By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 3/16/12 and 5/04/13 in The Madera Tribune
When a catechism teacher supposedly asked her class why they should be quiet in church, a child replied, “Because people are sleeping.”
Many, young and old alike, may agree with the late comedian George Burns when he said, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, and to have the two as close together as possible.”
A joke tells of a boy whose eyes wandered during an especially long homily preached at Sunday Mass. Noticing the red sanctuary lamp by the tabernacle, he tugged his father’s sleeve and asked, “Daddy, when that light turns green can we go?”
Confusing an altar lamp with a traffic light isn’t really a far-fetched mistake. I sometimes notice a few fellow worshipers mistaking the distribution of the Eucharistic bread as a signal to race to the parking lot and start their engines. Precious indeed must be the minutes they squeeze free.
It hasn’t always been so, and indeed isn’t necessarily so now.
In ancient times, the apostle Paul captivated the thinkers of Athens when he spoke of God while on the Areopagus (Rock of Ares), a hill northwest of the Acropolis (Acts 17). The greatest minds of the day listened intently… at first. But all too soon they sneered and cut Paul off. I imagine they then rushed to their donkeys so they could avoid the inevitable gridlock when the crowd dispersed.
Perhaps that wasn’t the best example.
Centuries later, the great archbishop John of Constantinople (A.D. 346-407) would be nicknamed Chrysostom (golden-mouthed) after his death. When he spoke in church, he frequently had to beg people to be quiet. It wasn’t that they were disrespectful — quite the opposite. In his day, preachers were greeted with applause, and polished texts of homilies were in demand. As today, ministers who moved hearts could become celebrities.
John wasn’t typical for his time however.
Though the public preferred complicated sermons with extravagant language and style, John spoke very simply.
He preached in the newly built basilica Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), which would be the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years. But despite the size of his congregation he would often interrupt his homilies to ask questions of those present to make sure they understood.
He didn’t strive to flatter those in power though ministering in the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. He repeatedly dared to denounce corruption. His reward, naturally, was being banished twice by the government. He appealed to the bishop of Rome, but the delegates sent by Pope Innocent were not only barred from Constantinople — they were imprisoned. After they refused a bribe, they were sent on a ship whose captain had been ordered to wreck it.
Needless to say, John died far from his devoted flock.
Hmm… again that may have been a poor example of the honor shown to those who speak of God.
In the Middle Ages, people were so interested in good sermons that preachers normally traveled by night so that devotees wouldn’t prevent their departure.
In that era, homilies were deeply entwined with scripture, so much so that it appeared that many preachers knew much of the Bible by heart. The sermons were more mystical than academic, adapted to the poor and uneducated. Each were tightly focused on expressing a single idea, and were full of examples from nature and daily life.
For those in the pew, such talks were verbal time machines carrying them to days long past.
This age of mystics in the pulpit perished by the time of the Renaissance. One historian, Rev. Pierre Batiffol, writes that a famous Renaissance orator preaching in Rome on Good Friday concentrated on praising “the self-devotion of (Roman emperor) Decius and the sacrifice of Iphigenia (of Greek mythology).”
Ultimately the church as a whole rebelled against such misguided shepherds — in more ways than one. The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic response, led by the bishops at the Council of Trent, later helped renew the precious art of homiletics.
Clearly sermons have had their rise and fall many times in the past two millennia. We Christians tend to become devoted or hostile to our better preachers, persecute and venerate our best ones, and lampoon, endure, or ignore the rest.
In his Rule, Francis of Assisi told his friars not to preach without proper permission from the local bishop. But he added words we too should follow: “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”