For the preacher, the question is how to balance obedience and prophecy
It was the 17th century Anglican martyr, William Laud, who said it best, preaching his final sermon on the scaffold before his death. “This is a very uncomfortable place to preach in,” he began. They were the first of his final words.
Circumstances certainly different, still, I’ve recalled these words recently, preaching amid all this pain and amid these scandals. A parish priest uninvolved, at least immediately, in the evil unveiled in Pennsylvania and in Washington, D. C. and beyond, and even in my own diocese, as a preacher normally not short on words, it’s been difficult to know just what to say.
For the preacher, the question is how to balance obedience and prophecy. How does a preacher remain faithful to his or her superiors, for instance, when so many of our superiors appear to be the problem? How, as preachers, are we to remain faithful to the lay people we serve, but also them? And how, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus warned centuries ago, are to we avoid putting the Church on a stage for the laughter of bemused unbelievers, our quarrels served up for the devil who likes what he hears?
It’s the tension of the Psalm. “Dumb and silent before the wicked, I refrained from any speech. But my sorrow increased; my heart smoldered within me. In my thoughts a fire blazed up, and I broke into speech” (Ps. 39:3-4). Such is the internal crisis, I should think, wresting in the heart of every faithful preacher, the burning stress, less dire, of course, but still similar to Laud’s final words on the scaffold.
But in the Psalm is also the answer, the fire blazing up in our hearts. In chaos amid tension it’s easy to lose sight of the basics, to be paralyzed by fear, forgetting what’s essential. And that, of course, is the Holy Spirit, without which we shouldn’t dare preach at all and which shouldn’t be stifled.
We preachers mustn’t think ourselves scripted company agents; rather, we must remember that at our ordinations, professions, and/or consecrations we promised to minister the word “worthily and wisely.” And that means being open and obedient to the Holy Spirit above all else, even when it’s risky and the consequences painful.
For me, I felt called to acknowledge and even encourage my parishioners’ anger, reminding them of the righteousness of it, of the natural sense of justice lying underneath it. I asked my people to pray to the Holy Spirit to be stirred up among us and to burn. I asked them to call on the Holy Spirit to break things and not to rest content with mere apologies and policies.
For we preachers it’s our only hope, the Holy Spirt and courage. And it’s what we owe our preaching; this, before any sort of institutional allegiance. Of course, always gentle and appropriate in the pulpit, given the diversity and youth of many of our listeners; nonetheless, we should still preach with the fire which properly belongs to our ministry, a fire that’s been too faint far too long.
It was Dr. King, echoing Jeremiah, who said, “The word of God is upon me like fire shut up in my bones, and when God’s word gets upon me, I’ve got to say it, I’ve got to tell it all over everywhere.” This is the sort of preaching and the sort of preachers we need. This is how to preach in pain amid scandal, open to the Holy Spirit and to its burning fire.
Really, it’s the only way; everything else being hollow and not worth hearing.