The use of sermon illustrations has never been without controversy. Dante complained about the use of stories, especially invented ones, and especially about the use of humor:
Christ did not to his first disciples say,
'Go forth, and to the world preach idle tales,'
But unto them a true foundation gave ...
Now men go forth with jests and drolleries
To preach, and if but well the people laugh,
The hood [i.e., monk's cowl] puffs out, and nothing more is asked.
(Paradiso, 29, Longfellow trans.)
Now, we admit with some embarrassment that our own preaching is no stranger to the illustrative or even ice-breaking joke. And we just love stories. But still, we are growing cautious in our old age, and here's why.
At its worst, the medieval practice of illustrating sermons with pious stories led to the excesses of the Golden Legend and a related body of conventional stories about souls escaped from Purgatory -- essentially, moralizing fables and ghost stories, which the faithful were more-or-less expected to take as literal truth. Few modern preachers would be bold enough to foist such stuff on a post-Enlightenment congregation. The sparrow who drank Thomas a Becket's blood and learned to speak does not even work as a fable today, because it is simply too bizarre. (Although it is awfully memorable!)
But stories we will have, and so there are a great many which make the rounds, sometimes repeated verbatim and sometimes embellished according to the needs of the occasion. Setting aside the clearly jocular ("A priest was out golfing one day ..."), these stories are usually presented as historical fact, either from the preacher's own experience or of the "you can look it up" variety.
The problem is that they often are not true. More than one preacher has inserted himself (or herself) into a touching deathbed scene. Far more than one preacher has repeated as true an historical anecdote which cannot be verified. And many, many more preachers have been careless with the facts, adding to a skeleton of truth some clothes which do not really fit. A secondary problem is that the Internet makes it easy to fact-check and compare versions.
Here's a f'rinstance. Seeking inspiration the other day, we read a few Easter sermons online; if nothing else, we like to see what the competition is up to. Among others, we found this in a sermon published online by a well-known preacher whom we won't name:
In the early part of World War II, a Navy submarine was stuck on the bottom of the harbor in New York City. It seemed that all was lost. There was no electricity and the oxygen was quickly running out. In one last attempt to rescue the sailors from the steel coffin, the U.S. Navy sent a ship equipped with Navy divers to the spot on the surface, directly above the wounded submarine. A Navy diver went over the side of the ship to the dangerous depths in one last rescue attempt. The trapped sailors heard the metal boots of the diver land on the exterior surface, and they moved to where they thought the rescuer would be. In the darkness they tapped in Morse code, "Is there any hope?" The diver on the outside, recognizing the message, signaled by tapping on the exterior of the sub, "Yes, there is hope."
The story sounded familiar, but that didn't bother us. It also sounded dubious -- New York has an exceptional harbor, and it is hard to imagine a sub getting "stuck" there. But that didn't bother us. What bothered us was that it seemed unfinished. To make the Easter point, one needs to tell the assembly that these hopeful sailors were eventually saved. Doesn't one?
Looking for the happy ending, we googled a few keywords, and found a different version of the same story:
As dusk fell on the Saturday before Christmas of 1927, two Coast Guardsmen stationed at Wood End in Provincetown spotted the periscope of a Navy submarine breaking the surface of the water just in front of a Coast Guard cutter ship. Within minutes, the cutter had rammed the sub, sending it to the bottom of the bay. The entire crew was held captive in a sunken sub 100 feet below sea level. Rescue ships and divers were immediately dispatched in an attempt to save the crew. As the hours grew to days the weather worsened. After locating the submarine, a Navy deep-sea diver dove down to it and heard a noise coming from the inside. He placed his helmet up against the side of the vessel and realized that the crew was sending a Morse Code message. The diver spelled out the message in his mind being tapped on the hull. It was repeating the same question: “IS…THERE…ANY…HOPE?
The differences are both large and small. The time and place are different, and the sub is not grounded but rather rammed. Most important, homiletically, is that the diver doesn't offer a hopeful response; that is left to the preacher. But still -- we wanted to know the end.
And the second preacher, way down in his sermon, gave it to us. It ain't pretty, folks: Everybody on the submarine died, and the last message received from the six trapped sailors was a simple, heartbreaking, "We understand." (Here's a site devoted to military submarines, which includes the whole story of the S-4, as well as a memoir by one of the would-be rescuers.)
The bottom line, so far as veracity goes, is that neither version quite jibes with the memories of an actual participant -- but the second one is much closer. The first is so far off as to be a different story altogether (and one which is entirely untrue).
Even the second misreports the coded message -- actually, it was "Is there hope? Please hurry please." Pity, too, since this adds an eschatological element which any preacher should be ready to exploit. And this brings us to a second problem, which is connected to, but more important, than mere veracity: the way preachers use stories like this theologically.
The first preacher, it seems, pulled the story from some unreliable source which he doesn't name, and never bother to check its truth. Quite possibly, he added the affirmation that "there is hope," because it was a phrase he hoped would echo in the ears of the faithful. But by doing these things, he distorted the story quite seriously.
What if there had been somebody in church that day who knew the facts? Who had lost a grandfather on the S-4, or studied it for a doctoral dissertation on submarine warfare? In their eyes, the preacher would look foolish, if not deceitful. The informed listener would not hear anything he said about the subject he was really there to speak about in the first place.
The second preacher made an effort to check the details; his online manuscript even includes a footnote to the source he is quoting, which is devoted to Massachusetts history. In our opinion, this effort pays off; he is a lot less likely to be embarrassed. Unsurprisingly, his sermon is the much better of the two, in our personal estimation.
But even the better preacher has missed an opportunity here.
Because let's be clear: in reality, this submarine was lost with all hands. Everybody died. And the men who signaled to the divers knew that this was going to happen. They had been told, in effect, that there was no hope, and they signaled their understanding. The second preacher does get to this point, right near the end; but we think he has missed an opportunity. We suspect he was afraid to start with the admission of hopelessness.
If you are going to use a story like this, it seems to us that the right thing is to tell it straight: they asked if there was hope; they learned that there was no hope; they died. And then you say: That is the human condition, apart from God. We have no hope. Only then do you move on to your true subject, which is the one place from which hope can come.
We don't want to make too much of this one story, which is floating all over the Net, and has probably been a sermon staple for decades, nor of these two sermons. We would visit either man's church without hesitation. But it has got us thinking that the use of anecdotes, and especially recycled anecdotes of uncertain authenticity, has always been a serious danger in Christian preaching, and is made more serious by modern information technology.
Perhaps we all (and that means us at the Egg first, believe me) should limit ourselves stories that fall within our own experience -- or, better yet, to the real subject of all good preaching: Christ, and him crucified.