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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pulpit

by Robert McAfee Brown

Robert McAfee Brown, whose name is symbolic for engaged theologian and ethicist, is perhaps best known for being able to write clearly, for example, in Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Theology and Saying Yes and Saying No: On Rendering to God and Caesar. This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 27-August 3, 1994, pps. 723f. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


During most of my professional life I have exercised my ordination through classroom teaching. The preaching I've done could be said to follow the "in and out" approach: a quick entrance to the local pulpit and a quicker exit, leaving the host pastor to pick up the pieces. But then my pastor asked if I would take on about half the preaching assignments while our congregation was searching for a new associate pastor. We were thinking of six to eight months, but by the time a new minister was secured, three and a half years had passed. Thus did the Lord try the endurance of the congregation of First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, California.

When I decided to take on this task of "short" duration, I decided that I should go all the way from podium to pulpit. I imposed two basic conditions on myself: there would be no warmed-over sermons, dragged from my files, and I would take my text and topic each week from the lectionary. It was surprisingly easy to fulfill the first promise, for no sooner did those old sermons emerge from the file drawer than their manifest shortcomings eloquently demonstrated to me that if publicly exhumed they would embarrass me much more than they would enlighten anyone else.

As for the promise to abide by the lectionary, a funny thing happened on the way to the pulpit. I found the use of the lectionary not only not constricting, but liberating.

At the start I did a little informal canvassing, asking our parishioners if I should use the lectionary. About 6 percent responded that I should, 19 percent responded that I could but should not be bound by it, while 75 percent responded, "What's the lectionary?" We rehearsed again that the lectionary is a group of readings—four biblical selections for each Sunday of the church year. The readings are ecumenically determined, providing the consoling thought that on a given Sunday ministers all over the world are grappling with the same material. Each Sunday the lectionary offers readings from both the Hebrew scriptures as a whole and the Psalter in particular, as well as readings from both the Gospels and the Epistles.

To be sure, this arrangement still provides a great deal of latitude in choosing a text, since every Sunday offers four sets of possibilities for a sermon. So the arrangement hardly boxes one in. It does ensure, however, that from time to time one will be forced to consider passages that don't seem to lend themselves to the creation of a sermon. My experience was that in ways little short of amazing, a theme or text would emerge from the lectionary readings and speak to the human condition at the moment. I can recall only one time when the lectionary failed me, although perhaps what happened was that I failed it. This was the Sunday after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles. Nothing seemed to "fit" that event, so we had to repair to Amos and be reminded that justice must roll down like waters, and righteousness must flow like a mighty stream. That was the exception that proved the rule.

My three and a half years with the lectionary taught me a number of things about the faith and its proclamation. First, I was always reminded that my task in the pulpit was not to give a little talk that might be called "Bob Brown looks at life," and might be characterized by an opening phrase like, "Here are some things I've been thinking about this week." No, I was called to wrestle with two apparently unlikely realities, the world of the Bible and the world of the here and now. No matter where one started, the sermon was not a sermon until those two worlds finally came together, each illuminating the other until they could not be separated. Karl Barth's famous aphorism vindicated itself dozens of times: "The Christian must always read with the Bible in one hand and the morning paper in the other." I discovered that our human story, no matter how immediate and apparently brand new, is made out of the stuff of the centuries, and that everything in our experience rings a bell with biblical experience—adultery, doubt, testing in a refiner's fire, suffering or death; and grace offered beyond any calculation.

One has to be very skillful to keep the two stories from overlapping. One also has to take in the whole sweep of a passage, not just the "nice" parts. I was impressed during Advent each year with how easily we let the words of the last portion of the Magnificat (Luke 1:51-54) wash over us, so that we don't have to take it seriously: that the monarchs will be cast down, the poor lifted up, the hungry fed and the rich denied everything. That doesn't fly very well with our middle-class congregations; we have wonderful ways of deflecting its sting. But the words are still there, and will come back year after year until sometime, somewhere, somebody insists that we confront them.

Using the lectionary means that we can't confine our preaching to the "canon within the canon" that each of us erects with his or her favorite texts. (This is a great temptation to those of us who preach only sporadically.) My own penchant in this regard has been to tilt toward social-justice issues. But if I take the lectionary seriously, I can't get away with concentrating only on those themes, for the same people come back Sunday after Sunday, and they will yearn for and finally demand more. By looking into people's faces I discovered that I'm not faithful to the gospel if I preach only judgment and social concern week after week. Not only do members of any congregation need to be roused out of complacency; most of them are hurting and need support and comfort, not an unwavering diet of chastisement. Time in the pulpit sensitized me to the lives of those who are not in the pulpit. A rousing denunciation of the gulf war isn't necessarily what a couple needs when they've just learned that their daughter has cancer. Every week some worshipers are hurting and some are exultant; some have just lost their jobs and some are aflame with the need for justice in the workplace.

I also discovered that it is a personal enrichment for the preacher to live closer to scripture through the discipline the lectionary provides. The lectionary pushed me to parts of the Bible I hadn't looked at for 40 years: words of power from Malachi, of all places, and episodes of deep meaning in Samuel and Kings. My own greatest personal enrichment came from confronting a psalm every week. At a guess, I preached more out of the Psalms than out of any other book. What I liked about the psalm writers was their unremitting honesty. They knew all about anger and doubt and fear, and they shouted it out. They also knew about joy and compassion and trust, and they shouted that out too. Some of us can do one or the other of those things, but usually not simultaneously. We have to have time to shift gears. The psalmists, on the other hand, could do it within the confines of a single verse. They do not trust God, but they will again trust God. They are in pain? Joy will appear.

This is one reason the Psalms are so powerful for us. They do not simply "match our moods"; they challenge them. If we are downcast, the psalmist can lift us up. If we are too secure in a sheltered joy, the psalmist can quickly cut us down to size.

This led to a new recognition of the psalmists' authority, and through them to the authority of scripture itself. The authority does not lie in the preacher. Members of the congregation who were upset by something I said could not, at the end of the day, hold me solely responsible for upsetting them, unless I had grossly misrepresented the passage under scrutiny. Their quarrel was not finally with me, but with the Bible. I could gradually absent myself and leave the battle with the proper adversaries.

If someone was grasped by a word of healing and forgiveness, that was not my doing either, but the work of the One to whom the Bible witnesses. The healing power was not lodged in the preacher's frail frame, but in the stout and trustworthy authority of a script that had stood the test of time for 2,000 years. It could be relied upon long after the preacher had disappeared from the scene.

Stepping into the pulpit regularly did involve a funny thing, a sense of hilarity and mirth at the notion that God will entrust a human being with the opportunity to share something not of his or her creation, not something he or she had earned the right to share, but something that is pure gift, easily sullied except for grace, and sometimes, for a moment, shining clear and beautiful and beyond compare.

 


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