Life, Death, and the Task of Preaching

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

What you do matters! I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again. Let me share with you one small, if personal, example.

Recently a close friend of mine died. And when I say “close,” I mean really close. Blanche and her husband Art welcomed me to my first congregation and encouraged me as I learned the ropes of ministry and preaching. Over time, they became close friends, throwing the bridal shower for my then-fiancée, participating in our wedding, celebrating the birth of our children, and remembering all of our birthdays no matter where we moved.

So Blanche’s death to cancer was, needless to say, hard. She had lived a long and rich life, yet it was still too soon. We — her family and friends — miss her terribly. But amid the sadness that attends such a loss there was also great thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for her life and the impact she’d had on so many, of course, but also thanksgiving for the way she had faced her death. For though she was also sad at the thought of leaving us too soon, Blanche nevertheless was not afraid.

In a phone call a week before she died, she expressed again her great confidence that God was with her and would bring her safely through this life and death to life eternal. “I admire your faith,” I said simply. “I got it from you,” she replied. Stunned, I started to protest, my Midwestern sensibilities about humility needlessly agitated. “From you and all the other preachers in my life,” she continued. “You all preached to me the gospel, and I believed it.”

“It was like a deal we all had,” she said a moment later. “You all kept preaching, and I kept believing.” And there it is. Our reason for being; your reason for being. Over her lifetime, Blanche had probably heard thousands of sermons. I don’t know if any one or two stood out to her, but I do know that, cumulatively, they kept her in faith, gave her hope and purpose, and enabled her to face all the challenges of her life — including drawing close to the end of it — with courage and confidence.

That’s what we do. We preach the Christian story, and by preaching it we invite our hearers into it so that it becomes their story. So that the promises the Christian story revolves around become promises they hear and believe, and through believing discover hope, meaning, and courage.

I know preaching is difficult — wrestling with the biblical witness week in and week out, searching for words and images that help bridge the gap between these millennia-old confessions of faith and our present lives, issues and struggles. It can get exhausting. And I know you don’t always sense the impact of your words. “Nice sermon pastor,” repeated a hundred times each week, fifty weeks a year, can sometimes becomes more numbing than encouraging.

But what you do matters. Because there are a lot of us out here that have tacitly struck the same deal that Blanche named aloud: you keep preaching, and we’ll keep believing. On a day-in and day-out basis, that may not seem like much. But to those of us who have been there, walking through the valley of the shadow of death — or illness, or depression, or joblessness, or whatever — it makes the difference between hope and despair, courage and fear, life and death. So on behalf of all those who listen to your sermons — but on this day especially on behalf of Blanche and all of us who loved her — let me say thank you. Even more, thank God for you!