Pa's Boring Books
Twin Robert plunked himself down in Pa's recliner one afternoon while the patriarch was roaming in some far country. Robert surveyed the books accumulated on the coffee tables flanking the recliner. He asked his mother a rhetorical question, "Why does Pa read boring books?"
His Mom is too polite to give the obvious answer: because Pa is boring. Instead, she just smiled and suggested that someday, maybe, Robert wouldn't find them so boring. Yeah, yeah, and the cow will jump over the moon.
One of those boring books lying heavily on my coffee table was written by, can you imagine!, a bishop, a Methodist bishop no less. The boring title is "Conversations with Barth on Preaching." Former Duke University chaplain, now a bishop of the UMC in Alabama, William Willimon, is the author. We heard him preach a couple of years ago. You can read my evaluation of the sermon at Christ Church UMC NYC. I'll spare you my jaundiced thoughts about bishops and wisdom and intelligence and preaching. Let's just say I was very pleasantly surprised by the message of Willimon's book, that preaching is not only central to the church's witness but to the salvation of the whole human race.
The problem, however, in reading books on the job from which you have been retired is that you inevitably measure what you have done with those fifty years in the pulpit against what the author says you should have been doing. What I should have been doing, according to Willimon and Barth, is preaching The Word. Not giving advice. Not meditating. Not offering wisdom. And never, never just opining.
I hear echoes of my homiletics professor, Lutheran Paul Scherer. He was fond of insisting that the preacher is like the captain on a ship whose voice on the PA system orders, "Now hear this." Dr. Scherer also set down the rule for a sermon and its treatment of Scripture that "this is that": the Bible's situation is our situation. When paraphrasing a Gospel event, for instance, do it in the present tense, not as if it were an oft-told tale from long, long ago. And, as I repeated in my review of Bethany Church a couple of weeks ago, the sermon should always end at the foot of the cross.
Where (the foot of the cross), according to Barth, who kept a copy of the Eisenheim altarpiece in his study, the preacher will emulate John the Baptist pointing to the crucified savior, declaring, "Ecce homo," "Behold the man!"
I am tempted to report and respond to those who, over the years, have complained about this approach to preaching, that it is arrogant, that it is narrow, and that it places an unbearable burden on the preacher to speak not only about God but for God. Another time, same place... maybe.
What interests me more is measuring, measuring my own life and times as a preacher against this Barthian standard. You, some of you, those who have suffered my preaching for decades, will be able to do the measuring more dispassionately than me. I shall only repeat the verdict my auto repairman pronounced on me after correcting my bumbled attempt to fix a carburetor: "I'll say this for you, Mr. Howard, you tried."
I never "pulled them in" like the pulpiteers of megachurches. My congregations, like most congregations everywhere, perennially struggled to make ends meet. No one every beat down my door to publish my sermons. The most votes I ever got as a nominee for General Conference delegate was twelve (out of three thousand). Not a few congregants used my seventeen minutes of eloquence for a catnap. But like Tony said, I tried.
There in Brooklyn, where I did try to imitate John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus and away from myself, life rose vibrantly around me. Especially with the young men and women now dispersed to corners of this land far distant from the borough of churches. I was unaware of it at the time but in retrospect it seems like divine ingenuity to send this brash suburban Connecticut Yankee, whose seminary classmates named "Yahweh," to an ethnic (Scandinavian) enclave too often afflicted with familial dysfunction wrought by alcoholism. In the name of the Galilean I became something of a surrogate father to many children, children, most of whom are now in their sixties, who have had a good strong run at this mortal life. The wonder to me is that God used me to encourage life for a new generation, while I had other intentions, like fashioning a career and making something of myself.
Valley Stream is the same, but very different, story. The adventures there remain too fresh, and the constituents who consult this website too numerous, for me to detail what God hath wrought through Tony's customer who tried. I sought there on the western edge of Nassau County to make the hour of worship on Sunday the most important hour of the week. I did take preaching seriously. I sought most Sundays to take us all to the foot of the cross. And I did see life, vibrant and positive, rise around our small suburban cathedral.
With a little bit of luck and the help of my friends I hope to hear St. Peter greet me at the gates of pearl with, "Well, Bob, I'll say this for you, you tried."