The Seven Worst Sermons

NOT that there may not be seventy, or even the full scriptural measure of seventy times seven, offenses against homiletical propriety. But the number seven has always possessed for religious circles a certain solemn connotation wanting among the numerals of more secular nature.

As one surveys the field of pulpit oratory for illustrations of sermonic incompetence, he will perceive that if his subject is to be handled with any high order of justice, he must dispossess himself of the personal equation. Among the fifty-two sermons he was privileged to hear last year, there may have been forty-nine which he disliked, which bored him or failed to produce a fluttering of conscience, but these of themselves are not sufficient reasons for bestowing upon any of the forty-nine the sinister distinction we have in mind. They may have been stupid sermons, badly written, abominably delivered sermons, uninteresting, unedifying, uninspiring, un-anything which a sermon may be, and perhaps generally is; but they were just meagre, or commonplace, or tiresome sermons, no more nor less, certainly not of an order of demerit to rank among the seven. For to have won the distinction of badness in a supreme degree, a discourse, like a person, must have violated one of the fundamental laws of goodness, and have clashed somehow with the eternal verities.

But who should say that your dear dominie’s sermon last Sunday erred upon so tremendous a scale. It simply, poor thing, was not tremendous in any way. Like so many other well-meaning performances, it just failed, that was all. And in pointing out the mortal sins among the venial offenses of the pulpit, one may hope to bring about a clearance of prejudice relating to the preacher, and to make, in behalf of his difficult art, for more tolerant restraint in the lavish use of superlatives. For last Sunday when, after service, you carelessly made those disparaging remarks about the sermon, you were guilty doubtless of a damaging slander. Dear Christian, unless you have studied the matter with an open mind, you do not know how bad a sermon can be.

You may recall the occasion on the Riviera, or in any of the play-grounds of Europe, when you worshiped of a Sunday morning in the little English Chapel. On inquiring after service, of your English neighbor at the pension, who the Rev. Mr. So-and-so was who preached that morning, you learned that he had come down from London on account of his throat. He could not stand the London fog. You may have suspected at the time that there were subsidiary reasons not mentioned by his compatriot for his being here, or rather for his not being there. And yet, in recalling the discourse, if you are possessed of any fine spiritual discernment, you would not elevate the sermon to a place among the seven. You remember it began: ‘It behooves us, dear friends, on this blessed feast of St. Agatha, to remind ourselves,’ - and that was almost the last, of it you heard. Now just because so gentle a beginning was the last you heard, the sermon is disqualified for a place among the seven, for the worst sermons are by no means those which leave the listener mentally unencumbered and free to browse in pastures of his choosing.

We must at once admit that dull sermons are not, necessarily, unedifying. The very pause in the liturgy has a symbolic value. I have sometimes wondered why a vesper service, plus even a very lean discourse, seemed to possess spiritual completeness which was wanting in the service with Glorias ornately distended to cover the gap left by the omitted homily. Among the higher uses of church-going, as Mr. Bernard Shaw has caustically hinted, is to be let alone. That is why he found the empty church so edifying. And yet, had he thought more consequently upon the matter, he must have perceived that certain sermons inspire the same spacious sense of detachment as the empty church. Herein lies the sacred merit of the man whose cure of souls, because he had an unsuccessful throat, was the little English Chapel on the Riviera. There was nothing in his discourse peevishly irritating or impudently meddlesome. His voice melted somehow into the melody of the scene like the occasional brass in the orchestra, just obtrusive enough to emphasize the soft cushiony quality of the whole. And while the preacher was neatly tabulating through his strained bronchial organ the sound doctrine and godly admonition to be derived from the life of the dear Saint whose birthday we happened in upon that morning, we could snuggle down in some shady corner of our souls, or be set adrift upon pleasant excursions of our own, yet all the while dimly conscious that our course was determined by that hidden propeller and provocative of piety, the lean preacher with the throat talking on about St. Agatha.

The merit of this whole class of sermons is subconscious. The preacher does not arrogantly abuse his advantage by keeping the nose of his congregation down to the grindstone of rapt attention, nor by hurling his listeners at once into the stimulating zone of expectancy, but he modestly lays his sermon-stuff from firstly to lastly just below the threshold of consciousness — to be carried over later, if we care to do so, among other valuable experiences in our subconscious treasury of wisdom.

In the First Book of Homilies as set forth by Queen Elizabeth, one runs across the title, ‘A Sermon, how Dangerous a Thing it is to Fall from God, in Two Parts.’ Those were the good old days when the higher clergy had the courage to be uninteresting for the glory of God, and when they chose their texts with no ulterior motive of intellectual display, — a type of self-effacement growing increasingly rare in these stereopticon days when the listener upon every public occasion is expected to sit in the garish light of active attention. Perhaps this explains the deep-seated prejudice among the elect against pulpit oratory of any sort, as savoring a bit of spiritual gaucherie. But there are sermons which do not possess the saving merit of dullness, and will not let us sleep or browse in spiritual pastures of our choosing. They bristle with little irritating goads of ‘ peppery convictions,’ innocent enough in themselves, did the preacher not arrogate solely to himself the merit of possessing any convictions at all. He seems in a perpetual state of spiritual irritability and grief over his neighbors’ sins and short-comings, and we are compelled to attend while our favorite indulgence or folly is paraded before the footlights of public disapproval. Without the prophet’s vocation, he insists upon speaking in the prophet’s shrill key upon most innocent occasions.

It is not his knowing that sin is wrong which annoys us, nor is it that our neighbors, in the next pew, know that sin unabashed stalks in their midst. But what keeps us in the wakefulness of resistance is the thought of the preacher’s not knowing that we do not care who knows that we all innocently commit these faults, and shall go on doing so to our dying day. One may recall such a discourse, perhaps, upon the folly of the love of money. The preacher agreed with St. Paul that it is the root of all human calamity. But what gave the strident note to the preaching was his failure to perceive, poor man, that he was dealing with an honorable controversy of ancient standing, the blot on our human ’scutcheon, the serpent’s trail of self-preservation, smearing him alike with the rest of us. If he would send us to our knees, the preacher must enter this ancient feud of mammon and the spirit in the sympathetic mood of the great apostle: ’The flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.’ As it was, we stood erect in defiant protest, unabashed, and glorying in our shame. Therein lies the irritating quality of most sermons over-charged with personal conviction. The preacher pitches his voice as it were to carry across some spiritual chasm. And yet when out of the pulpit he is human enough, relaxing with genial indulgence of our frailties. He will partake of our dinner and drink our tea upon a perfect spiritual equality, apparently blinking the fact of there being any moral hiatus between the pulpit and the pew.

What sends this type of sermon down beneath the strata of the commonplace and bad, into the very pit of the seven worst, is the preacher’s lack of sympathetic imagination. We miss in him the mellowing influence of a hardy discipline. Just here is the nice distinction between him and the man with the throat too sensitive for the London fog, who was sent to the Riviera for our blessed vacation uses. The latter had been starved and beaten and snubbed into a certain engaging humility of mind, while his brother of the more oratorical temperament had been battening upon prosperity. To capitalize man’s frailties for oratorical purposes is to take unfair advantage. And yet the seven worst, and most of the seventy bad sermons have been excluded from the good society of mediocrity and good taste by the indulgent appreciation of some section of the pews.

Then there are the sermons which Christopher Vance, had he heard them, would have called ‘ poll-parroting ’ — sheer feats of verbal pyrotechnics, religion screaming for articulation, words without precision, synonyms knee-deep, explosive gusts of adjectives, vehement adoration of the good, the true, and the beautiful, — a stupendous performance that leaves the preacher limp with self-appreciation, — all the innocent commitment by a talent which our demand for a fluent pulpit has created.

But a more reserved order of egotism than this sermonic violence, and yet one to be reckoned among the homiletical sins, is intellectual self-indulgence in its various forms: a quite modern offense by the way, which came in about the time the Bible was asked to present its credentials, and religion was timorously awaiting the verdict of its accusers. Cleverness, despite the handicap of being tied down to biblical matter, has many ingenious ways of revealing its presence in the pulpit without condescending to be helpful. There is the jaunty treatment of texts,—a way of coquetting with one’s subject, withholding sometimes the spiritual intent of the sermon, its plain garden moral, until the end, when the truth splashes in upon the congregation on a wave of sparkling epigrams. And yet this frolicsome way of preaching has taken a by no means humble rank in the honor roll of contemporary pulpit achievement. There is many a preacher, who, to alter slightly Roger Ascham’s pregnant remark, labors with uncontented care to preach better than he can.

A word about platitudes. Not to shun them is a mark of spiritual insight and humility distinguishing the greater masters, but rare among the clergy just emerging from deacon’s orders. We parsons can ill afford to assume any lordly, patronizing airs over these well-accredited messengers of truth. The pulpit may have its own dignity to maintain in the matter, but a platitude humbly administered is a perfectly reputable means of grace for the congregation. What probably has brought platitudes into ill repute is the clergy’s lack of self-effacement in employing them, — the air of having been the first to discover their genuine worth. For if the preacher is going to be a bumptious oracle, it were better to be clever and original on his own hook, and not to subject these venerable church dignitaries to his baser uses. A truth which has sermonic worth probably has become a platitude by the time the twentieth century comes to feel the need of it. And the inestimable benefit of having had a spacious experience is that one is vouchsafed the privilege of discovering for himself the fine gold of cosmic wisdom in these dear old pass-words of grace.

We never get on a footing of real acquaintanceship with a moral platitude until we have been duly introduced by some bitter experience. Thereafter a man is inclined to speak respectfully of any member of this old homiletical family. Polonius used his platitudes with the swaggering air of one patting a friend on the back, which leads us to suspect that he was not really on the footing of intimacy. The sad, reverent tone in which Wolsey sermonizes to Cromwell indicates that, after years of training in politics and religion, the astute old Cardinal has at last been admitted into the charmed circle of the venerable platitude concerning ambition. The Ten Commandments are the most threadbare of platitudes, but just break one of the more precious ones if you wish to discover what it is all about. I am convinced that the clergy make a great mistake if they try to carry on their business without the aid of this sound spiritual capital.

The offense which writes certain sermons down among the seven homiletical sins must be laid at the door of that insidious little imp of egoism which sits like a gargoyle poised on the pulpit for the discomfiture of the preacher’s soul. A magic word of exorcism for this imp is recorded in sacred writ. One of the world’s preachers whom we are accustomed to reverence is recorded to have said, ‘We are fools for Christ’s sake.’ St. Paul’s preaching may have been criticised among the Greeks for its childish simplicity, but we have it on high authority that it is more meritorious for the preacher to become a fool for his Master’s sake than to be in perpetual fear lest he be thought one. Yet many a man has attained considerable reputation as a preacher through his laborious efforts to avoid this estimable sign of discipleship which St. Paul commends to our attention. Most of us must enter maimed if we enter at. all into the Kingdom of God, and the pride of intellect is the least disfiguring excision we can make. Egoism, I fear, is the matrix from which emerge most of the deadly sins of preaching. Was that preacher who must be counted among the world’s masters of his art lamenting the intellectual limitations of the pulpit, or its temptations to selfdisplay, when he exclaimed, ‘Oh, the ignominy of the popular preacher!’ Scylla and Charybdis were smooth sailing compared with the uncharted course of us poor preachers whose gracious privilege it is to speak the mind of God to men.

Then there is a certain type of preachment of horrible gnostic lineage, especially deserving of obloquy, — I mean the sermons which seem to esteem it a merit in ancient seers like the Apostles, or even in the Christ, to have enjoyed certain spiritual insight and convictions which are commonplace possessions in our glorious age. They tell us that ‘ St. Paul was wise enough to know,’ and ‘Jesus discovered,’ or ‘ was practical enough to see,’ and that, ‘besides being this, He was something else,’ etc.; nice psychological blanket-descriptions of the whole mind of God.

That angel of the world, doth make distinction
Of place ’twixt high and low, —

but it is the last of the graces to flower with experience in either the layman’s or the clergyman’s soul. It goes deeper into reality than the superficial spiritual proprieties which may be taught in the seminaries along with Pearson on the Creed.

It is a delicate business, this speaking for God and committing the Son of Man to our hypotheses. For the life of me I cannot, from my shallow experience, imagine just what a Lincoln must have felt in any of the supreme moments of his career, nor explore the heart of any of the great souls ‘wrestling with the crises of their fate’; and I marvel at the daring which presumes to follow Jesus into the Wilderness, and does not shudder at entering the Garden of Gethsemane.

But doubtless some of us are impatient to get in a word about those mediating sermons which have undertaken the weighty business of reconciling science with religion. Great is the company of them, and certainly they merit a place among the seven. Not a bit of it. They are among quite the most harmless of pidpit efforts. Whose faith was ever permanently impaired by hearing the preacher attempt the beneficent task of making Mr. Darwin and the authors of the First Book of Moses lie down together like the lion and the lamb? This whole class of sermons are a chivalrous refusal on the part of the faithful to let smart folk and upstart materialists have the last word. It is the business of religion, while guarding the fringe of mystery, to keep an open universe, and to disparage any hasty and premature unifications.

The ancient and heroic way of reconciling science with religion was by burning the scientists. The mediating sermon had not yet been invented. We are beginning to have a sneaking suspicion that Galileo’s sufferings have been over-capitalized among Protestant controversialists, and that he may have merited some of the chastisement which he received. I am entirely persuaded that he was altogether right about the earth, but the contemporary Pope was perhaps in a better position to know whether he was altogether right in matters of religion. If Galileo had stuck to science, he might have done what he chose with the planets. It was that dialogue involving the Pope which did the business.

It is an hereditary passion with men of science to take out their vacations in snubbing their ecclesiastical brethren. If only science and religion would not let their boundaries overlap, and would be content with publishing the mere facts without drawing invidious conclusions, there would never be the least friction. Spencer might have had the handsomest bust in the Abbey for all that good Christians would object,and Galileo might have been saved the embarrassment of recanting. But it is quite likely that the latter, having made the startling discovery that the earth moved, thought he saw it moving straight away from God; and, instead of keeping the horrible suspicion to himself, rushed into print. If his neighbors and dear old maiden aunts chose the old-fashioned view of things, they must have found him very trying to live with. The scientific mind takes a deal of carnal satisfaction in knocking the Christians’ conceited earth off its pedestal in the centre of importance, and in reducing it to the ranks of a mere by-product in the cosmic process. Galileo must have rubbed his hands at times in unholy glee at creating a bit of furore among the old fogies. We have not had to live with Galileo, so he has had our militant sympathy, but we have lived in a generation when Huxleys and Spencers have been changing the intellectual climate. Who of us has not felt his fingers tingling now and then to collect a few fagots for a burning?

What has won me over to the persecutors of Galileo is the fact that they were so tremendously in the right about the really serious truth in the whole controversy, — the spiritual geography of man’s precious earth. They did not propose to let the credulous peasants and hard-working folk of the world go down to do business in the great waters of life with the damaging heresy in their hearts that man is not the centre of God’s providential care. Nothing sterilizes romance, chivalry, and the arts like such a heresy. Gravitation is a trivial matter in comparison.

It is the solemn responsibility of the Church to see that the status quo of the faith regarding man’s importance in the cosmic scheme be undisturbed. Here is the crux of the immortal controversy between science and religion. It is like the question of the balance of power in Europe. There is no innate reason in the structure of things why Herzegovina should not have her own flag and a set of national holidays, if she chooses to have them. But the peace of Europe is vastly more essential than the aspirations of Herzegovina. Now, Galileo and his spiritual descendants have been stubbornly averse to seeing that there is just such a nice adjustment of spiritual values, which churchmen at all hazards must preserve or it is all over with religion. Morals, faith, and church attendance, must be recognized as well as cold scientific facts. Facts would never get science into any trouble with the Church. It is the interpretation of the thing that the fuss is all about. So there you have the breedingground for the host of sermons on science and religion, and I see no harm in letting them go on to the end of the chapter, — but having, understand me, merely a symbolic value. It is the preacher’s way of saying, ‘We beg to be allowed, in the absence of more convincing testimony, to differ from you and go on with our creed and Ten Commandments. ’

But in touching the matter of science and religion we are perilously near one of the seven deadly sermonic sins. There is the sermon which we heard last Easter perhaps, and which we thought tremendously clever. The preacher —of the sort who keeps thoroughly abreast of the times — had just been reading that romantic narrative of Mr. Duncan’s, The New Knowledge, and he sat down to write his sermon with his brain seething with the revelation that the molecule which, under the old order, had seemed reliable enough, was in reality composed of a million million or so other things whirling through antra vast of atomic worlds, and doing spectacular feats. What a marvel! And God did it! That is what struck the fire of enthusiasm and stimulated the imagination of the preacher, — that God could do all that! A veritable scientific exoneration of the prosaic deity, who had seemed hitherto exclusively devoted to ecclesiastical matters. Ergo, what an holiday performance for One capable of such atomic wonders, to build somewhere on the place a heaven in answer to our desires!

Now the deadly offense in this seemingly innocent type of sermon is the homiletical perverseness displayed in the choice of material. We were all pretty well persuaded, long since, of God’s inventiveness and ability. I am not sure that atomic revelations and radium have added to His reputation for resourcefulness. We had already seen the landscape, and had heard the song of birds in our hedges in spring, and children’s laughter, and felt the tragedy of life along with God’s love nearer than hands and feet. We are ever hungry to know more of this matter if the preacher only will stick to the marvelous tale. Here are undisputed property-rights of the preacher, and it were a crime against his art not to have found sermon-stuff in the delicate texture of this daily experience.

I am more and more persuaded that the preacher had better stick to his last. The signal fault with intellectualism in the pulpit, and indeed with intellectualism in religion at all, is that it is an offense against one of nature’s primal laws, — a clog in the machinery of spiritual evolution. For variety has always been the indispensable element in the economy of revelation. It is only through the versatility of human experience and of intuitions, — windows of every size thrown open to the four corners of the heavens, —that God contrives to let his revelation come full circle.

The only reason for the preacher’s encumbering the earth at all is that there is somewhat to tell which God desires told concerning religion; and if we shall prostitute our lofty office to the performance of pale intellectual feats and other trivial indulgences, revelation becomes by so much the leaner. It were as sad a discomfiture of the evolutionary processes for the preacher to turn man of the world, or pedant, as for the artist to become moralist or prophet. The lavish symbols of sacrifice bequeathed us by the saints have amply justified the narrowing vocation of holiness.

One of the deadly sins in this business of the preacher is to have missed the implement and the raw material for the practice of his art. Quite as vast as the habitat which science holds is the yet uncharted land of our rich human nature. Here, by divine appointment, is the preacher’s workshop. Like his brother artists, he must be responsive to a thousand kinds of human contact, for every seemingly simple moral situation issues into many ‘radiating corridors’ of life. His completed book of sermons becomes a veritable Comédie Humaine, with a diviner right than Balzac’s of knowing and of loving the creatures with whom it is given him to deal.

So the stunning height of the endeavor ordains that there shall be few great preachers in the centuries, fewer masters than any other art can show. We recall that Stevenson, in writing on the profession of letters, says, ’If you propose to enter on the field of controversy, you should first have thought upon the question under all conditions, in health as well as in sickness, in sorrow as well as in joy.’ Certainly that is true of preaching. Few men under thirty-five are permitted to understand what Jesus meant by the first and second Beatitudes. God may touch the strings in the soul of Keats at twentyfive, and let him sing as he beholds

Upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance;

but the preacher must forge his implement from a more laggard experience.

The pulpit voices which have soared have earned the privilege by a personal knowledge of the skeleton in the closet of civilization, — a discernment not always born of ‘ the laying on of hands.’ I should prefer to hear Lady Macbeth, after the fourth act, on the Sixth Commandment, and Mrs. Alving on the Ninth than, well, your esteemed rector perhaps. Poor Tess could have preached a series of Lenten sermons upon texts of her choosing, which might have blown some cosy moral systems to atoms, and have cleared the ground for New Testament convictions to sprout. One wishes that Jean Valjean had taken to preaching. He is the only man I know whose opinion I care to hear upon certain parts of the New Testament. But deep spiritual insight may come too late to permit the taking of orders. What lavish waste, in the suicide of Judas, of what might have been saving experience! That crisis of despair, under proper treatment, were fertile soil for many a saying of his Master lost upon serener discipleship.

One has heard men preach on the goodness of God as though life were a frolicsome feast with an over-indulgent God as host. But sometimes we have heard of the matter from those who have groped ‘thro’ darkness up to God’ — and that was preaching.

Not that there is not an important function for the spiritual imagination in homiletics as in other arts. Experience is not the sole medium by which one may come to perceive spiritual values. ‘Mere goodness’ is not the preacher’s greatest asset. So it were well to give restrained appreciation to our pulpit orators, and not to expect from them more than a tepid Christianity after the curtain falls upon the benediction.

The analogy to the actor’s art is closer than the pulpit cares to own, and the artistic temperament draws richly upon stores of vicarious virtue. But to be a likely medium for the revelation of spiritual truth one must have had other than a soft, bourgeois, level existence. The tragic in life is not likely to be perceived in a spiritually reclining posture. And if the hazards of fortune bring the preacher a smooth and prosperous sailing, he should wear his prosperity with humble restraint, as one having suffered an irremediable loss. He carries a handicap, as the poet or the tragedian who has never been in love. It perhaps matters little whether an alarm has awakened us from a lethargy of goodness or of badness, so long as we stand staring wide-eyed into the abyss of life.

The austerities of John Baptist as an aid to the understanding heart were a good asset in his preaching, and are by no means to-day the fond anachronism that our ‘healthy-minded’ twentieth-century congregations suppose. Such asceticism comes to the business of Gospel exegesis with a fund of telling illustrations upon the essential fibre of the religion of Jesus. The supplementing note which civilization craves is one born of prayer and fasting, — which explains the inevitableness of the tonsure and rope, or of some modern Protestant ascetic equivalent. The sleek Prince Albert and white tie are a pale substitute for these austere symbols, and they require much fortifying in the way of eloquence to attain the rich suggestiveness of the monastic vows.

After all, Savonarola grasping the crucifix and hurling his message of other-worldliness with eyes radiantly fixed upon a transcendent order, satisfies the spiritual imagination as to how the Gospel should be preached.

The classic age of preaching is yet to come, when some great artist-preacher, as none has ever yet been, shall discover in his implement a ‘ new dimension of art. ’ There are signs that our century may see his appearing, as psychology slowly out lines in dim penciling what the future holds for us. Humanity had never placed such high stakes upon civilization as in the dreams of our age of science; but she is again discovering within her dark corridors the same old pathetic family skeletons of the race. So far, in answer to those high hopes, we have only a gnawing hunger. Alas! Civilization does not save. Here is matter for the pith of giant souls, of which we shall soon hear more in literature as well as in the pulpit. Thus far those who have caught the subtler overtones of experience have for the most part chosen the humbler rôle of silence or the medium of other arts, leaving the pulpit to our more boisterous spirits.

The cardinal offense of bad preaching is an affair, not of the head, but of the heart. The purpose of the sermon, like the Puritan poet’s great endeavor, is to justify t he ways of God to man and to reconcile us to fate. But too often the medium which the preacher offers is opaque, and God does not get a chance to save the congregation. We preachers, alone, have our innings. And yet nature has a way of healing through the liturgy the wounds we make. For when all is said, even in the ‘leading pulpits’ there are few discourses after which the benediction fails to effect the ‘restored presence of God’ among the congregation.