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Clear-Sighted Preaching

This post continues a series of essays on preaching from the perspective of lay people. Previous entries may be found here.

By Sarah Cornwell

I have worn glasses since I was 4 years old. Suffice it to say that I was well acquainted with the optometrist, sitting in that chair that looks like the captain’s seat of some starship, my little feet swinging free, trying to memorize the letters on the chart in the vain hope that I could fool the doctor into thinking I didn’t actually need corrective eyewear. It never worked.

As much as I never liked wearing glasses as a child (what child does?) I did like the part of the eye exam when a mechanical arm swings over with a phoropter attached, through which I would look at the blurry fifth line of letters as the optometrist cycled through different lenses attempting to pinpoint my prescription. I loved the question “is ‘a’ better?,” as one lens slid into place, “or is ‘b’ better?,” as a different lens replaced the first. The differences were often remarkably subtle, and while I could often see the letters through a variety of lenses, I had to pick the one that would provide me with the clearest possible picture of the world around me.

As readers of the Bible, particularly in the often highly-educated Episcopal Church, we have a variety of lenses from which to choose when it comes to reading a text. In recent years, lenses have proliferated: historical, feminist postmodern, postmodern feminist, queer, narrative, etc. Some of these have more merit than others, some may very well have no merit whatsoever. Discussion of these lenses and their merits belongs in classes outside the liturgy. The only lens that belongs in the pulpit is the illuminating truth of the Gospel: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

Now wait a minute, don’t all priests preach the gospel?

If only.

I don’t believe many priests ascend the pulpit intending to preach heresy (including the ones I’ve heard preach heresy). I believe most priests intend to preach the Word and minister to their congregation. However, sometimes the prescription for their metaphorical glasses is way off, with the result that their lenses greatly distort the words in front of them, leading to distorted sermons. I have heard priests explain that Jesus would have been happy for the priest’s parents’ divorce; or that Jesus was cranky when he called the Canaanite woman a dog and needed to be corrected by her; or that we don’t know if the resurrection actually happened (this one is a favorite parishioner face-palm moment as it was preached the week after Easter.)

Using the wrong lens has serious ill-effects.

So what lens should a priest use? Just as we have all have different eyes, we all need different lenses. So my recommendation — my plea — is for a priest to use whatever lens (or lenses) is needed so that the phrase “Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again,” can be seen with absolute clarity both by the priest and the parishioners.

We all need different prescriptions, but we are all reading the same text (the fuzzy fifth line on the wall). Some lenses will bring that line into sharper focus, and some priests have found the right prescription from among the various options rotating through the academy, the seminary, and our wider society. Through their lenses, they can read “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” and it is so clear to them that they can say it without a hint of a question in their voices.

Some priests, however, have chosen lenses that make the words appear fuzzy and uncertain to them at best (at worst, they read words that aren’t even there). And if the priest can’t see clearly, their parishioners can’t see clearly because, after all, a priest’s sermon becomes my lens, which will either help me see my Lord or distort his image.

In some sermons, however, the only person I am left seeing much more clearly is the priest — the conflicted pain of past experiences and the ambivalence of her own faith projecting out from the pulpit, a position of authority within the Church. Through a bad lens choice, parishioners become the collective therapist for a priest, and Jesus is just a blur in the background. It’s awkward to say the least.

What does it mean, then, to see and then preach, “Christ has died.” I once heard a preacher describe how his grandma used to sing “At the Foot of the Cross” like she was really there. That would be my recommendation to any priest tasked with getting up into that pulpit and bringing people to Jesus: Preach it like you were there. Not a hilltop away, not two millennia away, but right there with the Mother of our Lord and John at the foot of the cross. Like you saw our Lord give up the ghost, and you need for us to see it too.

When you preach “Christ is Risen,” preach it like you are there with Mary at the empty tomb and before you is the risen Christ. Preach it like you need us to see it too

When you preach “Christ will come again,” preach it like your eyes have seen the glory of the coming of our Lord, and you need for us to see it too. No wishy washy hedging your bets behind a lens of academic obfuscation. No pretty niceties. You need to be able to see it and so do we.

But isn’t this all a bit too much? Won’t parishioners be put off by such emphatic and dogmatic preaching? Would it not be better to peddle our creed at a more lighthearted come-as-you-are, stay-as-you-are speed, looking at the cross, empty tomb, and dawning of the second coming through fashionable shades that dim the brightness of revelation, but keep us all looking oh-so-cool?  Hell no.

One interpretation of the data on church decline is that committed, “come every Sunday” attendance has remained relatively constant. Those who are leaving the church are those whose commitments are fuzzy and lukewarm, who would perhaps attend once or twice a month but without any regularity. As Cole Hartin notes, these are people who likely identify as Christian, but don’t actually make it a priority to come to church.

If these lost sheep do not have a robust faith and have no interest in having 20/20 vision of Jesus through the Eucharist, shouldn’t the preaching be at a much more accessible level for those who do not take this stuff too seriously?  As a Church, it is true that we have a responsibility to lost souls and Jesus tells a parable of leaving the flock to recover a sheep that has gone astray.

However, there must be a flock for the lost to return to. Flocks of sheep bond with one another and together, they help protect each other. Priests must preach to the flock that’s there, then go out into the community all week and search for the lost frightened sheep who, separated from the flock, experience stress and anxiety, and bring them back into the fold of committed believers where weekly Sunday attendance is treated as normal and occasional attendance is seen as abnormal.

Without clear-eyed preaching that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again, we have no group identity binding us together as a flock. When a priest continues to chase after wayward sheep through fuzzy preaching, he risks having the rest of us — bereft of our sense of true calling to the cross, empty tomb, and hope of the second coming — scatter. Not necessarily leaving the Church entirely, but joining another flock, perhaps at another church, or perhaps even within another denomination.

Just as many of us have an annual eye exam to check our prescriptions, it would behoove our clergy to also check-in on the lenses they currently use to ensure that their prescription is working well and that they can see the cross, empty tomb, and new dawn clearly, as clearly as if they were there. If your lenses are no longer working, if Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again has grown too fuzzy as to be unreadable, or worse, the words have started to look like something else, it is time for a new set of lenses.

Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman, ballet teacher, and mother of five. She lives with her husband in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.


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