I've confessed to you several times that I have a recurring nightmare. I am standing in the pulpit preaching a sermon and no one is listening. So I gather up my papers and walk out. If our dreams tell us about our prevailing anxieties, you can guess what mine were for fifty years, that I'd be like Father McKenzie in the Beatles' song, "writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear."
Obviously some preachers don't share my anxiety. Either that or they are so enchanted by the sound of their own voice they don't notice that no one is listening.
Like this morning. In a church that shall remain nameless. With a guest preacher whom I shall also not name, except to say he's retired, does not live in Central Connecticut, and does not know me (though he should) from Adam. So there we were, preacher and congregation. He went on, and on, and on, and on, and on. About prayer. I think it's safe to say there isn't a reported instance of Jesus praying in the Gospels but our pulpiteer not only referred to it but fully developed the story line. The subject of his discourse was supposed to be The Lord's Prayer. He finally got to it after the first twenty minutes of introduction. And, then, he proposed to go at the prayer verse by verse. The congregation all but let out a collective groan. I mean, this fellow never met a diverting thought he didn't follow. The gentleman in front of me looked repeatedly at his watch. He shook it to see if it was working. Finally, as a last resort, to make sure the time that was passing had actually passed, he consulted his calendar.
And the preacher preached on.
He had been assisted earlier in the service by his wife and the associate pastor of the church. After the first thirty minutes the wife rolled her eyes and looked in the direction of the host pastor who, ever so slightly, raised her eyebrows as if to say, "There's not much I can do." What she did do when the preacher finally, blessedly, thank God Almighty, sat down was to race through the remainder of the service like a speed-reader.
Those of you who know me well know that I'm not amused by the cliched stories about long-winded preachers. In fact, I have been known to take strong exception to any criticism of me on that score. In the pulpit I always have a text. Well, almost always, even for funerals. That discipline of writing down what you're going to say was instilled in me at seminary by a Lutheran pastor professor, Dr. Paul Scherer. He told us we could dispense with writing a manuscript for our sermons after the first ten years in the pulpit. But he knew that with ten years practice we wouldn't abandon it in our maturity. I certainly didn't. A written text, provided one is not enslaved to it, is the congregation's safeguard that the preacher will not be repetitive and does have a fixed beginning and ending. By the time I retired my sermons had been tailored to fit a fifteen to seventeen minute time period, less if the service was packed with extra music or an occasional event like a baptism.
In my Sabbath wanderings in the past two years, listening in on how others do it, the preaching, I can report that most clergy are circumspect with the clock. It's these exceptions that blow my mind... or, I should say, numb my mind as they infuriate my sense of professional pride.
Think about it this way. The person in the pulpit is under the same expectation as those listening to love your neighbor as yourself. Sure, love, according to your favorite description of it, is patient and kind, never rude, forbears all things, and endures all things. If those admonitions can be read as directions for those of us sitting in the pew, doesn't the pulpiteer have an obligation, as in the Golden Rule, or as in the Apostle Paul's words (again), not to insist on his own way? For forty minutes, by God!
I'll say this for the morning's preacher: he is a man of truth, if not mercy. At the beginning of his filibuster he took off his wristwatch and laid it in front of him on the pulpit. He then repeated the line about someone asking the preacher what it means to do that, put the watch in front of you. "Nothing," he smiled as we dutifully and innocently laughed. Succeeding minutes of torment proved him to be telling the terrible truth.