Theatrics in the Pulpit
Theatrics in the Pulpit
The preacher this morning played Judas. Just when I thought he had suddenly come down with the flu and the associate pastor would be filling in for him, he emerged from a side door below the chancel, all hirsute six feet three of him gowned from neck to toe in a linen monk's robe with a rope belt. He held a purple cloth bag in his hand. He strode front and center and began his theatrical monologue. In so many, many words Judas justified himself, that it wasn't the money. It was a lofty idealism, that he wanted a messiah to rescue his native land and its captive people.
At the very beginning of the presentation Pastor Judas stated, as he stepped momentarily out of character, what he wanted the congregation to take away from the sermon: that a very thin and porous membrane separates the good in us from the evil. The title of the sermon was "Friend and Fiend," and only a single "r" separates the one from the other. The text was, of course, Matthew 26:50.
The show was impressive. The monologue was filled with literary references sure to impress a suburban congregation with far more than its share of graduate degrees. A little Dante, some Shakespeare, The New York Times, a reference to Dennis Kozlowski, and enough Biblical asides to keep a seminarian thumbing swiftly through the Scriptures. In passing he dropped several tidbits gleaned from a Bible dictionary, like the fact that thirty pieces of silver, Judas' reward for betraying his friend, was the price of a slave, and didn't Jesus insist that he came to serve, not to be served? And when he flung the thirty pieces of silver on the altar and exited the room, you could a hear a pin drop.
The pastor's physical presence was also impressive, although I might cavil that he was poorly cast. He looked more Gregory Peck heroic than James Woods sinister. When he spread his arms (which he did several times), his wingspan must have been seven feet. His face was framed with a closely cut beard and a wonderful crop of hair.
In a word, I was envious.
Now, in fact, I've been there and done that, played a role in the pulpit. One Sunday in the summer in John Wesley Hall of Christ UMC, Brooklyn, I made believe I was Elijah, blaming my inspiration on a bad piece of pork. Something like that. And I've done a first person sermon on Peter. Maybe Wesley too. As I look back upon my own theatricality in the pulpit years and years ago, I would explain why I did not continue to do it by quoting the Apostle Paul in your favorite chapter of I Corinthians, Chapter 13, verse 11. You can look it up.
I know, I know, as the late great preacher of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, David Read, put it, that the greatest sin in the pulpit is being boring. Shake them up, stir them strong, maybe even scare them (the them being us, those sitting in the pew), if only to get a real hearing for the Gospel. Again, been there, done that. I have no right, therefore, to cast the first stone at Pastor Judas.
But I shall try to explain just why theatrics in the pulpit should be unnecessary, if occasionally diverting.
Because the very act of preaching is drama enough... or should be. Preaching may have similarities with the classroom or the political rally. It may suggest the stage and the dais. But where else in your experience does anyone dare to speak for God? All right, there are a few in mental hospitals who think they are God; and quite a few Bible-wavers make noises about having the Word of God. The pulpit has been abused by many who take their sacred task as an invitation to vent their personal opinions. No need to name names, but when you hear any prophet claim eternal certainty in the arena of social and political conduct, then an alarm should go off inside your soul as you repeat to yourself the red letter words, "Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them."
Despite the abuses of the pulpit, I still agree with the statement credited to G. K. Chesterton, that "the man in the pulpit is the beautifulest thing I know..." (I leave the rest of the sentence for you to find in my Book! Try the search engine at the top of the page). And the one who undertakes that most dramatic of situations, daring to speak for God, does so, or should do so, like an officer on a ship, as one under orders. There is still plenty of room for the imagination, provided it's in the service of Another, turning the relevant facet of a many faceted Gospel toward the present moment. Knowing what is the right face is the difficult part that will exhaust whatever intelligence and wisdom a preacher has to offer. Sure personal biases will get in the way. But any preacher who listens for God's correction, as it inevitably issues in other people, will in the course of a lifetime vocation find greater and deeper certainty about the finally important things than he ever imagined at ordination.
Give me twenty minutes of plain speech every Sunday in the pulpit, about life, death, sin, and salvation... and leave the theatrics to the stage.