“I was too busy boning my kipper to notice what he said!” That was the imaginative reply, given by one of my fellow Dominican students. The prior had just asked him to comment on the sermon I’d preached.
Once a year each of us we students had to preach a sermon during the community’s supper. That was an excruciating experience for us trainee preachers. We had to compete with the clatter of cutlery and crockery, the squeaks and rattles from the food trolley. Worse still, we had to imagine that we were preaching to the typical ‘person in the pew,’ not to our Dominican brethren.
Our fellow students went through a different kind of ordeal. They had to listen to the preacher, knowing full well that the prior would randomly select one of them to comment on the sermon. While eating his supper –perhaps boning his kipper - he had to be thinking of something intelligent to say. After his comments the prior would then ask one of the priests in the community what he thought of the sermon. Finally the prior himself would have his say. Three critics had a peck at the poor student preacher!
These refectory sermons were an ordeal for all of us. The preacher would never expect to have to face such a critical congregation again, which was there to criticise rather than to be inspired. Never would we have to preach to an imaginary audience. Hopefully, being thrown in at the deep-end so early in our Dominican life would toughen us up for what would lie ahead. This training exercise was probably good for us.
Sometimes the lessons we learnt were very painful. There was the student preacher who memorized his sermon, word for word. Unfortunately when he opened his mouth his mind went blank, paralysed with fear. All he could do was silently withdraw, followed by the sympathy of just about everybody! That must have been a miserable for him! That taught me never to trust my sermons to memory. I must always think on my feet and at least have some notes to jog my memory, in case it should ever go blank.
As for the community which had to listen to our first sermons –that was quite an ordeal. I’ve been both preacher and critic, so I know. The meal was spoilt by our not knowing whether we would be asked to comment. Since each of us had to take his turn in giving a refectory sermon our sympathies lay with the preacher of the moment. We tended to give him encouragement. But I do suspect that some critics were far too harsh and permanently scarred some budding preachers. I know one who would never dare to preach in front of his brethren, even though the congregation liked his sermons. I feel sure his critic would have been horrified to learn of the devastating effects his comments had had.
The ordeal of having to preach my practice sermons against the background noise of a community of forty eating their supper has stood me in good stead. As a result I’ve not been fazed by a baby crying, nor, in the W. Indies, by a braying donkey, a squealing, grunting pig, a bleating goat or a crowing cock. But I must admit I had to concede defeat when a tropical rainstorm beat down upon the tin roof of the chapel in which I was preaching. The noise was deafening! I certainly could not compete with that. I was forced to bring my sermon to an abrupt end. The same was true when a pneumatic drill got to work outside the church. Perhaps, the Lord, is in His wisdom, had decided to silence me.
This helped to make me realize that I must place my preaching in God’s hands. I may have to accept that He may want lessons to be drawn from my sermon, which I had not planned.
That can be hard to take. The poor preacher who couldn’t remember the sermon he’d carefully prepared had to accept the humiliation of having to retire without having uttered a word. From this his listeners had to learn compassionate understanding. That could do them more good, and be more necessary, than the message the preacher had planned to give.
And the preacher may become ill and collapse during a sermon. That’s happened to me. Although everyone was so good in rushing to my assistance I hated all the fuss. But perhaps God wanted both the congregation and me to appreciate and respond in a positive way to the vulnerability of us preachers. For all of us that lesson could have been more valuable than anything I’d planned to say.
Certainly it’s good that I never take my preaching for granted. Because I’m prone to blackouts I can never presume that I will be able to finish a sermon. But more general than that, preaching can be a frightening experience.
There’s a vast difference between giving a lecture and preaching a sermon. In a sermon the preacher urges a way of life, Christ’s way of life. If he’s honest he will have to admit that he falls short of the behaviour he’s urging upon others. As he puts himself on the line he lays himself open to the condemnation of not practising what he preaches. None of this is true of giving a lecture, in which the speaker does not lay his life open to judgement and condemnation.
This sense of inconsistency, if not hypocrisy, a sense of unworthiness can be terrifying, even paralyzing. I’ve known preachers who have had sleepless nights, with upset stomachs, before preaching a difficult sermon. Another used to be physically sick in the sacristy before his sermons. But I’ve found that in spite of my stage-fright the nerves disappear once I start my sermon. People simply don’t believe me when I say I’m nervous before every sermon. A bit of anxiety keeps me on my toes and prevents me become complacent or casual in preaching.
My way of coping with my sense of inadequacy is to remind myself that God chose the foolish of this world to confound the self-styled wise. I readily number myself among the foolish! In fact the people Jesus chose to preach the kingdom were all flawed characters. If the preacher needed to wait till he was a perfect Christian before he dared to open his mouth the Gospel would never be heard.
It’s good for all of us to recognize that we’re not fit to preach the Good News. Not one of us practises what he preaches. The only way I can continue is to remind myself that I’m not holding up myself as an example of Christian living. I’m recommending Christ, His way of life, not mine. The world needs to hear about Jesus and how to follow Him to the Kingdom of Heaven. I need to hear the Good News as much as anybody else.
So in every sermon I’m first of all preaching to myself –telling myself how I should be following Christ. With every sermon I hold a mirror up to my life and see how I distort the image of Christ, which I should reflect. Hopefully I listen to what I’ve said to the congregation and heed my own words.
So, I meet God through heeding my own sermons, and trying to practice what I preach. I place the fears, the difficulties, my limitations and failures in God’s hands. He can turn everything to His purpose and draw goodness from it. But most importantly, we all meet God through His word, sharing it and doing it.
I bet every teacher and parent feels the same sense of inadequacy as I do in sharing my faith. If so, let’s all remember that God has given us this task. He is with us as we do His work. He is Lord of the harvest and has guaranteed a bumper crop, despite all the obstacles that make it difficult for us to hear the Word of God. That certainly includes the concentration required for boning a kipper!