“We in the church have been baptized into the mystery of Christ; and so long as we attend to God, with every heartbeat we are drawn more deeply into a mystery that infinitely exceeds our understanding and power of expression, a mystery of mercy that goes beyond even our wildest hopes and imaginings. So no explanations in the church; rather, let us speak softly and with wonder, as befits a holy place.”
Our people are – what to call them? – flatlanders, prosaic, mushed down people who only know cause and effect, political ideologies, loudness, clutter, busy-ness, and all the while our faith happens and is about something quiet, expansive, beyond imagining, something grasped only in the silence, in the dark, a little baffled. To walk people into mystery, the preacher must ink this in at the top of every sermon.
How to preach the mystery that our Gospel is? Mystery doesn’t mean it’s incomprehensible, or not rooted in fact. It’s higher, deeper, more enveloping than the very real facts we know, with what’s comprehensible as the launching point.
I think people need to see in the preacher a sense of awe in the face of mystery. So too much explaining, too much rational argument, too many earthy illustrations can ruin the mystery. When I was in Div School, we had a talent show every year – with a segment where students would walk on stage and imitate a professor, and the crowd would guess who it was. My friend Pat walked out, starting talking rationally about the Trinity, then removed his glasses, began to stammer, then put his hand over his eyes as if exasperated, searching for elusive words. It was Tom Langford, who taught theology this way – pitch perfect.
I long to see more stammering, more scrunched up facesand reaching for impossible words in sermon delivery. When I teach preaching, I invite students to read Michael Erard’s wonderful Um: Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean. He explores how, indeed, some talkers fumble around unintentionally and say Uh or Um too much. But an Um, with a pause, has fabulous functions. It implies humility: you don’t have this thing all figured out. It gives the listener space to fill in what you’re stumbling to say – so they are involved. “The scariest thing about dying is… Um…” and a listener pokes his or her fear into your talk, now fully engaged. Winston Churchill prepared his speeches with marginal notes of when to pause, when to fumble for a word, when to scrunch up his face and say Um.
Just being quiet, not talking so fast. The Holy Spirit can fill the pregnant pauses. Or asking questions: every sermon should have questions that are left unanswered. Let it linger. Why was Elijah burnt out on Mt. Horeb? How did Mary feel when she heard Jesus’ first cry? What made Judas betray? Just leave it out there. What will heaven be like? Mystery.
And finally, be careful to distinguish what’s proper to a classroom and what’s fitting in a sermon. An explication of the Trinity, or a meander through the origins of apocalyptic language, or the course of Jeremiah’s career. Offer a class! And in the sermon, supply a few hints you know such things and could lead such a class; you’ve read, reflected, and know – but for now we’re embracing and even falling into mystery. No explanations in the church!