Like most people who hang around churches, I hear a lot of bad sermons. Some of them are my own. And from time to time, I also read some bad sermons. I also read about what makes bad sermons. (Ironically, or perhaps not, these essays are often written by someone who themselves is a dismal preacher.) So when PT Forsyth suggests that ‘with its preaching Christianity stands or falls’, I hope like mad that he’s wrong, even while secretly acquiescing with his assessment of God’s strange ways with us. Anyway, I was recently reading Bonhoeffer’s novella titled ‘Sunday’ which appears in his Fiction from Tegel Prison material (I’m slowly making my way through Bonhoeffer’s works this year). Therein, he offers us one of the best expositions I’ve yet read on the bad sermon, and on the costliness of such. Here’s an excerpt:
Frau Karoline Brake sat upright on the park bench, her eyes lost in the red splendor of blossoms and in the dark green foliage. A few brimstone butterflies fluttered in the hushed stillness of shimmering sunlight. The birds’ soft rustling in the hushes, their voices now almost silenced by the fire of the sun climbing toward noon, the chirping of crickets, the mosquitoes’ fine, bright hum – all these sounds reached her ear, penetrating the stillness. Feeling happy and profoundly thankful, she breathed in the fullness of the summer air.
Suddenly a shadow passed across her face. She had heard another miserable sermon. She had walked out of church in a very bad mood, and only the radiant blue sky and nature’s summery light had made her feel better. But now she felt her rage rising once again within her. What rubbish she had been forced to listen to again. Could one blame the children and grandchildren who, for years now, had let her go to church alone? She could still hear her oldest grandson’s precocious words as he had accompanied her to church for the last time: “You know, Grandma, we’ve outgrown this kind of preacher wisdom just like we’ve outgrown our Latin teachers rattling off Ostermann’s exercises. I really can’t understand how you can bear to listen to it Sunday after Sunday.”
At the time she had replied, “Dear boy, what’s important is not that something is new, but that it’s right. And we need to hear what’s right again and again, because unfortunately we keep forgetting it.”
“I don’t understand,” he had replied. “I don’t forget it at all. On the contrary, I can recite all these sanctimonious clichés backwards and forwards.”
‘‘Yes, you know them in your head and your lips can rattle them off my dear, but the heart and the hand learn more slowly.”
She had said this and yet did not feel right about saying it, for what they had heard in the sermon was neither new nor right. It was sanctimonious prattle, and to her mind that was the worst thing that could happen from the pulpit. Perhaps she should have admitted that openly to her grandson. Perhaps she should have said to him: “You mustn’t confuse Christianity with its pathetic representatives.” But he was a smart boy and would not have spared her a reply: “Anything that has such pathetic representatives can’t have much power left; I’m interested in what is alive and relevant today, not in a dead faith of the past.”
How could one argue with that? To distinguish between original Christianity and the church today was really a feeble attempt to justify it. After all, what mattered was simply whether the Christianity in which Frau Brake had grown up and lived her life still existed today, and whether or not it lives in its current representatives. Every bad sermon was another nail in the coffin of the Christian faith. It could no longer be denied that here, in this suburb in any event, hot air had taken the place of God’s Word.
Frau Karoline Brake no longer saw the bushes in full bloom; she could no longer feel the pleasure of the warm July sun. Instead she saw her children and grandchildren before her mind’s eye and uttered a quiet “Oh, well!” In her voice was a little amazement about the ways of the world, a little worry about her own inability to change them, but also a good bit of that calm assurance with which older people entrust the future to hands stronger than their own. But, as if she had already let herself go too far with this little sigh, Frau Karoline straightened her body with a quick, rather indignant jerk, stood up, and strode resolutely through the park to the street that led to her home.
No, she was not the kind who gave up easily. You could tell from the way she walked that she was making decisions as she went along. She would see that this old windbag of a preacher left this pulpit, or that a second pastor, a preacher of the word of God, would be called to the parish. She rejected the idea of speaking to the windbag again. She had made several attempts, but had been met with nothing but vain defensiveness and hollow officiousness. In fact, she had felt the pastor avoiding her glance since these visits, and she had heard by the grapevine that he had thwarted her reelection to the parish council [Gemeindekirchenrat]. Some said he emphasized that she must be spared because of her age; others said he thought her strange. He even went so far with some as to accuse her of intolerable presumption. There was no doubt about it; he was afraid of her because she saw through him. Despite these events she had continued to go to his church every Sunday, even when she had long since given up hope of ever hearing the word of God from him. She had taken this humiliation upon herself as a salutary discipline. But in the end she had had enough. It wasn’t so much for her own sake; she had learned through the years to ignore the talk and to focus on the few words which contained truth. She could have continued this way for the rest of her life. But more important things were at stake. The congregation, the whole town, her own family was deprived of the word of God and that meant that their whole life must sooner or later lose its center. This could remain hidden for a while yet; memory and tradition could postpone complete disintegration for a while yet.
But her grandchildren’s generation would need to find new ways of its own, and several things these young people had said had led their grandmother to recognize the first signs of protest, even of revolt. It was not the young people’s fault if things were as they were. Rather, the older people let things take their course so unperceptively, without insight or concern. That was the worst thing about it. Frau Karoline Brake had asked herself tacitly whether it could be God’s will to bring judgment over this generation by withdrawing God’s word from them. But even if it were so, she told herself, God would also want people to resist [widersetzen] this judgment, to take God at his word and not let him go until he blessed them. But why was she so alone with her ideas and opinions? Why did hardly anyone who had been in church today, except the old sexton, notice that all they had heard were hollow phrases and cheap clichés? Why did the educated, of all people, fail so completely in their discernment? To be sure, they hardly ever went to church, but when they had to attend a baptism or wedding they always found the “speech” [Rede], as they called the sermon, very lovely, very artistic, very modern, very relevant. The old woman shook her head dejectedly and was totally lost in her thoughts when she heard a voice behind her.
“Good morning, my dear Frau Bürgermeister, hasn’t the dear Lord blessed us with another beautiful day?” It was the neighbor, Direktor Warmblut’s widow, who was also walking home from church. She had already greeted two or three other women from the neighborhood on their way home and was now hurrying after Frau Karoline Brake to reach her before they arrived at their houses. It wasn’t easy for this short, rather plump woman to catch up to her neighbor, who was ten years her senior. Now she ran breathless with a shiny, red face beside the agile and stately figure, who presented a rare picture of moderation and dignity in her gray dress, gray silk parasol, gray hair, and the dry gray skin of her intelligent face.
“Good morning,” said Frau Brake with her quiet, clear voice. “Yes, the sun does us good; we need it, too.”
“Oh, I do hope things are going well with you. What wonderful health the dear Lord has given you! Well, of course, he loves you and why shouldn’t he? Such a blessed family life, and you their beloved grandmother, the idol of all the grandchildren. Oh, these charming children, and they’re growing up now. But they’re still good, cast in the same mold, and why shouldn’t they be? How fortunate for you, to be surrounded by your family – just think, my dear Frau Bürgermeister, I have had such trouble again the last few days. Oh, I know, the heavier the cross, the closer to heaven, and why shouldn’t it be so? But just think, my daughter Hilde’s husband has left the church and doesn’t want their child baptized. I’ve shed so many tears over it. What would my dear husband, God rest his soul, have said about it? And what will people think of us, and what will become of the poor little wretch? Yes, and I’m almost ashamed to admit it, my Hilde doesn’t seem to mind at all. She says the child can decide later on for herself what she wants. That really hurt me – and coming from my own daughter! And all this to the widow of a man of such an honorable position! I just can’t understand it. I always told her about the dear Lord and prayed with her. She always had to go to church with me, and even at her wedding the pastor gave her such lovely maxims to learn, and she always had the saying over her bed, “Do right and fear no one.” Believe me, dearest Frau Bürgermeister, I haven’t been able to sleep for nights fretting over my daughter. But during the sermon today all that blew over, and now I’m relieved and happy. Oh, and the dear Lord has given us our dear church and our dear pastor, too, who has such a beautiful way with words, so down-to-earth and close to the people. Forgive me, Frau Bürgermeister, I know you don’t always agree with him, but today, don’t you agree, today he outdid himself.”
“Yes, today he really outdid himself, Frau Direktor.”
“You see, you see, oh, I’m so happy that you agree. Didn’t he say it beautifully? Yes – uh, what did he say, anyway? It’s so lovely one could never convey it. But it really doesn’t matter at all, you can just feel it and it’s so uplifting and you don’t even quite know why, isn’t that right, dearest Frau Bürgermeister.”
“Yes, you really don’t quite know why.”
“Well, anyway, he said everyone should live the way they see fit and then it will be the right way, and it doesn’t matter that much to the dear Lord whether the little one is baptized or not, right, Frau Bürgermeister? And it really doesn’t matter that much at all whether my little Hilde goes to church or not. We’re all free people, after all, that’s how he expressed it. Oh, what a wonderful idea! So liberating, so deep, and why shouldn’t it be, right, dearest Frau Bürgermeister? In fact, he had a Bible passage. Now what was it about again?”
“Yes, indeed, what do you think it was about, Frau Direktor?”
“Yes, what was it about, anyway? Oh – you’re getting me all confused, Frau Bürgermeister. But it really doesn’t matter at all, does it?”
“No, it really doesn’t matter at all, because it wasn’t about the Bible passage at all. He wanted to preach about plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath and about the verse, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ Instead of saying that Christ may do things because he is Christ, but that doesn’t give us the right to do them by any means, and that if Christ keeps the Sabbath by breaking it, then we first have to learn how to keep the Sabbath holy in earnest, by keeping it – instead of saying that, he babbled on about the freedom of all human beings, and that people may do whatever they think is right, and that we should spend Sunday out in nature rather than in church, and that it doesn’t matter so much at all because the dear Lord is so kind and sweet and good that he isn’t even capable of wrath. My dear Frau Direktor, did it escape you again that the pastor said what you wanted to hear; but didn’t preach the word of God?”