Craft of Preaching

First, Do No Harm

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Do No Harm
(Creative Commons Image by Denise Krebs on Flickr)


I recently attended a funeral service for a young person whose parents I know. The service was performed at a church of another Christian denomination, of which this young person had become a member. Yet because of her family’s active participation in their own denomination, including the entire young woman’s growing years, more than half those of those in attendance were not from the host church.

I cannot imagine the grief that comes with the loss of a child. The burden on a pastor to bring a word of comfort and healing at such a time is heavy. It is even more so when you are hosting family and friends from outside one’s own tradition, who are not familiar, nor necessarily in agreement, with all of your beliefs. I pray for all pastors in such circumstances.

At such a time, a pastor’s primary role is as a care-giver, not as a militant defender of the faith, or even an evangelist. Failure to recognize that role will result in disaster.

Yet these are the words of healing that the pastor chose to bestow upon the grieving: “I know that it isn’t politically correct, but I’m going to say it anyway. We have the only true religion.” Those words cast a cloud over the rest of the service.

Many of those in mourning at the service left fuming. They had come to hear a word of comfort and hope, and instead heard only words of arrogant disdain. Not for the first time in my ministry, I thought of one of the creeds of bioethics, a variation of the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”

Like the medical discipline, we in ministry have a great many life-giving tools available to us. We have words of comfort and hope. We have faith in the redeeming power of God. We have the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. We have the promises of the Bible that God will never forsake us. We have countless examples of faith and can surround people with the love of the Christian community. And many more.

Given these many life-giving tools, a pastor should be able to accomplish some good in this world. Led by the Spirit, we should be able to help provide some healing, comfort, and closure.

While the pastor is in the pulpit, he or she is a host. All those listening are guests. If the guests do not feel welcome, then whatever else the host does simply does not matter.

Yet I’ve seen this kind of thing happen way too many times. Good people driven from their community of faith by judgment and condemnation. Good people turned off to religion by the harsh words and arrogant attitudes.

I sincerely wish that this would go without saying, but the reality is that it needs to be said: At the very least, a sermon should do no harm. I suspect there would be many more disciples in our congregations today if all pastors heeded that simple admonition.

The tools of the pulpit do no good if they are not wielded with wisdom, compassion, and grace. Like the medical discipline, we have an obligation to use the life-giving tools God has granted us with wisdom, compassion, and grace. The tools of the pulpit are not weapons to be used to blast away whatever we deem to be harmful regardless of the collateral damage. They are not to be taken for granted or used carelessly.

The Word exists to bring peace and good will among all people, to bring the glorious reign of
God into the world. Let’s aspire to at least match the success rate of the medical community in
accomplishing something good.

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