The Power of the Pulpit (May 24, 2009)

posted Sep 3, 2009, 12:15 PM by Neal Jones

        I have two reasons for preaching today’s sermon.  One is that it is a sequel to my last sermon on the theological implications of our worship space.  You may remember that the reason we have placed the pulpit front and center in our sanctuary is because we are direct descendents of the Protestants, who placed the preaching of the Word of God front and center in their worship in contrast to the Catholics, who   placed the altar front and center because the celebration of the mass was central to their worship.  In other words, the Protestant Reformation replaced the Body of God with the Word of God.  Our architecture reflects our theology.  For instance, in Jewish synagogues, the Torah is front and center, and you may remember that our chalice banner hides the huge hole in the wall in the center of the stage where the Tree of Life synagogue kept the Torah.  Today I want to continue that sermon by focusing exclusively on the pulpit. 

        My second reason is nostalgic.  Today is the twenty-third anniversary of my ordination.  On this very Sunday twenty-three years ago, the pastor and the deacons of my home church, the First Baptist Church of Smithfield, NC, lay their hands on me in the rite of ordination, a congregation’s seal of approval of an individual’s call to ministry.  It’s a good thing that ordination is a once-for-all affair.  If the good members of the First Baptist Church of Smithfield, NC, took a vote today as to whether I should be a minister, the outcome might be in doubt. 

        I am a little nostalgic whenever I enter the pulpit.  My mind runs back across the years to all the preachers who spoke to me and sometimes shouted at me from the pulpit.  In the Baptist church, he – and it was always a he – was not the minister, the pastor, or the parson.  He was the preacher, emphasizing that particular role as preeminent above all other ministerial duties.  He was called primarily to preach, and in the Baptist tradition, the call process was centered almost exclusively on the preacher’s trial sermon.  The pastoral search committee would visit prospective ministers at their respective churches to hear them preach.  When they heard someone they liked, they would invite him to give a trial sermon at their church.  As soon as the service was over, he would leave, and the congregation would vote to call him as their minister.  From my present perspective, it seems incredible that a minister’s call to a particular congregation would be based almost entirely on his performance in delivering a single sermon.  There are so many other things that a minister does besides preaching, but in the Baptist tradition, preaching is paramount. 

        I still remember one Sunday morning as a little boy when a boy younger than me ran up to the pulpit at the end of the service and began speaking into the mike.  Though the service was over and people were milling about, everyone was aghast and stopped talking.  The boy’s father rushed to stop him, and as he jerked him away, he said, “Son, we don’t play with the pulpit.”  In the Baptist tradition, the pulpit is not merely a lectern for a lecture or a podium for a presentation; it is for preaching the Word of God.  That is the tradition I come from.  By the way, at the second congregation I served as pastor, Olivet Moravian Church, I believe that 4-year-old Ben Pfaff must have misheard the word “preacher” because he called me the “creature.”  Whenever he addressed me as the creature, I had this image of an ominous minister rising up from the waters of the black lagoon. 

        I have to admit that even after twenty-three years of preaching, I am still a little nervous whenever I step into the pulpit, and it’s not simply the nervousness of public speaking.  It is the nervousness of wondering what right do I have to preach, if not the Word of God, a word of hope or love or life?  The people in the pews – or cushioned, upholstered, stackable chairs – are sitting there, waiting to hear some word about God or the meaning of life or the meaning of their lives.  They are wondering who they are, where they came from, where they are going, and how to live in the meantime, and they are looking expectantly to the preacher to give them some answer, some direction, some assurance.  Who am I to have the audacity to think I have anything to offer?  I still enter the pulpit with fear and trembling. 

        I realize that some preachers don’t suffer from this kind of angst.  Many of the Baptist preachers I endured as a child did not appear to experience doubt or uncertainty.  They were cocksure that they were delivering nothing less than the unadulterated Word of God, as if it came straight from the mouth of the Almighty Himself.  Many of the TV preachers are smooth, polished performers, but their polish often strikes me as cosmetics hiding an oily used car salesman.  Maybe in the marrow of my bones I’m still a Baptist preacher who thinks that preaching is a high calling that deserves more humility than self-assurance. 

        Fear and trembling are the more appropriate way to approach the pulpit because the pulpit is heavy with symbolism.  It's not about the preacher.  The pulpit points beyond the minister who stands behind it.  For one thing, the pulpit is a symbol of freedom.  Four hundred years ago, the liberal pulpits of Poland and Transylvania raised the banner of religious freedom, and for that, their ministers were imprisoned, their churches burned, and thousands were made refugees from their homelands.  Three hundred years ago, the liberal pulpits of the American colonies asserted their independence from government control and insisted on the separation of church and state.  They would insist on being autonomous congregations.  They would govern themselves, make their own rules, support themselves with their own finances, choose their own leaders, define their own membership, and call their own ministers who would preach the truth as they understood it without censorship of any kind.  These liberal pulpits served as the model for our other American freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly – freedoms that would make their way into the Constitution.  Even today, the pulpit is probably the freest space in the world, guaranteed by law and tradition to brook no censorship, harassment, or interruption.  My contract as your minister, based on the model used throughout the Unitarian Universalist Association, contains this statement:  It is a basic premise of the UUFC that the pulpit is free and untrammeled.  The Rev. Jones is expected to express his values, views, and commitments without fear or favor.”  The pulpit is a symbol of freedom.

        Secondly, the pulpit is a symbol of prophecy.  I'm reaching for the Bible when I use that word, and I'm referring to those twin roles of the minister.  The minister is both prophet and priest.  The Biblical prophet does not engage in foretelling but in truth-telling, in speaking truth to power.  Like the prophet Amos:

        I hate, I despise your religious festivals, and I take no delight in      your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt       offerings, I will not accept them.  Take away from me the noise of        your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let         justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty      stream.

Like the prophet Micah:

        They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither      shall they learn war any more.

Like the prophet Isaiah, whom we read at the beginning of our service and whom Jesus quoted in the first sermon he preached in the synagogue:

        The spirit of God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the        captives and release to the prisoners, to comfort all who mourn.

All preachers who are true to their calling and true to their Biblical heritage must speak truth to power. 

        We Unitarian Universalist ministers have a particular obligation to speak prophetically, for we stand in on the shoulders of prophets like William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and William Lloyd Garrison, who spoke out against slavery; like Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe, and Susan B. Anthony, who spoke out for women’s rights; like Horace Mann, who spoke out for public education; like Henry David Thoreau, who spoke out against an unjust war; like Charles Spear, who spoke out against the death penalty; and like James Reeb, who literally gave his life for the civil rights of all Americans. 

        One of the reasons I left the Baptist church is that as a boy, while African Americans were being forced to drink at separate water fountains, eat at separate restaurants, and attend separate schools and while young black and white boys were being sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia to kill and die in an unjust, unnecessary war, the preachers of my Baptist church were preaching against the sins of wearing mini skirts and listening to rock and roll.  They may have read the Bible and quoted the Bible, but they did not raise the prophetic voice of the Bible against the real sins of our time – racism, militarism, and nationalism.  In the words of Jesus, they were straining out gnats and swallowing camels.  A prophet speaks truth to power when it's convenient and when it's not, when it's comfortable and when it's not, or as the Bible says, “in season and out of season.” 

        The pulpit should be approached with fear and trembling because it is a symbol of prophecy.  It is also a symbol of the priestly role of the minster.  The minister is both prophet and priest.  It is as a priest that the minister gets to know his or her congregation, their joys and heartaches, their aspirations and frustrations.  It would be a mistake to assume that the sermon is written when the minister closes the door to his or her study and sits down at the computer.  The sermon is written when the minister visits Joe in the hospital after his cardiac surgery, has lunch with Susan to listen to the challenges of caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s, and has a conversation after the committee meeting with Jill about her fears of losing her job.  The prophet speaks; the priest listens.  

        I once got up the nerve to approach one of the street preachers at the statehouse.  He was ranting away, waving his Bible, and shouting to the top of his lungs.  But he was speaking to no one.  There was no crowd assembled, as people walked by as quickly as they could.  I asked him, “Why are you preaching when no one is listening?”  He said, “It doesn’t matter, brother.  I’m called to preach, and that’s what I’m going to do.  That’s all I’m responsible for.  It’s other people’s responsibility to listen.”  I have to disagree with my colleague on the street.  It is the responsibility of ministers to know not only what they are saying but also to whom they are speaking because the audience shapes the message as much as the messenger.  When I first became your minister four years ago, one of you said, “Speaking on Sundays should be easy for you.  You’ve probably got a whole backlog of sermons that you can rework and repeat.”  The problem with that shortcut is that I’ve changed so much over the last twenty-three years that I would be embarrassed to repeat some of the sermons I once preached.  But it also wouldn’t work because my congregations have changed.  What you need to hear is different from what other congregations may need to hear.  To my former traditionally Christian congregations, my message in a nutshell was, “Don’t leave your brain parked at the church door.  Don’t have blind faith.  Ask questions.  Listen to your doubts.  Think, think, think.”  But to you, my message is different:  “Get out of your head and into your life.  Analyze less and feel more.  Talk less and do more.  Have faith, have faith, have faith.”  The most effective preachers are effective priests.  They know what to say because they know their congregation.

        The pulpit should be approached with fear and trembling because it represents so much more than the personality of the preacher.  It is a symbol of freedom, of prophecy, and of priesthood.  But this still begs the question, “What right do I have, what right does any minister have to engage in the freedom of the pulpit, to preach prophetically, and to speak as a priest?”  Another way of asking this question is, “What is my authority to preach?”  The question of authority has always been problematic for Unitarians.  Protestants derive their authority from the Bible, and Fundamentalists have an infallible, inerrant Bible to boot.  Catholics have the Pope, Pentecostals the Holy Spirit, Jews the Torah, Muslims the Koran, Buddhists the teachings of Buddha, and Rastafarians have marijuana.  From where do we Unitarians derive our authority?  Some might say that it’s the coffee pot or the discussion group.  David Rankin, in his classic “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” on these famous red cards, says that “We believe in the authority of reason and conscience.  The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, or a document, or an official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.”  I would boil it down to say that our authority is our personal experience.  What is it that you and I have learned on this twisting, unpredictable journey we call life?

        So the pulpit is also a symbol of the personhood of the minister.  Every minister brings his or her unique experience to the pulpit.  Some are more intellectual, others are more touchy feely.  Some are more somber, others more humorous.  Some are more prophetic, others more priestly.  Yet the pulpit demands, not the Truth (with a big T) – because there is no absolute Truth – but the essential truth (with a little T) of the person standing behind it.  I left the small, white-framed, rural Baptist church of my family to hear the Rev. John Ryberg at the First Baptist Church of Smithfield, I got up on Sunday mornings and walked across campus to the Wake Forest Baptist Church to hear the Rev. Warren Carr, I drove from Southeastern Baptist Seminary to downtown Raleigh on Sunday mornings to hear the Rev. Mahan Siler, not to listen to an objective essay or abstract lecture or scholarly dissertation.  I wanted to hear their truth as they understood it and as they lived it. 

        What made the disciples willing to lay down all that they had and follow Jesus was his authenticity, his ability to be utterly himself without needing to be propped up by the authority of tradition or the approval of others.  “It has been said of old, but I say unto you.”  Martin Luther   demonstrated that authority of authenticity when he was forced to be questioned at the Diet of Worms:  “I do not accept the authority of popes and councils.  I cannot and will not retract anything.  Here I stand!  I can do no other!”  Martin Luther King demonstrated the authority of authenticity when he declared, “I have a dream today.”  These preachers stood out because they stood up on their own two feet.          The sermon is more of a confession than a speech.  When I speak from the pulpit, I am putting myself on the line, the sum total of my experience as a human being, life as I have lived it, my truth and meaning, my reason (which is informed by education), my emotions and imagination, my conscience and convictions, my hopes and aspirations, my fears and frustrations, my fulfillments and disappointments.  That kind of vulnerable, subjective truth runs great risks.  What I regard as profound, you may think trivial or irrelevant.  I may see my foibles and mistakes as acceptable proof of my humanity; you may think them unacceptable.  There is the danger of narcissism, of treating the pulpit as a spotlight for public display rather than as a symbol pointing beyond the personality of the preacher, and God knows we have an ample supply of narcissistic preachers in the world.  With these and other risks, no wonder it is tempting for preachers to hide behind their academic degrees and polished verbal skills.  But in the end, what makes preaching powerful is the authentic, lived truth of the preacher.  The least and the most we have to offer is ourselves.  What makes preaching transformative is when the authentic, lived truth of the preacher evokes you to believe in your own truth.  For better or worse, your life and mine are our sermons.