“I Just Don’t Want to Hear it From the Pulpit.” We were talking about how divided our world is and how important it is for the church to be an example of love and justice. He said it in a casual conversation, within earshot of his pastor, before the meeting began, and I could tell he believed everyone there would agree with him. We were gathered for her exit interview. She decided to retire earlier than she imagined because of the lack of support from lay leadership through the pandemic. Like many pastors, she spoke to the issues of the day in her preaching, and like many pastors, she was reprimanded, contradicted, and verbally assaulted by those who didn’t want to hear it. No one ever guaranteed us that preaching would not be subject to such responses. But what he said and how he said it revealed an important misunderstanding about what preaching is and is not.
On the way home I ranted at my windshield, “What you want to hear from the pulpit doesn’t matter! Preaching isn’t for your entertainment or your approval! It’s not a performance for you to judge! And your pastor is not responsible for your resistance to hear what God has to say through her.” Then I wondered if he even knew or believed that what his pastor said is God’s spoken word to him; a personal address to his heart. If God herself had spoken about the “it” he didn’t want to hear (likely something about racism or misogyny or economic oppression)…would he have called the synod office and said, “It’s time for a new God here, one who doesn’t say things I don’t want to hear.”
Then just last week, a friend of mine returned from a funeral of her friend’s daughter and told me about the careless words of the preacher, describing the car ride of the teenager who died as a “joy ride” and “one last fun adventure” before taking her last breath. My friend was appalled. She attended expecting to hear a thoughtful, loving word of grace and hope from the preacher. Instead she left angry and let down. She looked me in the eyes and said, “what you do is so important. When people mess it up, it does real damage.” I swallowed hard, told her I know, and apologized for what happened.
Both the man pre-meeting and my friend post-funeral remind me that what is said from the pulpit is of great consequence. Any hope preachers have that our preaching doesn’t matter, especially when the well is dry and we know we aren’t bringing our A game, is lost. But most of the time, we do want our preaching to matter. We study and read and think about what we will say all week long. We ask God what our people need to hear. We angst about how best to say it. We consider the ramifications of speech that will be dismissed as “political” when it is nothing other than the very Bible itself. We craft words that will both convict hearts, driving them to Jesus, and give them the Jesus they need to be free. And we pray that in the space between our mouth and people’s hearts, the Holy Spirit will do something fruitful, far better than what our human frailty can produce.
The most basic definition of politics is “the way that people living in groups make decisions.” Therefore may every sermon we preach be political. May it be consequential enough to have an impact on the decisions people listening will make, whether those decisions are about how they will comfort themselves and one another in a time of tragedy or about how they will reorient their lives away from oppressive behaviors. Martin Luther wrote, “To those who are afraid and have already been terrified by the burden of their sins, Christ the saviour and the gift should be announced…But to those who are smug and stubborn the example of Christ should be set forth, lest they use the gospel as a pretext for the freedom of the flesh, and thus become smug.” (LW 27,35).
Dear preacher, who gets to say what gets said from the pulpit? You do. Along with God, and your people and this world, you get to say the things that will convict and free, afflict and comfort, anger and heal. And maybe now is a good time to remind people how a sermon is different from every other kind of speech or public performance. We don’t just need faithful preachers but faithful listeners; those who know that this isn’t merely talk about God, but it is truly God, through sent and called human beings, speaking through the ages to the politics, that is, every decision we make today.
Pastor Libby Howe has served as the Director for Evangelical Mission and the Assistant to the Bishop in the La Crosse Area synod of the ELCA for the past 12 and a half years. Prior to synod work she served as the pastor of De Soto and Freeman Lutheran Churches in De Soto and Ferryville, Wisconsin from 2002-2009. Her work focuses on transitions with congregations and leaders, congregation vitality, conflict management and pastoral care for rostered leaders. She enjoys following politics, advocacy, reading, writing, walking with her old dog, Marley, food and fun with friends and family, and exploring quiet natural spaces replete with trees and water. She loves Ohio State Football almost as much as she loves Jesus.
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