Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part III, On Homiletical Gridlock

‘Like most preachers, I grossly overestimated the importance of my part in the sermon. When I thought of preaching, I did not consider it to be a congregation’s reception of the word of God, but a speaker’s command of the Bible’s hidden meanings and applications, which were served up in a way to showcase the authority and skill of the preacher. In those days the gospel lived or died by my personal performance. My preaching was a small cloud of glory that followed me around and hung like a canopy over the pulpit whenever I occupied it. How ludicrous I must have appeared to my congregation.

In my first sermon I explained the meaning of an epiphany, not the Epiphany of God in the person of Jesus – no, that would have been too obvious – but the category of epiphanies in general. To this end, I drew at length on the depressing short stories of James Joyce in Dubliners. “Each of these stories has one thing in common,” I said. “In each the central character comes to a deeper and more disturbing understanding of himself. Nothing really happens in these stories except that in the midst of the daily routine a character is unexpectedly exposed to the predicaments of estrangement in his own life. One man realizes that his wife has never loved him. Another recognizes that he is trapped in his vocation. Another finds himself to be a hopeless failure. The human condition is full of such epiphanies …”

Before I could talk about Jesus, I apparently found it necessary to give my farmers a crash course in the angst-ridden plight of modern man. With the help of clichés from Joyce, Heidegger, Camus, and even Walker Percy, I first converted them to existential ennui so that later in the sermon I could rescue them with carefully crafted assurances of “meaning” in a meaningless world. Along the way I defiantly refuted Marx’s view of religion as an opiate that permits us to escape the hard realities of existence. It didn’t concern me that the problem of meaninglessness had not occurred to my audience or that Marx’s critique of religion rarely came up for discussion at the post office.

It’s not that I minimize the importance of the major themes of modernity. No doubt my parishioners would have understood themselves better had they opened their eyes to the intellectual context of their lives. But they did not and could not. The giants of modern thought – Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre – and the movements they unleashed, would never touch New Cana. My parishioners lived in a prison whose view was limited to the natural world and the most obvious technologies of the twentieth century. Aside from formulaic complaints about Communists, perverts, and radicals, they did not engage the modern world.

But then I did not bother to engage their world either. It did not occur to me that I needed a new education. I treated the rural life as an eccentric experience in ministry. I was a spectator once again, as I had been in college, watching a slide show of interesting scenes and odd characters. And since I was the viewer and they were the viewees, I was in control. When I preached, I always stood above my parishioners and looked down upon them.

Consequently, my sermons carried too many prerequisites to be effective. About 90 percent of my listeners had not graduated from high school; the majority of that group had not attended high school. There was no one with a four-year college degree in the church with the exception of a regular visitor named Darryl Sheets, our Lone Intellectual, who was principal of the high school in nearby Cherry Grove. Darryl regularly cornered me in long and fruitless conversations on the possible meanings of the Hebrew word for “young woman” in Isaiah 9:14 and how they all pointed to “Virgin.” But the truth is, Darryl and his wife Marvel didn’t drive all the way to Cana because of my expertise in Hebrew or the intellectual content of my sermons. Darryl was a tongue-speaking, fire-anointed charismatic who for some reason suspected that I might be one, too. It didn’t take him long to figure out he was wrong, and then we saw quite a bit less of Darryl and Marvel.

My audience paid a heavy price for the gospel. The farmers had to swallow my sixties-style cocktail of existentialism and psychology before I served them anything remotely recognizable. I implicitly required them to view their world and its problems through my eyes. All I asked of them was that they pretend to be me.

The only person who appreciated my sermons was my wife, who, like me, lived from books. Tracy was completing her course work for a Ph.D. in English and, therefore, considered poetry and literary allusions to be the most natural of all forms of communication. What’s a sermon without, “Perhaps Milton said it best when he wrote …” But among the rest of the congregation my preaching produced a standoff of sensibilities: If the idea for a sermon did not come from a book, I was not interested in pursuing it. If it did not emerge from life, my parishioners were not interested in hearing about it. In a few short months we had achieved homiletical gridlock’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, pp. 73–5.

One comment

  1. A wonderful passage. Those of us who went right from seminary to rural communities may be amused by this, but I was grimacing as much as laughing when I recall my early preaching in two small towns in Maine. I am sure there is still a farmer or logger there somewhere who can tell you about Barth’s “No” to Brunner on natural theology! The grace for me was the congregation’s patience and even love for me. They taught me how to be a minister. And I learned to preach among them. Thanks Jason, for the excerpts from this lovely book. I’d forgotten how good it is.

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