As age creeps up on me, I now require two pairs of glasses, one for reading and one for distance. I know I ought to invest in bifocals; but I am putting off that experiment, so as not to exacerbate my propensity to trip over my own feet. Instead, I try to juggle the two pairs, and generally cannot find either.
It means that when I preach, I can either see the congregation in full clarity but not my notes, or vice versa. I usually aim to see what I have written, which means that I only perceive the listeners in vague outline, and trust that they are listening. There is a certain aptness to the dilemma for there are two elements to a sermon, what is said and what is heard, and it would be foolish to presume they are the same thing.
Most homilies are quickly forgotten. But people do remember certain sermons long after the preacher has lost all recollection, and it is a fascinating experience to hear them quoted back, months later. The remembered idea has taken on a separate life and been modified by a wholly different context of prayer and reflection.
An elderly priest, when I was a curate, put it more sharply, ‘Always expect your words to be misunderstood.’ Preach, in other words, as though what you say will not be straightforwardly received and accepted by the listeners; and do not suppose this has anything to do with ignorance, for it will be the same for you when you sit and listen.
The liberal enterprise makes sense when one studies it carefully, which is why so much of it is presented in book form; reasonable, honest, comprehensive, sophisticated, the argument is compelling. But preaching is another matter, when all these wonderful ideas float free in an ocean of chaos. Only orthodoxy can be preached, not because it will be understood fully every time, but because we (preacher and congregation) can always return to that sure centre.
It is a matter of trust. If we can be sure that we are not going to be set adrift, we are able to listen to any number of difficult and challenging ideas. We can be open to the word, because we trust it is about the Word.