by Fr. John A. Peck
This little article recounts an important object lesson, given at a St. Herman Seminary homiletics class in 1996.
I attended St. Herman Seminary in Kodiak, Alaska. At that distant outpost of theological instruction, we took homiletics very seriously, as we knew that on any given day or week, we might be called upon to travel to a local village and provide not only readers’ services, but a basic homily. We also knew that the bishop delighted in calling on clergy and students, spur of the moment, to preach from the Gospel reading of the day. We knew we had to be ready.
My favorite class was the “Snickers bar” lecture, as it became known.
Fr. Michael Dunaway was our instructor. Fr. Michael was a very good preacher himself, and a man of deep piety, prayer, and spiritual experience. He ran the Wasilla mission for the Antiochian Church in Alaska at that time, and his excellent work was well known to us. At the beginning of class, he handed each of us a Snickers bar.
I remember thinking, “This is my kind of class.”
The very first thing Fr. Michael said was, “Take a bite of the candy bar.” Like I said – my kind of class.
“How did that taste?” he asked us.
“Good!” we replied.
Fr. Michael produced a salt shaker from his vest pocket.
“Give me your candy bar.”
He then proceeded to lightly salt the top of our candy bar, and told us to take another bite.
“How did that taste?”
“Better!” we all replied. It was better with a little salt on it. The combination of sweet and salty made it extra tasty.
“Give me your candy bar again.”
We eagerly did so, at which time Fr. Michael took the lid off of the salt shaker, mashed the top of the candy bar into the salt shaker producing a salt smothered Snickers bar, resembling a snow-capped peak, more than a bar of chocolate.
“Now, take a bite of the candy bar.”
This time, there was a pause. We looked at our prize, a salt covered mountain of sourness. Beneath all that salt was our candy bar – chocolate, peanuts, caramel, nougat – sure, but who was going to eat it now?
“Don’t you want a taste?” Fr. Michael asked.
“No,” someone else answered. I don’t remember who. I was staring at my candy bar.
“Too much salt.”
At this comment, Fr. Michael nodded.
” You have to know how much salt is too much when preaching the Word to your people,” Fr. Michael replied.
We returned to the Seminary Museum (where we held class at that time), sat down and began to talk. Normally, my fellow students were quite reserved, and would sit and quietly reflect on what they had just heard. Not this time, though. Conversation began immediately, animating our class.
I don’t remember the specifics of the rest of that lesson. We spent the rest of the time reflecting on the object lesson. We talked about how sugar, which is sweet, also corrupts and rots your teeth. We talked about how salt preserves, but can be too strong.
We also noted that sweetness and saltiness was a great combination. The salt made the sugar sweeter, somehow. I remember mentioning that I always lightly salted watermelon whenever I eat it. Talks of curing meats, jerky, sausage and much talk dear to the hearts of Alaskans ensued, and the whole short time was spent confirming this important lesson in our experience of life.
The purpose of the sermon, of course, must be to delight the listener (so he or she will listen attentively), but must also offer some preservative without making the subject too unpalatable to swallow. Now, I am not advocating kid gloves when it comes to preaching. Too often sermons are weak in order to avoid difficulty and controversy. I would like to remind every preacher to look at our “Great Preachers.” They knew that it was their calling to address it. They were sent by God to speak the truth.
Too often and for too long, our people have been fed on sugar, and have forgotten the taste of salt. For any parish, this can be best remedied at the sermon. Faith comes by hearing. By salting your sermons, even a little, you ignite faith in your parish. Just be sure not to give them too much salt.
That day at St. Herman’s imparted to me an important lesson about preaching.
I don’t think I have looked at a Snickers bar the same way since.
Fr. John A. Peck is the director of the Preachers Institute, and a member of the SHS Class of ’97.