December 2002

Preaching to the perplexed

Timothy Radcliffe OP

Preaching is a crucial part of our worship, but how do we find the transforming language to talk about our faith? Timothy Radcliffe, who till last year was Master General of the Dominican Order, looks at the supreme transformative event of the Last Supper and suggests ways that ‘our preaching of the gospel could come to sparkle with something of its power’.

Preaching does not mean primarily the homily after the Gospel at the Eucharist, but all the ways in which we preach the gospel – in our parishes, in our places of work, to our friends, in our families. St Dominic founded the Order of Preachers to carry the preaching of the gospel out of the churches to where people live and struggle with the meaning of their lives. How are we to do that today?

We must recognise that there is a crisis in preaching the gospel today. In books of theology, the proclamation of our faith is usually described as a powerful event. It is spoken of as transformative. Just as the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ, so too preaching is supposed to transform our minds and hearts. That is why many theologians talk of the ‘sacramentality of the word’. Preaching is part of that whole sacramental event of the Eucharist, through which God irrupts into our lives and makes them new.

This is a lovely theory. The trouble is that it is often remote from reality. At this moment in the Church, we do not find it easy to proclaim our faith in ways that touch and change people’s lives. Often when we begin to talk of our faith, people become embarrassed and change the subject, or else they are just bored. Most sermons do not electrify us. They are boring. They may drive us to prayer, as we beseech God to stop the preacher carrying on any longer.

Of course boring preaching has always been a problem for the Church. Webster’s dictionary gives as one definition: ‘to preach: to give moral or religious advice, especially in a tiresome manner’. Even St Paul droned on so tediously that Eutyches fell asleep and dropped to his death. When I feel that I have preached badly then I console myself by remembering that my sermons have not actually killed anyone, at least not so far. St Caesarius of Arles did not often preach, but when he did the doors had to be locked to stop the people of God escaping.

Facing crises
But I believe that what we face today is more than just the age-old problem of boring preachers. It is a particular moment of crisis in how we talk about our faith. The Church has faced this sort of crisis from time to time. There was such a crisis in the thirteenth century, which led to the foundation of the Dominican Order. There was another such crisis in the sixteenth century, which led to the foundation of the Jesuits. We face another such crisis. It is the challenge of rediscovering words about our faith that are powerful and transforming, words that change people’s hearts and minds, just as the Eucharist transforms the bread and wine. I am not going to suggest that we found yet another religious order to meet this new crisis. We have quite enough already! To find these new words, we need the experience of the whole people of God. We need the wisdom of the laity, of women and men, and the young and the old, everyone in the Church.

To see how we can talk powerfully about our faith, we need to look at that supreme transformative event, the Last Supper and the dynamic of what Jesus did on that night. What made it such a powerful event? And then we may see how our preaching of the gospel could come to sparkle with something of its power.

The Last Supper
The Last Supper includes three moments, three powerful acts, and each of these can teach something about how to preach the gospel dynamically today.

1.Jesus reaches out to the disciples in their individual puzzlement and confusion.
2.Jesus gathers them into community.
3.Jesus reaches beyond this moment to the Kingdom of God.

These three moments shape the event. Each illuminates some aspect of preaching the gospel. If we are all to be preachers – whether in our home, in our workplace or in church – then our words need to recover that same dynamism of the Last Supper.

From books, one often has the impression of parishes as wonderful, warm communities, in which everyone feels at home, bound together by the love of God and each other, eager to hear the homily. But we know that this is often not the case. Parishes are not usually natural communities, especially in the mega-cities in which most people live today. Often people actually hover around at the back of church, hoping to escape as soon as possible. Often we treat going to the Eucharist as more like shopping at the supermarket, one of those things that has to be got over with as soon as possible.

Even more seriously, the words of the Scriptures and of the preaching will often appear to be remote from what we actually live. Often they do not appear to illuminate the struggles within our hearts. They do not answer the questions in our minds. Much of the teaching of the Church will appear incomprehensible and even alien to a lot of people in the parish. They are not sure what is going on, and what it means. In Europe there is an immense sense that religious language is alienated from the thoughts and feelings of most people.

But this was just the experience of the disciples at the Last Supper. It was not a cheerful, cosy community of happy disciples. It was a community on the verge of collapse. Its bonds were breaking down. It would explode hours later. And secondly, the disciples appear to have no idea what is happening. They are confused and questioning. ‘Lord, why do you wash my feet?’; ‘Lord, where are you going?’; ‘Show us the Father and then we shall be satisfied’. And, according to John’s Gospel, they say to each other, ‘We do not know what he means’ (16:18). What is this man on about? What is going on here? The first moment in the dynamism of the Last Supper is this: that Jesus reaches out to embrace the disciples where and as they are, with all their questions, their confusion and even their betrayal.

This is the first moment in any proclamation of our faith, whether in the pulpit or in the home. We stretch our minds and hearts to embrace others in their incomprehension of the gospel, in their questioning. We must dare to enter into their minds, see through their eyes, and hear through their ears. We must even dare to be penetrated by their doubts and their rejection. This is a perilous journey that we only dare to make because Jesus has gone before us.

Profound crisis of preaching
I believe that our contemporary crisis of preaching is more profound than any that the Church has faced since the fourth century, when Christianity became established in the Roman Empire. Our contemporaries find the language of faith and tradition more remote, more incomprehensible, than any previous generation in the West. There is a bigger gap between how we spontaneously think and speak, and the language of the Church and of most preaching. This is not because modernity is bad. In some ways it embodies deep and beautiful values, which have their roots in Christianity but which the Church does not always practise: tolerance, fairness, respect for the equality of women, and of ethnic minorities.

Often the Church is incomprehensible because of its failure to live the gospel. But also much of modern culture is founded upon a consumerist culture that goes deeply against the gospel. So the first step towards a new preaching of the gospel is to face the abyss between the culture of our time and the language of the gospel. We must be touched by the doubts and incomprehension of our contemporaries. We may fear to let this happen, because we are modern men and women, and their questions are probably lodged somewhere in our own hearts too. Faced with doubts and puzzlement, the temptation is to have a quick and easy answer. We may be so afraid to really let the puzzlement touch us that we do not really listen. We produce a defensive answer with the speed of John Wayne in a shoot-out. If we do that, then we shall convince no one, for they shall see that we have not heard. They will certainly see that we are afraid.

So the first step towards renewing our preaching is to dare to listen. We must begin in silence, with open ears, attentive to the puzzlement and the doubt. We must let down our barriers, and lose our easy answers, our facile words. I think that sermon preparation has never begun until one is brought face to face with one’s incomprehension of the gospel. Real preparation begins when one says, like the disciples, ‘What does this man mean?’ Then we beg for illumination. Then we say to God, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’ Then God may give us a word worth speaking. It comes as a gift.

The second phase in the event of the Last Supper is the gathering into communion. The disciples gathered around that table were not a united community. They were in competition with each other, each pushing himself forward, suspicious of each other, wondering which of them was the one who would betray their Lord. Jesus makes of this fractured group one body, his own body. The second stage of proclamation is that it gathers us into communion with each other, and throws down the barriers that we have erected.

A French Dominican who was celebrating a funeral after the Second World War discovered that all those who had fought in the resistance were seated on one side of the church, and all those who had collaborated on the other. The coffin was in the middle. He refused to begin the Eucharist until they crossed the divide to embrace one another. The Franciscans and Dominicans were peacemakers,1 preaching what was known as ‘The Great Devotion’ in 1233. Often the climax of the sermon was the ritual kiss of peace between enemies. It was precisely as preachers that they ordained the release of prisoners, the forgiveness of debts and the reconciliation of enemies. The preached word gathers into communion. This is its sacramental power.

At the Last Supper we can see that gathering into communion is based on telling the truth. I must be able to recognise the truth of who I am and what I have lived in what the preacher says. I must also recognise the truth of what other people live too. At the Last Supper Jesus tells the disciples the truth. One of them will betray him; they will all flee and be scattered; he will suffer and die; he will rise again and the Holy Spirit will be sent. ‘Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth’ (John 16:6); ‘Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth’ (John 17:17). There is no communion without truth. It is in the truth that we meet each other face to face. The new covenant is born in this new truth-telling.

I suspect that the present crisis of proclaiming our faith – whether in church or at home or wherever – is, in part, a crisis of speaking the truth, of telling things as they are. In the words of Mary Catherine Hilkert, we must name the grace and the dis-grace at work in our world.2 Our congregations include young people struggling with their hormones and the teachings of the Church, married couples wrestling with crises of love, the divorced, people facing retirement, gay people feeling on the edge of the Church, sick and dying people. Does their pain and happiness find some space in our words? Do they recognise the truth of their experience in what we say?

This crisis of truth-telling has two components. The first is that we need the courage to be honest. I think that the crisis over sexual abuse in America has shown that there is much fear: fear of facing issues; fear of losing our reputation; fear of being misrepresented, and so on. Yet we know that fear can undermine solidarity and that the opposite of love is not hatred but fear.

Secondly, we will only be able to tell the truth that gathers into communion if we forge the language of faith together. When I preach on a Sunday, my words should not come just from my experience, that of a middle-aged white male. They should be the fruit of many conversations. I must gather in the wisdom of those who are young and old, lay women and men, and other ethnic groups. If my words are just the fruit of my narrow experience, then how can they offer a home for all? It is also clear that we must find other forms of preaching, whether in church or outside, in which other people receive the chance to speak directly of their faith. If we do listen to each other, and acknowledge things as they are, then our words may be more modest. The temptation of preachers is to make great and vague claims that must make our hearers smile to themselves. Our words will be more powerful if we say less. An old Eskimo woman was asked why the songs of her tribe were so short. She replied, ‘Because we know so much.’3 We talk too much because we listen too little. As Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, ‘In a time of famine typified by too many words with too much noise in them, we could use fewer words with more silence in them.’

Reaching out for the Kingdom
Jesus did not just gather the disciples into communion; he pointed them beyond the present little group to the unimaginable vastness of the Kingdom of God.

The Last Supper is marked by a paradox. On the one hand, it is the fruition of Jesus’ community with the disciples. Yet at the same time, it is, in a sense, the end of this common life with him. They are about to lose him as a man among them. When they meet the Risen Christ, he will scatter them to the ends of the earth. So within the dynamic of the new covenant, this final meal is a beginning and an end. It is a gathering and a dispersal. It is the climax of their friendship and it points beyond it. It is the moment for speaking the truth, and yet when the truth cannot be as yet spoken. It is a provisional consummation.

This paradox marks every Christian Eucharist. Gathered around the altar, our community is a sign of the Kingdom. We are the friends of God. But this same Eucharist challenges us to break down the walls around our little community and welcome in those who are excluded. Every Eucharist is the sacrament of our home in the Lord, and yet breaks down the little home that we have made. We must throw down the walls that we build to keep out strangers. This is the necessary paradox of being both Roman and Catholic, both a particular historical community and the sacrament of a community which transcends us and stretches out to embrace all of humanity. It is a tension that will mark every Eucharist until the Kingdom, when the sacraments will cease and the Church will be no more.

Our preaching will be powerful, sacramental, if it is marked by this same tension. We have seen that the preacher builds community, gathers in the lost and the stray. On the other hand, he challenges that congregation for its exclusions. It is a sacrament of the Kingdom, but the universal embrace of the Kingdom challenges it in turn. The preacher invites us to find identity within the Church, but then subverts every identity that has been secured. This was the drama of the little Jewish Church in its early years. It had barely been born when it had to lose its identity by welcoming in the Gentiles. Three hundred years later, the Church was finally accepted as truly Roman, and then it had to lose that identity and embrace the barbarians. This is the drama that has been repeated throughout the history of the Church. Just when we have made of the Church a comfortable home, we are challenged to give hospitality to strangers.

This is a challenge that we face acutely at the moment in the West. Our prosperity is founded in the poverty and the exclusion of most of humanity. Two billion human beings live on less than one dollar a day, and they are being impoverished by us. Do we dare to face the exclusion that we are enforcing? Do we dare to transform our way of life for the sake of these strangers? At the Rio summit of 1992, President Bush Sr said, ‘The American way of life is not up for negotiation.’ But we have to lose our way of life if we are not to crucify the rest of humanity.

Beyond words
The preacher must speak truthfully. But there are other moments when he reaches for the Kingdom, for ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9). Then clarity is not possible. He is preaching what is beyond our words. He has reached the limits of language. This is where language breaks down. The mystery defeats our words. Herbert McCabe wrote: ‘Our language does not encompass but simply strains towards the mystery that we encounter in Christ… The theologian uses a word by stretching it to breaking point, and it is precisely as it breaks that the communication, if any, is achieved.’5

This is essentially a poetic task, which is why the greatest preachers have always been poets. Poets live at the limits of what we can say, on the frontiers of language. The poet reaches out for a fullness of meaning and communion that is beyond literal statement. Seamus Heaney, the greatest living poet of the English language, says that poetry offers ‘a glimpsed alternative’,6 beyond the contradictions of experience.

This is another reason for the crisis of preaching today. The poetic imagination is marginal within our dominant scientific culture. This tends towards a deadening literalism. In most traditional societies poetry, myth, song and music were central to the culture. In our society these have often been reduced to entertainment. The hunger for the transcendent is still there in the human heart. As St Augustine said, the heart is restless until it rests in God. But in our society it is harder for the preacher to evoke that ultimate human destiny which transcends our words. Few preachers are poets. But if the preaching of the word is to flourish, then we need poets and artists, singers and musicians who keep alive that intuition of our ultimate destiny. The Church needs these singers of the transcendent to nurture its life and preaching.

I asked many people what was the most powerful sermon of the twentieth century, and a surprising number immediately claimed that it was Martin Luther King’s famous speech, ‘I had a dream’. It was more than a political manifesto; it evoked an eschatological vision of universal peace, of ‘that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”’ It was not a sermon but it empowered thousands of sermons. Whose words open up the transcendent for us? Especially after 11 September, in a world in danger of coming apart, we need poets, singers of the transcendent. We need artists who can bring us to the edge of what can be said. Their words can feed and enliven all our preaching.

There is a crisis of preaching. This is not just because what is said from the lectern at the Eucharist is often so boring. It is more profound than that. We need to renew the whole language with which we speak of our faith, whether in church or out of it.

I have suggested that the dynamic of the Last Supper offers us the basic model for a powerful word. If our preaching is to be powerful, then it must embody the rhythm of that event. I suggested that there were three moments in its dynamism: Jesus reaches out to the disciples in their puzzlement, he gathers them into community and he points beyond this present moment to the fullness of the Kingdom. There is a rhythm to these three moments, like the tempo of breathing. We reach out to the people, gather them in and then reach out to the Kingdom, like lungs that are emptied, filled and then emptied again. Humanity’s history is like breathing. The vital moments of our history are always moments of humanity’s lungs. God breathes into the lungs of Adam at the beginning, then Christ breathes out his last breath at the climax of salvation, and then the Holy Spirit is breathed upon us at Pentecost. Our preaching will be sacramental, efficacious if it reflects the rhythm and measure of humanity’s breathing, gathering in and expelling out, giving us life, and oxygen for our blood.

These three moments need to be present in our proclamation. It is not necessary that each of these three be present every time we talk about our faith. But each of these three moments needs to find a place in the total preaching of the gospel by the Church.

That first moment, of reaching out to people in their doubt and questioning, poses a more radical challenge than at any other time in the history of Western Christianity since the conversion of Constantine. The language of our contemporaries and the language of the Church have become separated, distant from each other. There is a sort of mutual incomprehension. And this is a split that runs through each of us, because we are both Christians and modern men and women. We must expose ourselves to these doubts and questions. We must let them overthrow a too-easy mastery of the truth. We dare to be perplexed and to beg to God for illumination. The preaching begins in silence.

In that second moment, we suggested that Jesus gathered into communion by telling the truth. But here we face a different sort of challenge, which comes not only from society but also from the Church. We are too frightened of telling things as they are. There is a climate of fear that hinders a truthful word, in which all men and women can find a home.

Finally, Jesus reaches out to the Kingdom, to the unimaginable vastness of our final home, in which all will be one. And here we face a third challenge. Speaking of the Kingdom pushes us beyond what can be said literally. It pushes us into poetry, metaphor, and allusion. Here we have a challenge that derives more from our society. The scientific literalism of today often does not understand the poetic. We need artists to help us speak of what is beyond our grasp.

We need the help of the whole community if we are to face these three challenges: we must give each other the courage to be attentive to the doubts and incomprehensions which are inherent in the meeting of modernity with the gospel. We need artists and poets if we are to preach a word that points beyond the present to the fullness of the Kingdom.

Finally, this dramatic event of the Last Supper moves us from the silence of incomprehension to the silence of the mystery, from an empty silence to a plenary silence. We go from the silence of the disciples who understand nothing, to the silence of those who cannot find words for what they have glimpsed. The preacher lives within that space, begging for words. It is the gift of God’s grace, what the early Dominicans called the gift of preaching, gratia praedicationis, that propels us from that silence of poverty to that silence that is full.

1. Augustine Thompson, Revival Preachers and Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press,1992).
2. Mary Catherine Hilkert, Naming Grace: preaching and the sacramental imagination (New York: Continuum, 1997).
3. Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (New York: Farrar, 1995), p.175.
4. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1993), p.113.
5. Herbert McCabe, God Matters (London: G. Chapman, 1987), p.177.
6. Heaney, Redress of Poetry, p.4.

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