Saturday, January 19, 2013

Some Thoughts on Orthodox Preaching

It's Saturday afternoon, and I'm sitting in a posh Karen coffee shop overlooking a busy road and fields and forest beyond, and I'm thinking about preaching.  Orthodox preaching.

St. Paul and St. Barnabas preaching in Crete

I've been asked to preach this Sunday (tomorrow).  This will be my fifth time to preach as an Orthodox Christian.  In our services we have, as part of the Liturgy, a reading from the Epistles and a reading from the Gospels.  The sermon is usually taken from the Gospel reading (at least in my brief experience here).  However this week I feel led to focus on the meat of what St. Paul is saying in his 2nd letter to the Christians in Corinth, 4:6-15.  I plan on talking about hope, and how a rightly understood Christian understanding of the resurrection transforms the way we live.  I've got my manuscript open in another window.  It desperately needs to lose several hundred words.  But my mind is chewing on the broader question of preaching.

Sts. Anagyroi (Sts. Cosmas and Damian) Cathedral in Nairobi

Almost all preaching in many of the churches around here (and they are mostly some version of Protestant or Pentecostal) is evangelistic in nature, replete with a long, some might say manipulative, and did I say long (?) so-called 'altar call' at the end.  In fact, in many Pentecostal churches the whole purpose of preaching is to promote and facilitate an 'experience' of the 'Spirit', which, in the services I have attended, the preachers manage to attain this goal on a regular basis.

But in the Orthodox Churches I am aware of, 'evangelism' is not something anybody does on Sunday mornings.  The purpose of gathering is to worship, and we worship liturgically.  Moreover, I don't recall anyone ever accusing the Orthodox of trying to facilitate some kind of spiritual experience when they gather for worship.  Worship and the Liturgy are not about me or us, they are instead all about God the Holy Trinity.  The Liturgy is our 'work' or 'service' for the Lord, and we don't engage in worship because of what we will get out of it.

So if Orthodox preaching is not for evangelism, and if it is not to make everybody feel good or to wind our people up into some sort of pliable ecstasy, then what role does it play?

Fr. Maximus Urbanowicz preaching to an African congregation

Preaching in Orthodox Churches is first of all part of the Liturgy, which means preaching is a liturgical act.  Historically, preaching occurs just after the reading of the Gospel passage.  It marks the climax of the first half of the Liturgy, where we remember that God the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Immediately after the sermon, the Liturgy takes us through the measured preparation to receive the Lord as His body broken and blood shed for us in the Lord's Supper.  (Sometimes the sermon is preached at the point in the Liturgy after the consecration when the body and blood are being prepared for the people.  Sometimes the sermon is preached after the Liturgy is finished.  Sometimes there is no sermon at all.  But the normative way historically seems to be midway through the Liturgy after the readings.)

St. John Chrysostom, one of Orthodoxy's Great Preachers

As preachers, we, like the Apostle Peter, stand between Christ and His people.  Jesus' words to Peter could be spoken to us as well - 'Do you love me?  Feed my lambs!'  We are indeed about to be fed in a tangible way in the mystery of the Eucharist.  But preaching has the potential at least to be more direct, more compelling, more personal - God using the written Word and His very human preacher to apply the Scriptures to our situation and need.  Long years of my own preaching experience in Protestant contexts have reinforced what many of us suspected in spite of our homiletics classes and how-to books written by 'successful' preachers, that there is no formula for 'success'.  In fact my own experiences and my observations of others questions the whole notion of what 'success' might be for a preacher.  I've got notebooks full of more than 450 sermons, many of which are well prepared and which were well-received by congregations of serious Christians.  Does that make me 'successful'?  Never mind the fact that, modern recording technology to the contrary, once a word is spoken, it's gone.  It was prepared for particular intersections between Bible and the lives of particular individuals at a particular place and a particular time.  There is an opportunity for hearing, and then an opportunity for responding.  And then that's it.  Life moves on.  And like a display case of old sea shells outlining the lives they once contained, my notebooks of old sermons only hint at what divine work might have actually been going on in the moment they were preached.


The sermon is the first moment in our service where the conversation of the Liturgy shifts.  No longer are we addressing the Trinity, along with all the saints and angels.  But now the Trinity makes use of the weakness, the folly of preaching to address each one of us.  So we are fed by a deeper understanding of the Holy Trinity and what the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are up to in our world and our lives.  And we are engaged in conversation, in relationship by the Living Lord himself as He speaks through the human words of Scripture and preacher.

In my earlier life as a Presbyterian preacher, I had plenty of time to 'help' God speak by making sure I had a clever introduction, then carefully explaining the meaning of the Scriptures whilst maintaining the flagging attention of my hearers with wan attempts at humor, and then coming to the application part where I would strive to make all the spiritual assertions practical by bringing home what the passage was about for us here and now.  All of this would take about 30-40 minutes.  I got to be pretty good at it.

However, now I've been told I have 10 minutes to make my case/deliver my message/preach my sermon. The shock to my Presbyterian system has been considerable.  But it has reminded me that preaching is not about showing off what I know, or how verbally clever I am.  It's not about putting my knowledge of the Scriptures on display for everyone to admire, or maintaining my reputation for being a keen expositor of Scriptures.  These people need to be fed and they need feeding now, and fast.  Moreover, and more humbling, I become increasingly aware that God is not dependent upon me and my experience and expertise to get his Word across.

The young Charles Spurgeon
I remember the story of how as a 15 year old teenager Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) was caught in a January snowstorm on his way to a different church.  When he could go no further, he ducked into a Primitive Methodist chapel.  Spurgeon says, 'In that chapel there might be a dozen or fifteen people.  The minister did not come that morning, snowed up, I suppose.  A poor man, a shoemaker, a tailor, or something of that sort, went up in the pulpit to preach.  He was obliged to stick with the text, for the simple reason he had nothing else to say.  The text was, 'Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth." He dod not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter.'  Spurgeon goes on to relate that as the poor preacher stumbled along, it became abundantly clear that God was addressing him.  And when the laypreacher ended his message, Spurgeon relates that 'he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist can, "Young man, look to Jesus Christ."  There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that moment and sung with the most enthusiastic of them of the Precious Blood of Christ."'

And it was this event that Spurgeon would always look back upon as his conversion.  God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick, and chooses to do so on a regular basis.

Each person who will come to the cathedral tomorrow is a unique person, part of a unique tangle of relationships, coming out of complex and mind-boggling circumstances, each with his or her own joys and pain, each with his or her own issues and needs.  And I, the preacher, come similarly complicated, similarly burdened, similarly wounded.  Making the bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord is wonder enough, but that God can speak his word from one such as I to some such as them is an astonishing miracle.  And though God has put 'hope' on my heart (and I in turn have put 'hope' in my manuscript), it would be just like God for someone to hear 'grace for you' or 'love for you' or 'provision for you' from the Lord instead.  I suppose the Lord retains the right to be sovereign, despite our best intentions.

When I finish tomorrow, rather than it be the end of the service the way it was in my earlier churches, we will go straight into the 'Cherubic Hymn' during which the priest and altar boys will process throughout the Church carrying the bread and the wine, echoing Jesus' own journey to Jerusalem where he offered himself on the cross for our salvation.  That bread and wine will be consecrated and, in the Lord's hands, become something else, become Himself for us.  I suppose that this is what this preacher, at least, can hope, that he might take the common bread and wine of my mean efforts, my poor words, and by the power of His Spirit make them something that will actually feed his people with His Word, with Himself.  Because if I have learned anything at all these past few years, we don't need more bread and wine.  We need Jesus.

Christ of Sinai