Peter and I go back to the days before lecterns commonly replaced pulpits. These were often perched high up on a pillar. Sometime the designer would use his imagination. A fishing-town church might have a pulpit shaped like a ship’s prow. You would have seen one in the film ‘Moby Dick.’
There was the occasion when an eminent visiting Dominican preacher was asked, “Are you the little priest who needs to stand on a box in the pulpit?” He was. But he was not amused at being addressed in such a disrespectful way. Ascending to his lofty perch, gazing magisterially from on high, upon a congregation that eyed him with anticipation and curiosity, he began to hold forth. But, then -a crack, a yell and the diminutive, rotund preacher disappeared from sight. The box on which he stood had collapsed under his weight – and so did his dignity! Much to the amusement of the congregation. What was meant to be a memorable start to the mission he was preaching turned into farce. Henceforth he would be remembered as the ‘collapsible preacher’ rather than ‘the eloquent one!’
What was God saying to our hapless preacher? Well, this incident must have forcefully reminded him that, for all his vast experience and glittering reputation as an orator, it is God alone who is in control. And what did the congregation take away from his sermon? Quite literally, God alone knows; at best we can only guess!’
And that’s the way God sometimes uses our sermons, uses his preachers. He turns our mistakes and mishaps to good account –especially slips of the tongue. There was the time when I preached about the heavenly ‘blanket,’ instead of ‘banquet.’ That would probably have gone unnoticed if I hadn’t corrected myself –a great mistake. Perhaps? Except that afterwards someone in the congregation thanked me. Until that moment she was feeling very depressed, but my slip of the tongue had lifted her spirits and made her smile. Maybe that was the only good that came out of my diligently prepared sermon. I don’t know.
But I rejoice that God was able to draw good I had never intended out of my poor efforts. Wonder of wonders. God can squeeze sense out of my nonsense. And His sense of humour certainly deflated any tendency I may have had to pretentious pomposity.
That’s especially true when someone thanks the preacher for a particular point he made. The trouble is, he didn’t make it! Instead, something he said has acted as a spring-board, from which the listener’s imagination has leapt off at a helpful tangent –something totally unforeseen by the preacher. The same can happen when an unplanned aside may be the only helpful point in the sermon.
For me this is a great cause for rejoicing. It reminds me that any success in my preaching doesn’t simply depend on my efforts, learning and eloquence. God is at work in his listener, touching his mind and heart, making them leap heavenwards –sometimes at a tangent. God can make my deficiencies fruitful. That’s all the matters. With the Psalmist I exclaim, ‘Not to us, not to us, but to your name give the glory.’ [Ps. 115.1]. Or as St. Paul reminds us, one may sow, another cultivates, but God gives the increase. [cf. 1Cor. 3.6].
And what a relief that is! God is not only with the listener hearing a sermon; He is also with the preacher preparing and giving it. This helps me to understand how the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost continues to shape the daily life of the Church throughout the world.
Sometimes we will be asked, ‘How long does it take you to prepare a sermon?’ That question is in itself encouraging. It recognizes we have given some thought to our sermons. I could reply, ‘I start praying and thinking about it a few days before giving it, and then devote a few hours to sorting out my ideas.’ But, instead, I say, ‘A life time -eighty years!’
Although unexpected, that shouldn’t come as a shock. Within eight days of my birth I was baptized and received the gift of faith. This was nourished first at my mother’s knee, then at church and school, and in our Dominican study houses. Finally, from the book of life I’ve learnt to find and meet God in my daily experiences, and those of other people. God has spoken to me through what is mundane or sublime, tragic or humorous. Gratefully I echo the words of the Psalmist, ‘Oh God, you have taught me from youth, and I proclaim your wonders still!’ [Ps. 71. 17].