“The Preacher Preaches About Preaching”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, January 8, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“When I hear a man preach,
I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.”
“So, the sermon hymn comes to a close with an unsteady amen, and the organist gestures the choir to sit down. Fresh from breakfast with his wife and children and a quick run-through of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand. He hikes his black robe at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up. His mouth is a little dry. He has cut himself shaving. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else.
In the front pews [someone] turns up a hearing aid, and a young lady slips her six year old a lifesaver and a magic marker. A college sophomore home [for] vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice-president of a bank who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high-school [English] teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part even from himself, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee.
The preacher pulls a little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher.”
–Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth
There’s an old and true story about the minister who couldn’t be found when the church newsletter was due to be published and he had not given a title for his upcoming sermon. Confidently the church secretary provided a title. The minister would be preaching, she said, on the subject of “A Great Mystery.” “It’s a mystery what he’ll preach about,” she said, “but we’re sure it will be great!”
My sermon this morning also could have been titled, “A Great Mystery.” For the foreseeable future, I believe many of my sermons could be titled “A Great Mystery” – because the bizarre unpredictability of current events causes me to be reluctant to predict what I will need to be preaching about next week or the week after that. You know, since the election, we have been seeing more and more people coming to church, often for the first time. Many of my colleagues report the same thing. Like Frederick Buechner said, they include the pregnant ones (and the not pregnant ones), and the ones contemplating identities and conundrums hidden even to themselves, and some worried whether life is worth living; and, yes there are college students and spouses who have been dragged here, slumping. Add to this rather normal mix of sermon-attendees, we also have a new crop of those who feel some real anxiety, even fear and foreboding about what’s happening or may happen nationally and globally. It makes it hard to plan my sermons!
Did you see the op/ed piece that was titled “The Enlightenment Had a Good Run”? Dark humor that is! Stephen Kinzer wrote, “Democracy is in retreat around the world.” We are facing, are we not, a kind of Dark Age? “Darkness is good,” says presidential counselor Steve Bannon.
Last week I met with some progressive state legislators who feel a need to provide their constituents with training in civil disobedience. State legislators! Civil disobedience! In two weeks Megan and I are supposed to preach to all our UU colleagues on the subject of resistance to the Trump agenda. Pray for us, please! And then the program for the rest of that that day for all the ministers will be on the topic of civil disobedience, led by our own Evan Seitz, among others.
Tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, oh tidings of comfort and joy.
Well, what I’ve decided to do this morning is to remind you – and myself, too – just what we’re trying to do here. And, in particular today, I want to consider what is the point of a sermon?
I’ve heard it said that, if a visitor from the 18th century were to descend upon us, they’d be baffled by most modern human creations but they’d more-or-less recognize what a sermon is. This form – minus an hour or so – is largely unchanged from ancient days: one who struggles to speak, many who yearn to hear. They say, you know, that if all the people who fall asleep in church were laid end to end around the globe, they’d all be a lot more comfortable!
What is it that we – together, in this preaching/listening thing – are trying to accomplish?
I’ve come across several literary allusions to preaching and so, this morning, I’ll use these to illustrate – for your benefit and my own – what I’m doing or not doing.
It’s pretty clear what I’m not doing when I preach: I’m not laying down the law and telling you to live by it – or else. I guess that’s what some ministers still do, and a classic of this sort was recalled by John Steinbeck in his memoir Travels With Charley. Steinbeck drove a small camper around the country with his poodle Charley and, one day in Vermont, he put on some clean clothes and went to church: (I don’t know if Charley went to church or not.)
“The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good,” Steinbeck wrote.” The minister, a man of iron with tool-steel eyes and delivery like a pneumatic drill, opened up with prayer and reassured us that we were a pretty sorry lot. And he was right. We didn’t amount to much to start with, and due to our own tawdry efforts we had been slipping every since. Then, having softened us up, he went into a glorious sermon, a fire-and- brimstone sermon. Having proved that we, or perhaps only I, were no damn good, he painted with cool certainty what was likely to happen to us if we didn’t make some basic reorganizations for which he didn’t hold out much hope. He spoke of hell as an expert, not the mush-mush hell of these soft days, but a well-stoked, white-hot hell served by technicians of the first order. This reverend brought it to a point where we could understand it, a good hard coal fire, plenty of draft, and a squad of open-hearth devils who put their hearts into their work, and their work was me. I began to feel good all over. For some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness, and that causes the same emptiness a father does playing softball with his son. But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me.” Steinbeck concludes, “He forged a religion designed to last, not predigested obsolescence.”
Maybe I should be holding your feet to some biblical fire, but you know that’s not my style and yet if I’m not preaching the fear of God to you, well, what am I doing?
There’s another character in Steinbeck’s writing that does inspire me a great deal, much more than the Vermont preacher. In The Grapes of Wrath, there’s Jim Casy, a lonely preacher who personifies most of what Steinbeck tried to suggest to his reader about how to live a proper life: respect others, be a good citizen and think religiously. Casy had a one-sentence sermon: “All that lives is holy!” Casy, however, stopped preaching because he questioned his personal motives and was confused about his own directions in life – circumstances I too often can identify with. And so Casy decides: “I ain’t gonna preach . . . I ain’t gonna baptize. I’m gonna work in the green fields, and I’m gonna be near to folks. I ain’t gonna try to teach ‘em nothing. I am going to try to learn . . . Oh, I am a talker . . . No getting away from that. But I am not preaching. Preaching is telling folks stuff. I am asking them. That ain’t preachin’, is it?”
The sermons I like the best – whether I’m standing or sitting – end up feeling like questions, not telling you stuff but asking you. This preaching business ought never be about the preacher and what I happen to think; the only point of me standing up here – saying, hollering, asking anything – is what it stirs up, not in me, but in you.
Speaking of Steinbeck, did you know (here comes a question…) that once he actually saw a dead child be carried out of a “Hooverville Camp” because she was so anemic that she could not get out of her cot by herself when the flood waters rose and drowned her, and that it was the effect of seeing that dead child that caused Steinbeck to write compulsively for nine months until he finished The Grapes of Wrath? After he mailed the manuscript to his publisher, Steinbeck checked into the local hospital with depression and exhaustion. Good preaching is strenuous work, and in this new Dark Age, I think there are still some good sermons to be preached, some searing questions to be asked.
There’s another kind of sermon that I rarely preach but to which I aspire and that’s called a short sermon. The shortest, perhaps, was that preached by the Buddha who, wordlessly, held up a lotus flower and with that his hearers were enlightened. The effect of his action was to silently say, “This.” And, so tempting is it to say “Then” and “There” that we forget the power of “Now” and “This.”
Several weeks ago I was a guest at a preaching class at HDS, the Harvard Divinity School (my alma mater). Another minister – my colleague Claire Feingold Thoryn from Follen Church in E. Lexington – and I listened to several short sermons by students and offered our critique. And Claire said something I’d never heard before but which rings true. A good sermon, she said, should ask three questions, “What?” “So What?” And “Now What?”
This is illustrated by another preacher I admire named Will Campbell. Brother Will, as he was called, was the model for the Rev. Will B. Dunn, the bombastic preacher with the broad-brimmed clerical hat in the comic strip “Kudzu.” In real life he was hilarious, profound, inspiring and apocalyptic, a guitar-picking, down-home country boy who made moonshine and stomped around his Tennessee cabin in cowboy boots and denim uttering streams of sacred and profane commentary. He was a salty saint of the civil rights movement (he was the only white person that Martin Luther King invited to be among the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference).
He generally stayed away from respectable churches and institutions but somehow, in 1987, he was the theologian in residence at the Duke University Chapel. On his last Sunday there, he was supposed to preach but there had been a bad ice storm the night before. Even still, the chapel was packed in the morning. Campbell was not very well dressed for the occasion – rumpled, no tie, old pants – that was, however, typical – and when the time came for the sermon, he got up and this was his entire sermon:
Had an ice storm last night. Lots of trees are down. Lots of poor people in this town. Electricity is off, they got no heat. I got my pickup outside, my chain-saw and my wood ax. I’m going to cut some firewood from those trees to help those poor people. Who’s going with me?
Campbell then got down out of the pulpit, clonked down the aisle, the big doors clanked shut and the people were left, it was said, “to face themselves before God.” (As quoted from Dr. Larry Bethune)
Like the Buddha, Campbell called attention to that which was most important – this.
Every Sunday, I wonder what this it is to which I am awake and to which I might call your attention.
And every Sunday I ask , What? And, So what? And, Now what?
And in the coming weeks and months and years, it’s possible my sermons could get shorter and shorter. It’s possible. The time for words/words/words is passing and the time for action is coming.
One other literary reference to preaching is from the novel Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson, by the way, is one of President Obama’s favorite authors…they’ve had remarkable public conversations together…and I am not quite ready to think about who may be President-elect Trump’s favorite authors.
The narrator of the novel Gilead is a minister who is somewhat haunted by the 2250 sermons he keeps in boxes in his attic, wondering if they mean anything at all. But he also reflects about his father and his grandfather, also ministers, and the conflict between their generations.
Yes, I too have a few boxes of sermons up in this attic, but most of mine are on a hard drive or the cloud, less for my heirs to worry about.
So…the narrator’s grandfather was a passionate abolitionist in the mid-1800’s who fought with John Brown. At the age of 16 he’d had a vision of the Lord in shackles, holding out his arms to him, and with that he knew he had to go to Kansas where they were voting whether to enter the Union slave or free. The grandfather was “afire with the old certainties” – somebody disturbingly innocent, impossible to live with, yet who left a mark of intensity on everything he touched. The son’s wife had to keep the household money tied up in a handkerchief or buried in the sugar to keep the old man from giving it away.
The son – the narrator’s father – was different, more of a compromiser and reasonable; and for this, the grandfather was sorely disappointed in him. “That’s just what kills my heart…” he said. “That the Lord never came to you. That the seraphim never touched a coal to your lips.”
The grandfather placed his hopes in war; the son placed his hopes in peace.
Knowing that this is one of Obama’s favorite novels makes us wonder: Obama is the more reasonable compromiser, the cerebral one. He’s not the firebrand. Are we better served by cerebral ones…or firebrands?
And so in the novel, the conflict between the grandfather and the son centers on an episode when the grandfather returns from a civil war skirmish and climbs into the pulpit of his church wearing his bloody shirt, with a pistol tucked in his belt.
Turning this over in his mind, the son – the cerebral, reasonable, easier-to-live-with one – is sure that “this has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing. And I was, and I am,” he says, “as certain of that as anyone could ever be of any so-called vision.”
The conflict is universal; it’s unresolved; and – you know – I feel that conflict whenever I step into this pulpit. Some of my predecessors – in this religious movement and in this church – were firebrands “afire with old certainties” that I often, but not always, identify with. Does what we say and do here keep faith with the radicals, the heretics, the martyrs and heroes who bequeathed to us this liberal faith, this faith in humanity, this faith in democracy and the power of human agency to discern meaning in our lives and to create a more loving, just and peaceful world?
I hope it does, sometimes.
But then, as well, I know that my preaching is not always a call to arms. I have sometimes been criticized for being too measured, too cerebral, too hesitant to call us to the barricades.
Well, thank God with this election I’ve been given an opportunity to right the wrongs of my ways!
I do hope I will be willing to step into this pulpit, when need be, with my chainsaw or ax or bloody shirt.
I also know that some of you have come into this place to get out of the storm. Your shirt may already be bloodied; your soul tired; you came in search not of war but of peace, you hoped to hear not a call to arms but a word of healing.
And so this is how I’ll wind up this sermon, with my last literary reference to preaching. It’s a poem from the 13th century German mystic, Johannes “Meister” Eckhart, “All day long a little burro labors…”
All day long a little burro labors,
sometimes with heavy loads on her back and sometimes
just with worries
about things that bother only burros.
And worries, as we know, can be more exhausting than physical labor.
Once in a while a kind monk comes to her stable and brings
a pear, but more than that,
he looks into the burro’s eyes and touches her ears
and for a few seconds the burro is free and even seems to laugh,
because love does that.
Lately, I’ve been hanging around with activists and with folks plotting to resist the Trump agenda and those planning to give sanctuary to those who are in fear…and yet what we’re saying is that the most important thing is for us to build our communities of trust, to sustain our respect and love for one another, to allow nothing to demean, divide or diminish us. Love is the spirit of this church. Say it with me: Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
I promise never to be like the Vermont preacher – out to prove that you’re no damn good. You are, I assure you, so good!
I hope always to preach Jim Casy’s sermon: “All that lives is holy!” And I hope to do more learning than teaching, more asking than telling. I’ll try to stay alert for the opportunity to preach a really short sermon – maybe – in the here and now, asking only…What? So what? Now what?…and being prepared with chainsaw or wood-ax to do what needs to be done, asking “Who’s going with me?” Or, possibly, I’ll follow you and together we’ll clonk down the aisle and hear the doors clank behind us. And, yes, afire with old certainties, sometime, I hope I will step into this pulpit wearing a bloody shirt. Knowing, too, that we frequently come into this room with fears, and secrets, heavy burdens on our backs and with worries that can be more exhausting than any labor, I’ll also plan from time to time to bring you a pear.
And more than that, I expect that here – in this room – we – you and I – as has happened here before and happens here today and will persist in happening on whatever joyous or hard tomorrow, we will look into one another’s eyes and touch one another’s ears and be free, even seem to laugh. Love does that. Love frees. Love is the spirit of this church.
(Note: John preached a similar version of this sermon in October 2005 with the title Of Brevity, Bloody Shirts and Pears)