“SK” on Christianity
If you were not here last Sunday I must explain that the “SK” in the sermon title stands for Soren Kierkegaard, that disturbing religious thinker from 19th century Denmark whom I invited into the pulpit last week as a kind of invisible presence during the season of Lent. Unfortunate in his physical appearance, Kierkegaard was teased so cruelly as a child that he found escape in reading everything he could get his hands on, and later produced his own world of eccentric literature designed to wake up the society and church of his time. I shall refer to him usually as “SK” to avoid having to say his full name over and over, but I mean no disrespect.
When I called him “disturbing” in my opening sentence, I had in mind his way of exposing pretense — especially in religion. All around him in his 19th century Denmark he saw people whose Christian faith seemed not much deeper than their skin. They had, after all, been born with both. In those days his countrymen automatically became members of the church on the very day they entered the world. The first birth slap on their bare bottoms was also a kind of baptism, so that everyone was instantly a Lutheran Christian, and the effect of that “inherited faith” was not unlike the effect of inherited wealth, where the recipient often lacks any sense of the value of what is received. SK, looking around, saw most people wearing the label “Christian” with so little curiosity about what it meant that few of them even bothered to go to church.
It occurred to him as he abserved the widespread religious apathy among his countrymen that appetite has to come before insight, that without hunger one is not much interested in being fed. Before I took early retirement from Wichita State the English Department was offering some “general studies” courses for students who didn’t care for literature but had to take a few hours of it in order to graduate. Talk about lack of appetite! I had to work every gimmick I knew to get them to look at a novel, a short story, a poem with even a passing curiosity. That class gave me an idea of how an exotic dancer might feel if she were doing her very best and only two people were bothering to watch.
Our friend SK saw in the Denmark of his day a similar lack of interest in church life. Automatic membership by birth and a few years in Sunday School had exposed them to the church’s rituals and its basic story, but with no real choice in the matter most of them put churchgoing in the same category with taxes: you did what society demanded but not with any excitement or hope of a pleasant surprise now and then. We have no state church in America, thank God, but for all practical purposes many of us belong to certain churches by an accident of birth and not by a process of search and discovery. Preachers in those churches are trained to indoctrinate members in a particular set of ceremonies and interpretations, so that after a while — if you go regularly — there comes over Sunday mornings what one scholar calls “the dead air of dull familiarity.”
I realized by the time I was a teenager in my own “birthright church” that there were not going to be any surprises in sermons. Some of the ministers would try to whip up a little excitement by making their sermon titles into questions, as if there might be an answer different from the one we had already heard a hundred times. So Brother Wilson’s misleading sermon title would ask: “What is the correct name for the church?” but we all knew in advance what it was, and that if he were to come to a different conclusion from our church tradition we’d have to fire him. And when Brother Thompson’s sermon title asked: “Is it right in the eyes of God to use a piano in worship?” not a single heart beat faster at the thought that maybe he would say Yes, it’s all right and then be put on trial for heresy. We called on various elders and deacons to lead public prayer in worship, but they all said the same phrases they had heard all their lives and I used to relieve teenage boredom by whispering each phrase just a second ahead of them.
But you understand, of course, that in a dogmatic church — a church that is all answers and no questions — people like hearing the same things over and over because there is great comfort in the predictable. And it was this whole business that absolutely fascinated Kierkegaard. He watched people listen to sermons about life-changing ideas as if they were yawning their way through a child’s piano recital: nodding off now and then but snapping back just in time to say, “Nice performance!” I know for a fact that Jesus of Nazareth had some of SK’s same feelings, because people in his day were up to their ears in scripture, rabbis, scribes, and priests — and it had gotten to be a great big yawn for many of them. You went to synagogue, heard your rabbi quote his favorite rabbi, who had quoted his favorite rabbi — and you took a little nap.
So Jesus deliberately set out to arouse curiosity by using rhetorical devices like the parables, which turn common sense upside down and all but force you to ask, “What in God’s name is this man trying to say to us?” Add to that his breaking of sacred tradition, like healing on the Sabbath day, or daring to talk in public with a Samaritan woman, and you get the picture. He preached to tired ears, dulled by endless repetition and with no expectation of anything new and he realized that appetite had to come first, or he could feed no one — which is the point of his fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” As Simone Weil put it once, “The danger is not that the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but that….. it should persuade itself [it’s] not hungry.” Those who are never hungry are never really filled. And in religion, the paradox is that those who never feel empty are always empty — because it is the nature of God’s grace that it can only fill empty space.
This explains why some people who went to church with their parents while they had to, then left home and quit church entirely, sometimes come back to it when they are suddenly hungry for something more in their lives. Before that, SK would tell you, Sunday sermons for them were like somebody’s reading from a cookbook to a person with no appetite. When he visited churches in his native Denmark, he kept hearing sermons that were no more than predigested moral lessons that talked down to people in wornout cliches instead of challenging them to grapple with new ideas and new approaches. In his vivid way he said that instead of honoring the puzzling complexity which is God, preachers would try to make that mystery as obvious as a large green bird with a red beak whistling from a tree planted on a nearby mound — all made easy for people who had no real curiosity in the first place.
Then he would tell one of his odd little parables to show how those who do feel an emptiness find ways of being fed. In a certain village the school bell rang at 8:30 to call the children to class. The boys and girls left their homes and toys reluctantly, creeping like snails into the school — not late, but never a moment early. When the bell rang at 3:30 that afternoon, they rushed off before the sound died. This is how it was with every child — except one. She came early to help the teacher prepare the room and lay out materials for the day. She stayed late to help the teacher clean the blackboard, dust the erasers, and put away supplies. And during the day she sat close to the teacher, all eyes and ears for the lessons being taught. One day when noise and inattention were worse than usual the teacher called the class to order. Pointing to the little girl in the front row, she said, “Why can’t the rest of you be like her? She comes early to help, she stays late to help, and all day long she is attentive and courteous.”
One boy spoke up from the back of the room. He said, “It isn’t fair to ask us to be as she is.” “The teacher said, “Why?” “Because she has an advantage,” the boy answered. “I don’t understand,” the puzzled teacher said. “What is her advantage?” And just above a whisper he said, “She’s an orphan.” He had caught on to why there was such a difference between her and the rest of the class. She desperately wanted love and approval. She was hungry. Having her around in class must have been for that teacher the way having Martin Eby sitting in that second pew is for me on a Sunday morning — so eager to find nourishment that his whole face is a study in expectancy! He may nod approval or frown a little in disagreement, but he has an appetite and like so many others of you he brings a plate — and he knows that being fed requires some skill on the cook’s part and some cooperation on his. Quite unlike a man Kierkegaard remembers who said, “Tell me about eternity…..while I shave.”
One more theme from SK before we bid him farewell for the morning. It’s true enough that he scoffed at worshippers with no appetite, but he was equally scornful of preachers whose words are not inhabited — by which he meant those impersonal sermons that could just as well have been delivered by a talking computer. I won’t read you again my all-time favorite passage about preaching, in which Emerson says the effective preacher has to pass the truth of the gospel through his or her own life, sharing personal experiences that illuminate a parable or a line from the Sermon on the Mount. And doing it in ways that are appealing, whether the message is sad or joyful, tender or stern. I remember Brother Thompson [we called one another “Brother” and “Sister” in my childhood church], I remember Brother Thompson who would talk about joy with a face that could curdle milk, and who would quote Scriptures about love and compassion with a face as grim as if he’d just been told his house was on fire — a face like that of the scowling grandmother just behind me in the grocery store last week who gave her little grandson a rough shake and said in a voice like fingernails on a chalkboard, “Why don’t you come over to my house more often to have some fun?”
It isn’t enough just to transmit the verbal message of Christ. Those of us who preach have to inhabit that message — as real persons, not pipelines dressed in a robe. This is not to say we should preach about ourselves, but that we must put ourselves into our preaching, that we must first struggle to interpret the meaning of the Christian life by trying to live it, and then share the insights of that living. Asked to say a prayer in a hospital room we do not begin to recite generic words from Page 5 of the Prayerbook: “Almighty God, grant that this servant of thine may in thy infinite wisdom respond to the skill of those who treat him.” We say, “Lord, look with tender love upon my friend Bill, with whom I have shared so many happy times on the lake. Comfort his wife Ellie and his son Jack, who so much want him to be well.” In other words, we are real people talking real language instead of reciting a programmed prayer written by somebody, somewhere as an all-purpose petition for the sick.
I mentioned earlier in this sermon how the public prayers in my childhood church were so often done by rote that I could say the words under my breath a nano-second before some elder or deacon spoke them out loud. The further truth is that some years later I published an article on those steretypical prayers in which I would start one of the familiar expressions we used over and over, and then leave a blank to be filled in. I tested it on quite a number of people from that particular church background, and invariably they could complete the sentence. There are, in fact, three or four people in this room who grew up in that same church and could fill in those blanks. For example, we never said simply, “Lead us in the way we should go.” We said, “Guide, guard and direct us, and lead us to that upper and better kingdom.” And we never asked God in the simplest possible language to grant mercy to those who were ill. We said, “Bless the sick and afflicted and restore them to their much-wanted health.” Nothing especially wrong with those rhetorical flourishes…..it was just that we said them exactly that same way over and over until they lost their punch because we were imitating what others had said instead of being our own genuine selves. I can still remember one Sunday morning when a man who never led public prayer was called on to do so, and in sincere, halting words spoke so simply of what he wanted from God that I thought to myself, “At last! A real prayer!”
Our invisible pulpit guest this morning, Soren Kierkegaard, insisted that ministers have to be real people, not programmed robots saying inoffensive and comforting words Sunday after Sunday. He could not bear the completely self-assured and doubt-free preacher whose very confidence and optimism kept people at a distance and widened the gap between pulpit and pew. A later teacher of preaching would call it “speaking smoothly of God.” Another one, Charles Rice of Drew Theological Seminary, says, “There is a way of preaching which suggests that faith cancels out forever all pains and doubts, and purges from the human condition the sense of abandonment and of loneliness Preaching of this kind …. is ultimately alienating.” And then Dr. Rice quotes from his own preaching professor who told him once: “People hearing sermons ought to be saying — or at least feeling at some inarticulate level — ‘That preacher knows what it is like to be me.’”
And finally, Kierkegaard always came back over and over to something Christ repeatedly told his disciples: that talking religion and living it are not the same, that the best sermons have been preached in an office, at a dinner table, on a playing field. He would have liked the story of a preacher who was being shown through a great mill one day. “I suppose,” the preacher said, “that John Atkins, who is one of the members of my church, is one of your best weavers.” “No, he isn’t. The trouble with John is that he stands around talking about his religion when he ought to be attending to his loom. He is a good enough fellow, and has the makings in him of a fine weaver, but he has not yet learned that when he is in his weaving shed, his religion ought to come out of his fingers and not out of his mouth.”
There’s no way to tell you better than that how to send this week.
Remind us, gracious Lord, that we are in your service every day,
so that we may put our whole hearts into whatever you have
given us to do. Amen.