The Pulpit and the Pew
Since this final Sunday in December is usually a rather quiet one after the hullabaloo of Christmas, and since it marks the end of one more year of ministry for me, I have decided to say some things about preaching and those of us who do it. Most of you came willingly this morning but for a few who may have come because Mom and Dad insisted, or a spouse was persuasive, let me begin by telling you that things could be much, much worse. Our church service lasts slightly less than one hour and we are finished for the day, but listen to this description of what Sunday was like a century ago in England for a boy named Edmund Gosse:
He was called for an early breakfast on Sunday, opened — like all the meals in his house — with a prayer by his father, a well-known scientist and occasional preacher. After breakfast, the servants were called to join the family at the table for a long Bible study and prayer session. When that was over, if the weather was nice, young Gosse could walk about the garden for thirty minutes before he and others in the family sat down in separate rooms with their Bibles and a commentary open, and prepared their minds for the morning worship. A little before 11 they walked to church with their Bibles and hymnbooks for a two-hour service at the Meetinghouse. Back home for lunch, they could talk only of religious matters for that hour and a half, after which young Gosse got a brief rest before he went with his mother in mid-afternoon back to Sunday School. They returned in time for tea, washed up and then all marched forth again, armed as in the morning with Bibles and hymnbooks, for the evening service at which the elder Mr. Gosse preached. By the end of his sermon it was already past their weekday bedtime, but there was still another service to attend: the Believer’s Prayer Meeting, which usually went on for 40 minutes more. “Then,” writes young Gosse, “we used to creep home, I often so tired that the weariness was like physical pain, and I was permitted, without further ‘worship’ to slip upstairs to bed.” He was never allowed on a Sunday to open a book or draw a picture, to play in the neighborhood, or enter the little room where he kept his toys and treasures — a room absolutely off limits on Sundays. On top of everything else, he says “I was hotly and tightly dressed in black all day long, as though ready at any moment to attend a funeral….” So even if you were coerced into coming to church this morning, put yourself into Edmund Gosse’s Sunday shoes and count your blessings. I think the wrong people had gotten hold of religion in that boy’s lifetime, and more than anyone else I blame some of those who preached for taking both themselves and the trappings of religion much too seriously..
Preachers have no monopoly on the personality risks in all the professions, but they are my topic so I’’ll concentrate on the failings most likely to affict them — three in particular. Arrogance first, because most people are constrained by politeness to pretend that what is being said each Sunday morning is profoundly important. Give a preacher a few years of reverential attention and it becomes perilously easy to slip from speaking cautiously about God to speaking much too confidently for God. Beware of any preacher who claims God has told him or her in private conversations to build a religious empire and control its cash flow. Upset by such presumption, the famous theologian Karl Barth expressed angry doubt once that a minister could be saved. “Maybe,” he conceded, “since with God all things are possible, but so far as I know there is no one who deserves the wrath of God more abundantly than ministers.” He knew it was unfair to indict a whole class, but he wanted the slap to sting. The great Swiss scholar remembered how the disciples of Christ had quarreled over who would be the greatest in the new kingdom of love, and how Christ had told them repeatedly to do good quietly and without fanfare, to pray in private and not to impress crowds, and to seek greatness through humble service and not high-handed authority. Since it is a vital part of Congregational faith that we are all ministers, I would caution you to remember that this advice applies to each of you as much as it does to any us who are called to do ministry from a pulpit.
The second besetting sin for preachers is hypocrisy. Statistically, they are probably no more likely to fall from grace than people in general, but if they have pretended in their pulpits to be morally superior it makes their hypocrisy smell worse. A great many people who attend church desperately want a kind of vicarious goodness, a holy man to represent them before God, so that priests and preachers are often tempted to fulfill that role and to become convinced by and by that it is reality, that they are, indeed, better than others. They are also victimized by the power of rhetoric. It is dangerously easy to believe that if you have talked persuasively about good character, you have it; that if you speak eloquently about good deeds, you have performed them. All of us who preach should hang on our study wall this story of a couple of brothers who very strong resembled each other in physical build and facial features. One was a minister, the other a physician, and each had the appropriate doctoral degree. One day a young woman encountered the physician in a supermarket and rushed up to say, “I’m happy to bump into you. I’ve wanted to tell you that I have never heard a more inspirational sermon than the one you delivered last Sunday.” The physician only meant to correct her gently when he said, “I’m afraid you have mistaken me for my brother. He preaches. I’m the one who practices.” It may have been the truth!
And finally there is the temptation to become stereotyped, to create oneself in the mold of contemporary fashion. I say “contemporary” because fashions change. Once upon a time a principal requirement for a preacher was that he be a scholar, the best-educated man in the village. Emerson described preachers of l50 years ago as being “always, more universally than any other class, the scholars of their day.” It was a plus if the preacher turned out to be a better man than anyone else in the village, but he was certainly expected to be smarter — to be the one in town with a rare university education, to be the one with a library and the wisdom of having been about in the world. Often he was the only person who could read. Those who received a letter had to visit him to learn what was in it and to have him reply in their behalf. He was quite literally “The Person” in the community, looked up to by the whole village, but they didn’t pronounce the title as I just did. If you remember that what we call a “clerk” they called a “clark,” and what we call the “derby” they called the “darby, it won’t surprise you that “person” became “parson” — and you know why even in America we sometimes call a preacher a Parson..
Unfortunately, as religion declined in importance in England, and as professors and scientists and physicians prepared themselves far more rigorously in schools than most of the village preachers did, the preachers slipped from being the preeminent person (Parson) of small towns, and began more and more often to be laughed at as parochial and incompetent. In Barchester Towers, a superb Victorian novel, Anthony Trollope describes how most people felt about them. “There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silently and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same [respect] as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips…..He is the bore of the age….the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday’s rest….” Trollope anticipates the objection of those who say that nobody, after all, forces us go to church but he says, “We desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire….to enjoy the comfort of public worship, but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience: that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape which is the common consequence of common sermons.”
Even after the village parsons had grown so lazy they had nothing interesting to say from their pulpits they might still have recognized their intellectual and spiritual poverty if people had not effectively cut them off from real life. The parson was expected to talk in a different way from other people, and to have a wholly different bearing. When people saw him coming they softened their laughter at a naughty joke or brought their shady stories to a screeching halt. In the words of Emerson again, the preacher was “disfranchised,” cut off from real life, not a creature of flesh and blood like his audience but a kind of neutered ghost so unreal no one really felt comfortable to have him around.
It was Emerson one summer evening l50 years ago, speaking to young ministerial graduates at Harvard, who provided the best test of good preaching I have ever come across. I shared it with some of you years ago and I read it at my son’s ordination service, but it bears constant repetition to both preachers and audiences . Emerson told of going to hear a preacher who tempted him to resolve never to go to church again. He decided that people must go to church from habit, otherwise no one would have given up the reality of life outside that church for the sterile and lifeless language being used inside. Listen carefully to what he says next:
“A snowstorm was falling around us. The snowstorm was real, the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. if he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned….This man had ploughed and planted and talked and bought and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches, his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all that discourse, that he had ever lived at all.”
Emerson was much to wise to be saying merely that ministers should talk about themselves, but he understood what made the gospel story real — how it has to pass through ordinary, flawed lives like sunlight through stained glass, before most of us can bear its light. I would not have understood the old New England philosopher when I first began to preach, and if I had understood I would have rejected his advice. The gospel I preached was outside myself, a collection of Scripture texts I did not translate by passing them through a real life. The young men with whom I used to drive through West Texas on Sunday mornings to our various preaching appointments did the same. We took our borrowed sermon outlines, preached the doctrines of our church over and over to people who had heard them all their lives, and never gave them a hint of how Christianity made a difference in our lives in the classroom, on a date, on the playing field. Perhaps it really hadn’t made any yet, so that our only chance to go on preaching was to separate the gospel from the life all around us.
We would have offended them, of course, to preach as Emerson advised, because they were used to the kind of preaching we did — and we were all eager to be accepted and invited back. We had yet to learn that it is impossible to please everybody, even that is your main goal in life, and that it is particularly impossible to do it from a pulpit and have anything of yourself left. Our professors should have made us memorize one of Aesop’s Fables, which I pass on to you not merely as a wise word to preaches but as a lesson for whatever choose to do with your life:
A Miller and his Son were driving their Ass to a neighboring fair to sell him. They had not gone far when they met a troop of girls returning from the town, talking and laughing. “Look there!” cried one of them. “Did you ever see such fools, to be truding along the road on foot when they might be riding!” The old Man, hearing this, quietly got on the Ass, his Son walking by the side of him. He had not ridden far when he met a group of older women who began to scold him. “Why, you lazy old man! How can you ride upon the beast, while that poor little lad there can hardly keep pace by the side of you?” The goodnatured Miller immediately lifted up his Son to ride behind him.
They were nearing the outskirts of the town when they met a man who said, “Pray, honest friend, is that Ass your own?” “Yes.” “Oh,” said the stranger, “one would not have thought so by the way you load him down. Why, you two fellows are better able to carry the poor beast then he you!” So they tied the Ass’s legs together, stuck a pole through, and began to carry him across a bridge that led into town. This was so entertaining a sight that people ran to laugh at it, until the Ass — not liking their noise or his own predicament — kicked loose his legs, tumbled over the pole, and fell into the river. The old Man, angry and ashamed, turned back toward his own home again, convinced at last that by trying to please everybody he had succeeded in pleasing nobody, and had lost his Ass in the bargain.
In the new year that starts tomorrow, I hope to balance pleasure, irritation, and challenge from this pulpit in the kind of mix that by year’s end will find all of us better and wiser than we are at this moment. Happy New Year!
Each year we say goodbye to a few beloved faces we had grown accustomed to seeing in this room. For a moment now, as I read the names of those who left us in 1995, and as we sing a verse of song in their honor, I invite you to hear their names and remember: Toby Meridith, Elizabeth and John Hager, Ted Chase, Sherman Culbertson, Elaine Grant, and Betty Gutru.
Mindful, gracious God, of those we have lost, and of the great
joy we have in those who meet us here each week, we leave now
to face the coming of a new year of commitment to the kingdom of love.