Religion: Go Ye and Relax?

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As Professor of Homiletics at Yale's Divinity School, the Rev. Halford E. Luccock, 68, has spent the last 25 years teaching his theological students how to preach with wisdom and, if possible, with wit. Since 1948, writing under the name of Simeon Stylites in the Christian Century, he has given his readers a weekly column of pungently good-humored religious and moral criticism. His slogan: "I believe in comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable."

Last week Professor Luccock, retiring from Yale at the end of the term, gave a series of lectures at the divinity school's annual convocation about an old bugaboo of his—comfortable preaching. Said he:

"We might construct a little museum of sermonic models that were much used, but are now obsolete and ought to be retired . . . [One is the] Rocking Horse Sermon . . . which moves but does not go on, always charging but never advancing. Then there is what might fairly be called the Mockingbird Sermon . . . all the notes of someone else, either stolen or just imitated . . .

"The sentimentalist used to achieve a sermon fortunately quite obsolete now, but still heard. It was a Confectioner's Sermon, like a wedding cake, a great, airy structure with candy chateaux, gardens of angelica, true lovers' knots of sugar, and hearts of purest whipped cream . . .

"Far more frequently heard is the procession of words deserving to be named the Jericho Sermon. Some preachers . . . seem to have implicit faith that if they march around the outside of a subject seven times, making a loud noise, the walls will fall down. They rarely do."

Preacher Luccock warned against packaging the Christian message as a "sort of glorified aspirin tablet."

"Some preachers have discovered a new verb which seems to have superseded the old ones [such as] agonize . . . follow . . . sacrifice. It is the lovely verb relax." In their restatements, the old biblical admonishments might go: "If any man will come after me, let him relax." Or: "Go ye into all the world and keep down your blood pressure."

Halford Luccock's advice and conclusion: "We have a moral obligation to be interesting, for our gospel is loaded with life-and-death interest for people . . .

"The aim of preaching is not the elucidation of a subject, but the transformation of a person . . . Our task is ... the sharing of intense faith and experience."