BARBARA MARQUART JOHNSTON
Pastors may recall the name of the journal that used to be sent to subscribers, offering advice about how to improve their sermons, and some hints of topics. I was never told why, but one quarter, it was sent to me with a cover letter asking if I would submit an article on “What I Expect from a Sermon.” The editors were looking for opinions from lay people.
My submission was fairly short, as I recall, ending with the comment that a pastor would be wise to preach a sermon that may be the first one listener may have ever heard. As well, a sermon should be as if it would be the last one someone else may hear. In other words, what a pastor says from the pulpit is extremely important.
I have been told over and over that it is a matter of “style”, that some pastors are theologically brilliant and enjoy teaching, while others enjoy being witty and making the audience laugh. I’m told, “While there is no false doctrine, don’t make a fuss.”
In all my growing up years, I have intentionally listened to sermons through the ears of a newcomer, in an effort to imagine how they are perceiving various things the pastor is saying. I really learned at lot that way!
This habit became more important as the youngsters around me started growing up mentally and spiritually. The sermon should go a long way to cause a young man to be attracted to being a pastor. Perhaps the most obvious presentation I ever heard came from a youth gathering at one of our larger churches in Ft Wayne. Everyone knew it was a recruitment affair, and the day was finalized in the chancel with closing devotions. I do not recall the pastor’s name, but I was shocked when, in order to make a statement of some kind, he ran up and down the aisle balancing a parasol on the palm of his hand. As I studied the young congregation, it was obvious that the worshippers were not just amused; they were insulted, to be doing that in their beautiful church. Some even rose and left the gathering in disgust.
Another time, when visiting a campus chapel service on Easter Sunday, there was a pastor who never stepped foot in the pulpit. He paced up and down the aisle, stopping, taking the hand of whoever was sitting on the aisle seat. He was vested, and one would think he would do something solemn and special for Easter Sunday. When he was offering prayers, he actually faced altar. But , as he cruised up and down the aisle, all I could think of was, “He is standing in Christ’s way.”
In other words, I have always looked for a shepherd who could lead the sheep to Christ, our Shepherd, not show off for them. In my effort to explain how deep this goes, I made a mental list of “what if. . .”
What if someone just buried a child or spouse?
What if someone had just been diagnosed with an incurable disease?
What about the mom who has a child in the military and is serving in a war?
What if a marriage is on the brink of crashing in a divorce?
What if someone has just been forced to go bankrupt, sell the family home, with nowhere to go.
In reality, there people in our congregations with all those issues tormenting them. Word and Sacrament done properly is the best possible medicine we can give them.
“If the pastor is not going to show reverence or love for the Bible verses and beautiful hymns, prayers, absolution, etc. why should those in the pews? We have allowed so many of the beautiful, meaningful parts of our public worship be ripped from us. Where will it stop?
“Liturgy is so boring.” Have you heard that? However, in parishes where the Liturgy has been explained, we chant with all the company of Heaven, listening to what God is telling us.
It is critical, then, that our pastors take the lead in returning to our unmistakable Lutheran doctrine and worship. It is crucial that we expose our kids to the seriousness of our worship. They will be watching us. Let us follow through with our promise to bring them up in the Christian Faith!
As my late husband was fond of saying, “If it’s humor they want, let them watch “Saturday Night Live”.