EEL 6 Preaching as Public Love

First some personal notes. It’s probably obvious to anyone who has seen me preach that I (usually) enjoy the task. I have almost always enjoyed being in front of people. My social niche as an identity-forming adolescent was class clown. So I have long enjoyed ”making” people laugh and the position of preacher and other occasions of having a public voice give me opportunity for this. I also enjoy teaching a lot, learning and then sharing what I have learned, and preaching avails me of this opportunity as well.

Beyond what I receive sort of selfishly from preaching is the deeper satisfaction of preaching as an act of compassion, of care. Preaching is fundamentally and necessarily an act of love. Its primary purpose is to facilitate the parishioner’s relationship with the Divine. There are secondary purposes—to teach and inform, to encourage and comfort, to chastise and awaken, and so on—but always with the ultimate purpose of escorting the listener into a more faithful relationship with God.
In addition, as part of corporate worship, preaching is part of the church’s important task of creating a community as parishioners together hear the same words—even if they don’t receive them with the same understanding and/or enthusiasm! In fact, a diversity of understanding and application is probably desirable (though not an excuse for ambiguity).
Preaching is one of the most well-received and encouraged aspects of ministry and thus one of the most potent for both harm and blessing. So it must be done with awareness:
of the authority that many parishioners invest in the Scripture from which the sermon itself derives much of its legitimacy;
of the authority that many parishioners invest in the office of ministry;
and that for many parishioners it is the central focus of weekly worship.
But beyond all of this, the preacher must carry into the pulpit an awareness of the personal respect and affection with which the he/she is regarded by many parishioners and the vulnerability that comes with it. This personal respect and affection is not universal nor a given with one’s call. It is developed over time on both parties part. It is created to some degree in preaching, but more profoundly it is developed through pastoral care. I cannot overemphasize the foundational role of pastoral care in preaching. It is developed through deeds of pastoral compassion both directly and indirectly. It takes time and love.
And by time, I don’t mean a few months. The preacher will be listened to attentively and even appreciatively. But it takes years to establish a deep and broad sense of trust. Some parishioners will take the preacher and her words to heart. They will bring to the sermon the good regard that they had for previous preachers. Some will bring pain and anger. Most will bring a willingness to hear.
But this is only half of the story. It also takes years before the preacher has that Sunday on which he stands in the pulpit and realizes that he has come to love his congregation. Again, it is not universal, automatic or given. But it is a wonderful surprise when it happens.

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