Preaching Tips

“We are sorry for the loss of your friend, and his courageous battle against cancer; but it is not interesting.”

I heard these words from a Pulitzer Prize winning poet at the University of Iowa a few years ago. It did not sound pastoral at the time. I have changed my mind. I think he is right. Our losses are not interesting. Even the loss of Jesus, the Son of God, our Lord and Savior, is not interesting. It is boring.

The problem with human beings is that we cannot capture enormity. Language fails us every time. We will invariably slip into the muck of sentiment, cliché, or worse, religious prose. We will overreach, attempting to explain myster y, thereby killing the myster y, as well as the hearers. A rhetorical double homicide.

What to do?

Show us the morphine drip. Show us your friend’s arm, and how it changes color day after day. Show us the doctor’s face turning crimson when he chokes out the word dead. Do not tell us about enormity. Point to it, but do not look at it full in the face. To do so is to kill us with boredom.

Few mean to bore anyone with sacred events; but most of us are guilty of manslaughter with the blunt instrument of prose. Some are serial killers, murdering ever y stor y in the scriptures, along with our hearers, some who pay good money to be haunted. We can see it on their faces: “We are sorr y about your Messiah, but you bore us to death.”

When we get around to talking about the smell of vinegar in the air, then we might be on to something. When we begin to love the words of the Centurion, who never shed a tear in his life, beholding Pee Wee Herman on the cross, undone by this sorry carcass which is Christ, then, maybe, we shall have nightmares. When we begin talking about what a naked, circumcised, twitching Messiah looks like, then we might be led into some holy place full of fire, spit, and wild.

Will the clergy take us by their manicured hands, and lead us near enormity? I do not know if we have what it takes. We are sorry for a dead friend, truly. But it is not interesting; it does not make us shudder; it does not make us howl, like one dragged out of some great and lovely garden; howl like an inconsolable god who is trashing his heaven, hurling invective, damning himself for being so stupid, so gracious.

Take us to these places, nearby enormity, and we will bless you for it. Only leave the holy alone, before someone dies of boredom, though we surely are sorry.

Thom Fiet is pastor of the Reformed Dutch Church of Hyde Park in upstate New York.