Thursday, August 18, 2016

Preaching to yourself

I have been reading through Origen's Homilies on Genesis lately, and I have been very impressed with him. In many ways, we are kindred spirits; our styles and outlooks are very similar. His sermon is typically heavily moralist, the focus of which is always moral and hortatory: the homily functions as a call for Christians to take more seriously the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14), as Paul refers to it. This is generally my own style, as well.

This sort of preaching is morally demanding, however, and it can make preaching in general not to be a particularly appealing activity. The reason why is obvious: the preacher finds himself deeply challenged and convicted by the very same words he is relating to others. I remember a homiletics class I took at Fuller, in which some preachers and pastors from local churches were invited to speak with the class and answer questions one night. I posed the following provocative question: how can you preach, knowing that you do not fulfill the same things you tell your audience? The response from the preachers was that their own sermons are not moralistic or hortatory in that sense. (I now think I should have asked this follow-up question: given that your sermon is not typically hortatory or moralist, what is the average moral and spiritual condition or state of the typical member of your church?) I can't relate with that, however.

Consider this passage from a homily on Genesis in which Origen allegorically interprets the difference between Pharaoh's priests and the priests of the Lord:
Do you wish to know the difference between the priests of God and the priests of Pharaoh? Pharaoh gives earth to his priests; the Lord, however, does not give earth to his priests, but he tells them: I am your portion [cf. Num 18:20]. Observe, those of you who know these things, all the priests of the Lord, and see what is the difference between the priests: those whose portion is in earth and dedicate their time to cultivating the earth and to earthly pastimes -- don't they seem sooner to be the priests of Pharaoh than of the Lord? For Pharaoh wants his priests to own land and to work the fields and not to cultivate their souls, to be worried about furrows and not about the Law. Let us hear rather what Christ, our Lord, commands his priests: So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions [Luke 14:33].
I am starting to tremble saying these things. For, before all, I, even I am my own accuser. I utter my own condemnation. Christ denies as being his disciple the one who saw that he owns something and does not renounce all his possessions. What are we to do? How do we read these things, how do we explain them to the people, we who not only have not renounced our own possessions, but we wish even to possess those which we did not have prior to coming to Christ? Can we hide them, can we fail to show the things which have been written, so long as our conscience testifies to our falsehood? I don't want to make myself guilty of a double crime. I testify, and I testify before the whole crowd which listens to me: these have been written, even if I am aware that I haven't fulfilled them until now (Hom. in Gen. XVI, §5).
Origen realizes that the scriptural text he has cited demands something of him that he has not fulfilled. But he considers it more important to speak what has been written, than to keep quiet and to commit the double crime. What is the double crime, except this -- to fail to speak the truth to a people living in sin, himself included, and those to ensure that they will not change their ways? Not only do you realize your own weakness and sinfulness, but through your silence, you make sure that others will remain in their sins too. That is the double crime, and it is a crime to be avoided at any cost.

Sometimes you have to preach that message which condemns you as much as anyone else. I find that just about every message is like this. But if we don't hear the condemning word, if we are not told that things are not alright with us, it will not do us any good to go on living in our ignorance of the truth and in sin. Christ came to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37), and this truth is oftentimes against us at least in part. We don't do ourselves favors by running away from it or avoiding it. Certainly none of the apostles left us this example, since they regularly offer exhortations and denunciations of the darkness in their readers and listeners.

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