Why preaching matters
The Christian sermon and the Christian preacher thus stand in a great tradition, and preaching takes place in synagogues, Christian assembles, churches, and monasteries, as well as in other spaces. Saint Paul wrote his letters with the expectation that they would be read in public, and in his instruction for worship in those communities to which he wrote, he provided for the public exposition and proclamation of the faith thorough what we would now recognize as the sermon.
Harvard was founded by Christians accustomed to preaching and to hearing the primacy of the word in worship, and one of the gifts of the Protestant Reformation — of which Harvard’s foundation was a seventeenth century institutional expression — was the recovery of the centrality of the sermon in worship. Emmanuel College, from which so many of the Puritan founders of New England came, was founded in 1584 at the University of Cambridge, England, as a house for the training of preachers, and there is a story told of Dr. Laurence Chaderton, one of the College’s early masters. It seems that on one Sunday morning, when Dr. Chaderton had expended nearly three hours in his sermon and paused as if to concluded, his hearers remonstrated with vigorous cries of, “Preach on, sir! Preach on!” Not for them the aphorism attributed to the twentieth century English rabbi, Lionel Blue, who wrote, “It seems to me easier to give sermons that to sit through them.”
Out of this long context comes the sermon in the Memorial Church. Although I do not generally preach for three hours, I do take very seriously the tradition of Christian preaching, and its practice within the worship of the University’s church. While I haven’t the title, “Preacher to the University,” that was accorded to most of my predecessors, I regard the function that that titles implies as my own, and I have resisted every effort to be styled otherwise. Why? Because I regard preaching as the distinctive characteristic of my office, and I believe that the University still stands in need of someone who takes that function seriously.
In a congregation such as ours, where many people come from many traditions of from no tradition at all, there cannot be assumed — as in former days — even the minimum level of a common theological or biblical literacy. Many who worship with us are seekers, that is, pilgrims who come seeking to find what they can in the teachings of the Bible and the Christian faith. Others, rooted in a variety of Christian traditions, come to have their faith and themselves strengthened and challenged; others are refugees from various orthodoxies; and others still are those who look for those durable meanings and values that transcend the conceits and indulgences of a rampantly secular and materialistic culture. Thus I am happily supplies with large congregations of informed, critical, and thoughtful listeners who, together with me, take the sermon seriously. Visitors to our pulpit, both from the United States and abroad, invariably comment to me on the fact that ours is a “listening” congregation; and by this observation they do not mean that our people are simply passive receivers of the words of others, but that rather they sense that true listening, which is always potent engagement with what is heard, is what happens here on a routine basis. This does not mean that people in the Memorial Church always agree with what is heard, for dissent is, after all, the birthright of Protestant listeners. Even proper dissent, however, requires engagement, and a preacher cannot be far from his duty when he manages to annoy some of the people some of the time.
These sermons invariably “take a text,” as the old-school preachers were wont to say, and I continue that tradition as my own, doing so because I can assume on the part of my listeners neither a wholesale familiarity with the biblical text, nor even a elemental understanding of the theological context. Further, I realize that for most of the people to whom I preach the sermons is perhaps the only formal religious instruction they will experience in the course of a week. Thus the sermon, as I see it, is always an exercise in connecting the dots between the biblical witness, the Christian faith, and the demands of contemporary experience. I may not always succeed in this exercise, but the ambition is always before me, and every Sunday gives me an opportunity to try again. Our mothers tell us, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again;” this is as true for preaching as it is for living.
In this year following the events of September 11th, 2001, I have frequently been asked if the horrors of that day changed my plan of preaching for the year, it being widely known that I plan all my Sunday sermons during the summer months. While there is some risk in my answer, my answer has been and still is, “No,” for I have always acted upon the sure conviction that preaching is designed to help us to cope with a dangerous and seductive world, and that the greatest dangers to genuine faith come in times of apparent prosperity, ease, and security. The Hebrew prophet Amos warned, “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria…” (Amos 6:1, KJV); in the Apocrypha we are enjoined to “Make not haste in time of calamity…” (Ecclesiasticus 2:2); and in John’s gospel, Jesus famously says, “In the world ye shall have tribulation…” (John 16:33, KJV). Preaching in a time of trouble is more often that not the context of effective preaching, and in the weeks and months following September 11th, this church, like nearly every other house of worship and prayer in America, was filled with frightened and hopeful people looking for a word of encouragement. It is for times such as these that preaching is intended. In these sermons I have tried to rise to the occasion, devoutly believing that all of us, preacher and listener alike, have been strengthened by the challenge of the living of these days.
Peter J. Gomes, Growing Up and other sermons preached at Harvard, 2001-2002 (Cambridge, Mass. : The Memorial Church, 2002), 7-9.