by David Sisler

While working as a magazine editor I received a cassette recording of a minister's last sermon. He preached one Sunday evening and died of a heart attack before he could return to the pulpit. I was asked to prepare that sermon for publication, as a tribute to the deceased.

After my secretary brought me her typed transcript, I listened to the tape. I was embarrassed. The last time he would ever declare the glorious counsel and power of God's Word, the minister rambled, digressed, spoke of personal bias (sometimes called "hobby horse preaching"), and after forty-five minutes had said nothing. And it was his last sermon.

In A Minister's Obstacles, Ralph G. Turnbull writes, "It is Amos with his burning, penetrating speech rather than the priests of Bethel we need to hear. It is Hosea, suffering and broken, who calls us to return to the Lord, rather than the wisdom of this world we need to hear."

Frederick Buechner, in Telling the Truth, pictures the preacher climbing the steps to the pulpit and dealing out his note cards like a river boat gambler. Says Buechner, "The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand ... Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them? Let him tell them the truth ..."

Turnbull cautioned preachers to beware of "the evasions of preaching." The Christian minister is neither a priest nor a lecturer, but a herald.

I once scoffed at a man who described himself as a "pulpiteer." Until I became one.

My position at a church I loved had been terminated against my will. I had been assigned to another church I did not wish to serve.

My wife, our four children, and I moved out of a four bedroom house into a fourteen by seventy foot mobile home. We lived sixteen miles from the church (while owning a gas guzzler, and during the oil embargo and gasoline rationing). That mobile home park in central Pennsylvania was dropped onto a valley floor between two competing mountain peaks. The lowness of the elevation match the depth of my spirit.

One family in the congregation lived between us and the church. All of the other families lived on the other side, at least sixteen miles away. In six months I made only one pastoral visit.

The church official who assigned me to that position overestimated the size of the membership by a factor of two. He overestimated the amount of the weekly offerings by a factor of three. The financial obligations which he said were all current were, in fact, as much as two years past due. The people in that little country church were innocent of the lies, but they reaped the fruit of them, because the lies produced a bitter harvest in my heart.

From the time we unloaded the U-Haul in January until we moved out in July, I searched for another church. I did not want to be there. I hated being there. On the Sunday I resigned, Harold Miller, the man in whose home I made my lone call, said, "I knew you wouldn't stay because we've never had a preacher as good as you."

"Nor," I replied, "have you ever had a worse pastor."

I had remembered the first part of Isaiah 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach."

Every thing that was negative about that situation had caused me to forget the rest of it: "To bind up the brokenhearted ... to comfort all that mourn ... to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness." Regardless of the circumstances, those things are as much a part of the pastor's anointing as delivering a sermon. They should be the last things forgotten, not the first.

In Heralds of God, James S. Stewart cautions the man or woman who ministers God's Word "to eliminate from our preaching everything that is cheap and showy and meretricious." Meretricious derives from Latin words meaning "prostitute," or "to serve for hire." It means "alluring by false showy charms; flashy; tawdry."

I resigned from that Pennsylvania church and from the denomination and moved to South Carolina to serve a non-denominational congregation and live in a twelve by sixty foot mobile home. More than a year later I was sitting with a family in a hospital waiting room. Annie, the matriarch of the clan, was in surgery. Her daughter and son-in-law, her grandchildren and their spouses, and I were awaiting the results of a biopsy.

We were sharing small talk and an occasional laugh, but all of that stopped when the surgeon walked into the room. Still wearing his surgical gown, the mask pulled down under his chin, the cap in his hand, he glanced quickly around the room. Looking directly at me and with no preamble he said, "Preacher, bring them into the chapel."

By now we knew the news would be bad. We were just waiting for the confirmation. As gently as he could the surgeon told us that his patient, our loved one, had cancer throughout her body. Nothing could be done except make her last days comfortable. He said, "I'm sorry," and left the room.

It was a low moan at first, and then our shared grief became a groan and a cry for ourselves and for Annie. We stood in a rough circle, our arms around each other. All nine of us. And we wept.

The tears flowed down my cheeks as if Annie had been my own mother. I hugged the others as if they had been my own brothers and sisters. I could think of nothing to say. I just cried with the family.

A few hours later the story was repeated to a family member who had not been present that morning. They did not know I could hear them. "Did you see how he loves us? He was crying with us!"

The right, the privilege to share that grief had been earned in the pulpit. Not by impressive oratory, but by love and compassion that was not confined to the stage (and "stage" in Latin is the root word of "pulpit").

If they had not known that I loved them by what I said to them Sunday after Sunday, they would not have believed the tears. Buechner demands, "To preach the gospel is not just to tell the truth but to tell the truth in love, and to tell the truth in love means to tell it with concern not only for the truth that is being told but with concern also for the people it is being told to."

Somewhere between Pennsylvania and South Carolina I learned to love the people as much as I loved preaching. That is the cure for meretriciousness serving for hire. That is the way to avoid the evasions of preaching. That is the difference between having the right to weep with the family as part of the family or merely being "the best preacher we've ever heard."


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