - but I am not impressed by preachers who think they're all that because they get up and question the wisdom of invading Iraq. I'm impressed by preachers who work hard at understanding the deepest longings and fears of the human heart and tying that in with the Gospel.

Because, you know - that's where the answers are.

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