Craft of Preaching

The Dark Side of Proclamation

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Celebration, the feast of victory, new life, abundant life, eternal life, the Good News, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the community of the Holy Spirit.

That's what the Gospel is all about; that's what preaching is all about. Who wouldn't want to hear that?

Plenty of people.

We are the church, the body of Christ, God's hands and feet in the world. Why would anyone ever speak ill of us?

For good reason.

As much as I cherish the faithful witness of so many of God's disciples in the world, they are not my only target audience. I have another target audience who has no interest in hearing what I have to say and has nothing good to say about the church.

I'm not speaking just about those outside the church or sworn enemies of the Christian faith. When I give a sermon, I know full well that I'm also speaking to disillusioned young people, doubters who are gradually hardening into skeptics, burned-out members who have fought too many bitter fights in council meetings, those distrustful of the clergy, those who have been hurt by the faithful, and the world-wise who show up only because it brings a little joy to mother.

There are many who question the credibility of the church, who believe that we in the pulpit are grinning, nattering Alfred E. Neumans, who acknowledge no worries, who have no connection with the real, sordid world that most people inhabit, who perpetually smell rose petals even when  the stench of the real world becomes overpowering.

That's why we preach sin or law or whatever you want to call it. Too often, we have done that by pointing accusing fingers at that which we view as evil, which does absolutely nothing for our credibility with the audience I have in mind.

That's why, when I train my sights on sin and evil in the world, the first salvo crashes down on the church. I have to affirm what those disdainful of the church feel in their guts: that the church has screwed up, badly, on way too many occasions. That many of the great heroes of the Christian faith: Theodosius, Charlemagne, Olaf of Norway, the Crusaders, popes, and Martin Luther said and did terrible things that have brought pain and bitterness and death into the world. I have to confess that it was fervent Christian missionaries who baptized children in the Americas in the 16th century, and then immediately killed them before they could relapse into their pagan traditions and "lose their salvation."

I admit that when we confess our sins before God in our worship, the church stands at the front of the line, or rather kneels at the front of the line, begging forgiveness. There is sin in the world; there is evil. As Romans says, we are all human and we all screw up. 

I want those people who feel disconnected with the church to know that the new life we proclaim is not something we dispense out of our superior wisdom or phony pretense to righteousness. We proclaim it because we know it well. We can stand there and proclaim that forgiveness is real because we know that the hard way. We know the difference between living in despair and living in the celebration, new life, eternal life, and the grace of Jesus, and we know it because we've spent time in both worlds.

Those who try to protect the church with their silence, or focus exclusively on the positive, seal off the church from those who need it the most. No, we are not Pollyannas who flit along high on God's grace, oblivious of the hard side of life. Nor are we the pure safeguards of morality come to lecture the dregs of the humanity on how to attain our standards.

We are the church, the body of Christ, God's hands and feet in the world. The only thing that gives us credibility is that we own our failures, and that we know first-hand from them how rich is the grace, the celebration, the new, abundant, eternal life, the Good News, the celebration, the feast of victory.

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