Listening to a sermon, I form a portrait of myself. I hear a perspective on the scripture text or theme that makes assumptions about the assembly and therefore about me, as well. Sometimes those assumptions fit; sometimes, not.
If the reference relates to me, I may not even notice the preacher’s generalization. If the preacher says, “All of us at some time or other find ourselves despairing over uncertainties in our lives,” I agree. Everyone is vulnerable.
Many times, however, I have had to ask myself, Who is this “we”? If the preacher says “We are so comfortable in our community, the Resurrection doesn’t mean much…” I perk up and spend the next minutes wanting to ask, “To whom do you think you are speaking?”
Of course we are “comfortable” in the United States; even the poorest have more than in some nations. Of course it is impossible to believe in the Resurrection. That man in Mark’s story, after all, said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Jesus is the stumbling block. Yet, along with that man in Mark, we hold the Resurrection as crucial. Beware of your words, preacher.
Sometimes the preacher’s words close a circle around those who are present as if we are set apart from a world gripped by need “out there.” When our mission is to help “them,” those who are in need seem not to include “us.” Yet, we who come to worship on Sunday are not in control of our lives, standing on solid rock, fully trusting in the Lord. Instead, we come as those who also look for nurture and solace.
On those Sundays when the preacher’s words blast through the sanctuary walls so that we can see Jesus embracing the whole world, “we” become entwined with “them” — together, loved by God, and united in our joys, failings, and needs.
The use of “us” and “we” should signal the preacher to check whether the generality is large enough — or deep enough — to suit everyone. If not, we won’t believe you. We’ll object quietly in our pews and turn off our ears. “We” do not all agonize over the same things or hold the same fears or prejudices.
Whenever we preachers generalize about the church or the assembly, we need to scrutinize our presuppositions. Be careful about telling us who we are. Ask: Does what I am saying honestly fit everybody?
I have one more caution about the great power of preachers’ words: The sermon may or may not speak to me and to others in the assembly in specific ways.
A biology professor once told me he was troubled at how little pastors seemed to know about science. He didn’t hear references to science in sermons, including mine. It was a fair critique. I started reading the science section in the New York Times every week. Not that I understood, but it helped, a little. Mostly I like the stories about space exploration because the language of physics and astronomy is imagistic. Still, referring to scientific exploration at least acknowledges those whose lifeblood is in laboratories. We can do that, as well, for others.
Look back at a sermon you have preached. Ask yourself whether any sentence acknowledges the perspectives and life situations of people who are:
young adults living alone for the first time
illiterate (which includes small children)
scientists and engineers — people for whom logic is primary
poets and musicians — people who are facile with imagery
tied to what is literal — not given to metaphorical thinking
expectant — becoming parents or starting a new job or moving away
at their wit’s end
resentful at being forced to go to church
recovering from a big scare — medical or relational
barely clinging to faith
not sure what they believe about anything
unquestioningly solid in their faith
sentimental about their faith
skeptical about everything they hear or read
other categories not yet named here…
I am not suggesting that every sermon has to say something appropriate for each of these. It can’t be done. One Sunday, however, the scripture readings may offer reasoned points about faith that the scientists in the assembly will appreciate. Another Sunday might journey into the world of the second century such that historians sit up and nod approval.
Yet later, when the preacher dives into an exposition on a biblical story that shows God’s reliability time after time, the folks who are expectant or worried might hear every word with tears of gratitude. All of these possibilities are available in the Revised Common Lectionary. With three readings each week, the preacher has many avenues for choosing a focus that is “hearable” by people who listen for different things.
Over the course of a year, the preacher exercises respect for the assembly by paying attention to whether, at least at some points, these varying perspectives, life experiences, and faith positions have been taken into account.
It is not easy! It means talking theology and schoolyard life with nine year-olds, household economics with single parents, politics with people whose vote you cancel out with yours, and learning the language of a field that has not (yet) interested you.
Because each preacher’s brain has worn grooves in certain ways of seeing and thinking, close attention to our words and assumptions is required for faithful preaching.