Karl Barth (not to be confused with the good Karl Barth of the LCMS) was a neo-orthodox theologian, which isn’t as good as being an orthodox theologian, but it was arguably better than being a liberal. Which he was when he first got out of seminary, to the point that he was called in his Swiss parish “the red pastor of Safenwil.” Barth recalled the bad sermons that he used to preach. Fred Sanders posts about the time he preached on the text of the Titanic:
Looking back on these early days, Barth later remarked with some regret, “During my time as a pastor… I often succumbed to the danger of attempting to get alongside the congregation in the wrong way. Thus in 1912, when the sinking of the Titanic shook the whole world, I felt that I had to make this disaster my main theme the following Sunday, which led to a monstrous sermon on the same scale.” (from the definitive Barth biogarphy by Eberhard Busch, p. 63) Yes, Barth took as his sermon text the current event of a disaster, rather than an actual portion of Scripture. He tacked on a bit of Psalm 103 (“as for man, his days are like grass”) at the beginning, but this sermon was clearly about the boat, and Barth was not leading his congregation into the word of God, but into the world of current events. “Do not stop short at my words, then, but consider for yourselves what God wished to say to us through this.” Yes, apparently God was speaking in this disaster, and Barth thought his job as a preacher was to interpret the “word of God” in the Titanic disaster, rather than the word of God in Holy Scripture. “Later, I was sorry for everything that my congregation had to put up with.” (Busch, p. 64)
What does the young, liberal-trained Karl Barth have to say about this message from God in the sinking of the Titanic? First, he (Barth, not God, presumably) is astonished by the scope of the ship, calling it “a miracle of the modern human mind, which utterly surpasses even the most fantastical images any of us could conjure up…” Were its makers sinning in constructing such an astonishing thing? No, says Barth: “The simple-minded will draw the conclusion that it is a sin to build ships this big and to journey across the sea in them. Quite the reverse, I am saying. It is entirely God’s will that the world’s technology and machinery attain to higher degrees of perfection. For technology is nothing other than mastery over nature, it is labour, and the divine spirit in humanity ought to expand in this labour and to prosper.”
Nevertheless, there is something wrong with the Titanic; not its status as an engineering feat per se, but the ostentatiousness of it: the fact that it was a floating shopping mall with swimming pools and a well-stocked fishing pond, fine cuisine and every luxury. “There is a way of using technology,” Barth warns, “that cannot be called labour any more, but playful arrogance. It is arrogance to install theatres and fish-pools on a vessel exposed to these sort of risks…” Building amazing boats is one thing, but the Titanic was just goofy: “God will not be mocked. He certainly intends us to work and to achieve something in the world. But he does not intend us to act as though we were done with working, and could now go fooling around.” Such lack of seriousness calls forth the judgment of God, and the sinking of the Titanic is apparently to be understood as God’s judgment.
As a result, the executives of the company behind the Titanic now have “1500 dead people on their consciences.” But the responsibility extends further, to the whole economic system that the Titanic represents: “But ultimately not even this shipping company bears all the guilt for this disaster, but first and foremost he system of acquisition by which thousands of companies like this one are getting rich today, not only through shipping but across the whole spectrum of human labour.”
Keep reading at Karl Barth Sinks With The Titanic.
We often praise good sermons at this blog. I link to the ones I hear on Sunday mornings. In the past, I have invited you to tell about what you have learned in your pastor’s preaching. We honor the pastoral office. Sometimes, though, as I think most pastors will themselves admit, a sermon can go terribly wrong. And in my travels and spiritual pilgrimage, I have heard some sermons wildly off the mark like this one, theologically empty or confused, offering pop psychology or pop politics instead of either the law or the gospel, blathering on and on without so much as mentioning Jesus Christ.
So tell about BAD sermons you have heard (or, perhaps, like Barth, delivered).