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Reflections on Preaching (1993)
compiled by Bob Young


Note: The seed thought for this article and some of this material was suggested by and edited from an ICS Sermon Seminar presentation by Lanny Henninger.

Between Scylla and Charybdis

It is an honor to talk to preachers. There is something special about preaching. What is it? I mean, preaching. There are all kinds of answers. The dictionary says preaching is to deliver a sermon. But you and I know that it is more.

A sister in Christ speaks to a young man after a Wednesday night service. The young man has offered the invitation. "You are a good talker, have you thought about preaching?"

But there is more to it, more to this matter of preaching. One author called it the divine agony. Those who stumble through a week with a Sunday appointment know that. Preaching is more agony than divine. I remember one raucous deacon: I wish I had a job like yours; you only work one day a week.

Preaching. There are many definitions, many understandings. I like the description of Frederick Buechner, in his little book, Wishful Thinking, I have been enriched by this book.

Anyone who preaches a sermon without knowing he is going straight between Scylla and Charibdis ought to get into a safer line of work like lying eggs. Between Italy and Sicily, in the strait of Mecina, there is a rock. In mythology, Scylla was a goddess who became a sea monster, and her name is associated with a rock in the strait. Closer to Sicily is Charybdis. In mythology, Charybdis was the daughter of Poseidon, here is a whirlpool, her name has been given to that whirlpool.

To sail toward Scylla and Charybdis is to chart a course between two very unhappy alternatives. One cannot escape one without running the risk of falling victim to the other. Scylla and Charybdis, between the rock and the whirlpool, and in this way, Buechner describes preaching (the whole enterprise) as sailing between Scylla and Charybdis. Preaching always involves two perilous alternatives.

Preaching is always like sailing between unlikely alternatives. I am not describing minor inconveniences. This is not mere criticism, complaints, etc. The preacher may fester over such. A member says, It would be better if we left, went elsewhere. We worry about that. Or we get our name in a publication because of a real or imagined heresy. The word spreads. They do not spell our name correctly, they get the facts wrong. They throw mud. The preacher can conclude that all think poorly of him. Or worse yet--no one writes anything about you at all. The preacher is the transparent person. Others look right through us. When we speak of Scylla and Charybdis, we are not speaking of any of these.

To preach is to live between the idea that success is principly in numbers and public acclaim, and to follow the Way, Jesus Christ, who against accumululated knowledge and wisdom, demands faithfulness to other unlikely symbols--basin, towel, cross.

Damien was a leper priest of last century, who identified with the poor wretches who became his church on Molokai. He identified so completely and so radically, that when fell victim to disease, he began sermon, "we lepers." The whole church knew something of his commitment to them. We sinners.

There as a program on TV, a play with a single character. The program was a tribute to his life. According to the play, years after death, he was still remembered, they exhumed grave in Hawaii to take his body home to the European continent, to give him a proper ecclesiastical burial. He had long been an embarrassment, making noise about these poor people. Then after his death, he attains a notoriety, so the church thought they should bury him properly, much against his will. Much of life is reminiscent of his experence. At the end of the play, he is back home in Europe, in a cathedral, still struggling with the same old problem, me! He comes to altar, in front of a huge cross with lights behind it, he prostrates himself, he falls on his face, he stretches himself out, "Was I a worthy priest?" Here is passion, emotion. It is a question in our saner moments all will ask.

Preaching is a course between this and that, between Scylla and Charybdis. We do what we do, we do what we are called to do. To preach is to live between Scylla and Charybdis--between the wisdom we accumulate and which we may pride ourselves on, and the truth before whom all human knowledge is as child's play, as nothing.

Soren Kierkegaard tells a story on himself. He went to a party, according to his account, he was the life and soul of the party. He had grace, humor, wit, he was an absolute delight to others. It seemed all others were waiting for the next words from his lips. He was sociable. He could be charming. He remembers, "I went home, I wanted to shoot myself." Is there any sickness quite as sick as the sickness when we are sick of self, sick of what we think we are.

To preach is to live between the demands of the institutional church (which can make us paranoid) insisting on its existence at all costs, and the life of interchanging loyalties, commitments of 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there. God will have nothing less from us than undiluted faithfulness.

Poor old Peter, he stands in the shadow of the cross, he cannot see, he is making promises he cannot keep, yet he says, I will not fall, I will not fail. Others deny, not me. In the distance, the rooster crows, the promises are transparent, poor old Peter. Poor old us. Poor old you. Poor old me. We are trying to make it in a world in which we have forgotten where our loyalty really is. This is no place for fainthearted. No place for the one who will cut corners, no place for the one who wants to climb the ladder always higher. Such is not possible. Preaching is not instant respectability. It is not worth it. We are setting a course between Scylla and Charybdis, in preaching, we will be there all of our days, between the rock and the hard place, between the rock and the whirlpool. These are the disagreeable alternatives we cannot escape. Therefore, preaching is no place for the timid, lazy, uncommitted, weak.

In his book, Heralds of God, James Stewart writes a section on the minister's spiritual life, the inner life. He quotes Bishop Quayle, "Preachng is the art of making a sermon and delivering it, no, preaching is the art of making a man and delivering him. It is no trouble to preach, it is a vast trouble to make a preacher." So it is. So it is.


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Last updated Jiune 1, 2010