Here is a wonderful quote on preaching, from Irvin S. Cobb’s short story from 1914 entitled The Lord Provides. John Ford made this scene the climax of his 1953 masterpiece, The Sun Shines Bright. But the original, below, is purest Gospel, at least as I see it. Others of Cobb’s early-period short stories attain something close to this Christian power, but this — and there’s more to it than my excerpt — may be the high point.
At this point in the story, Judge William Pittman Priest has agreed to officiate and ‘say a few words’ at the funeral of a young prostitute, a funeral which none of the local clergy would touch with a ten-foot pole, mainly from fear of their church boards. Only the local Roman Catholic priest would even entertain the idea, but the girl had requested a Protestant minister. None could be found. So Judge Priest steps in, and here is the passage:
I deem it to have been characteristic of the old judge that he made no explanation for his presence and no apology for his assumption of a role so unusual. He opened his black-bound volume at a place where his plump forefinger had been thrust between the leaves to mark the place for him, and in his high, thin voice he read through the service for the dead, with its promise of the divine forgiveness. When he had reached the end of it he put the book aside, and spoke to them in the fair and grammatical English that usually he reserved for his utterances from the bench in open court:
“Our sister who lies here asked with almost her last conscious breath that at her funeral a sermon should be preached. Upon me, who never before attempted such an undertaking, devolves the privilege of speaking a few words above her. I had thought to take for my text the words: ’He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’
“But I have changed my mind. I changed it only a little while ago. For I recalled that once on a time the Master said: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.’ And I believe, in the scheme of everlasting mercy and everlasting pity, that before the eyes of our common Creator we are all of us as little children whose feet stumble in the dark. So I shall take that saying of the Saviour for my text.”
Perhaps it would be unjust to those whose business is the preaching of sermons to call this a sermon. I, for one, never heard any other sermon in any other church that did not last longer than five minutes. And certainly Judge Priest, having made his beginning, did not speak for more than five minutes; the caressing fingers of the sunlight had not perceptibly shifted upon the flower-strewn coffin top when he finished what he had to say and stood with his head bowed. After that, except for a rustle of close-packed body and a clearing of men’s huskened throats, there was silence for a little time. (pp. 42-42, Old Judge Priest, 1916)
p.s. For a longer appreciation of Ford’s film, go here.