Margaret B. Hess is pastor of First Baptist Church in Nashua, New Hampshire.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 18-25, 1997, p. 587, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
How is what you say shaped by whether or not you are heard or valued in the hearing?
I stood in the small hallway just outside of the sanctuary, nervously jogging from foot to foot as I strained to see through the crack between the doors into the church. Even though it was a sweltering August day, my hands were ice cold and my heart was pounding so hard I thought I would faint. The two pastors of the church stood beside me, looking like enthusiastic coaches ready to burst through the doors onto the playing field.
I thought about backing out, but decided that nothing short of death could save me at that late hour. The powerful chords of the pipe organ began to vibrate throughout the building. Better to preach than to die, I decided, so I moved through the doors and preached for all I was worth.
Afterward, I was lavished with praise and smothered with kisses from my old Sunday school teachers. Before that day, I had tried to convince myself that the response of the people was not that important. So what if they didn’t like me. But I realized that it mattered terribly to me what my home church thought, and it was vitally important that they hear me. The encouragement I received that day was the deciding factor in my acceptance of God’s call to preach.
That is why I am stymied by God’s words to Ezekiel as he is commissioned to go to the people of Israel: . . . and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ And whether they hear or refuse to hear they will know that there has been a prophet among them." Then God adds, as if speaking to a child with a quivering lip: "Remember Ezekiel, sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you." I could never buy that when I was a child, much less as an adult, and even less as a preacher. Whether they hear or not? Even if they insult you?
As a preaching instructor, I often ask students to examine how their preaching is affected by the "relational acoustics" of a situation. The term comes from the theory of women’s psychological development and refers to how voice is formed and influenced by the "acoustics" of any given relationship. In other words, How is what you say shaped by whether or not you are heard or valued in the hearing?
I ask men and women the same set of questions: Do you ever censor yourself in preaching? If so, when and why? Does it matter if you are heard, or if the congregation turns a deaf ear to your preaching? How is your preaching different in a setting where you feel fully heard? Not heard? Are you sensitive to the nuances of the relationship which may dictate what kind of speech is permitted?
Many preachers admit that they censor themselves at times for a variety of reasons, healthy or dysfunctional. Some admit that if matters that they be heard, that their preaching seems more vibrant and alive if the congregation is "hearing them into speech," to use Nelle Morton’s phrase. So what are we to do with this notion of preaching whether they hear you or not?
God promises Samuel that his words will never fall to the ground, but Ezekiel is not given that advantage. For Ezekiel, the faithfulness lies in the telling.
He is not to measure the effectiveness of his preaching by the response of the people. The heart of his ability to preach with integrity and authenticity lies in his ability to take the word of God inside himself, and to root his proclamation in the word as it transforms him, Ezekiel, from the inside out. Do we dare to take preaching seriously enough to allow ourselves to be changed by the word we ingest?
Some of my most authentic sermons emerge from a total immersion in the scripture passage. I read it. I shout it. I think about the passage when I lie down and when I get up. I imagine myself in the biblical story, feeling the sun on my face and the earth beneath my feet, hearing the voices of ancient characters whisper in my ear. I insert myself into the story, searching for movement and stillness, inviting myself to smell, touch, taste, see and hear what is going on in the text. I pace my study like a caged lion as the word has its way with my heart. I become so completely saturated and filled with the word that I no longer care if it is heard or not. I care passionately that I have eaten the word of God and am a changed woman. Only then can I speak the unspeakable and name the unnamable. Only then will the people know that a prophet has been among them.