The Preacher

Jeremiah 2:4-13 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, August 28, 2016

“. . . the prophets spoke in the name of Baal, going after what has no value.” (Jeremiah 2:8)

pulpitThe preacher lowered his head. The congregation probably assumed he was praying, but he was pondering his scuffed shoes. The left one had a broken shoelace. He didn’t have time to find the stash of used and new laces his wife kept in the bedroom. Instead he’d rethreaded the frayed lace and cinched it as tightly as he could. And then the preacher hurried to the car, late again.

Every day felt frayed.

The thirty-something woman who’d just read the passage from Jeremiah at the lectern returned to her front pew seat. She smoothed her red plaid skirt.

The preacher had watched the congregation when she spoke the verses that had unsettled him as he worried over his sermon:

The priests didn’t ask,
“Where’s the Lord?”
Those responsible for the Instruction didn’t know me;
the leaders rebelled against me;
the prophets spoke in the name of Baal,
going after what has no value.

No one in the pews had stirred at the harsh judgment. No one sat straighter. No one appeared guiltier or humbled. Had the words become merely numbing, numbered sentences from a cranky old prophet kept in a book most claimed to revere but mostly ignored?

Each phrase the layreader had spoken sounded carefully practiced and pronounced. The preacher knew she was a popular high school teacher and volunteered to read scripture once a month. He also knew she feared her marriage was falling apart. Even with therapy, which her husband had reluctantly gone to, he still blamed himself for the death of their child last year.

The husband drank more. He worked more. He’d go days without talking. Grief had shriveled his soul to the size of a BB. He no longer attended church, but had told the preacher during a chance encounter in the supermarket’s frozen food section that he now believed in a vengeful God.

What could the preacher say to a man warped by self-loathing and an unimaginable loss? Blame Baal, like Jeremiah proclaimed? Blame God?

Why did God feel so distant and complacent so much of the time?

The preacher now studied the congregation.

They fidgeted. Cleared throats. Fanned themselves with bulletins. Stole glances at the clock on the wall.

The pulpit beckoned. The manuscript in his hand, with its red inked corrections and misspelled words, seemed no more than a thimble of water for a parched army marching through the desert.

Behind the woman in the red plaid skirt was the man whose house had been foreclosed. He hadn’t made a loan payment since two Easters ago. Mid-forties, he was again living with his parents.

There was the young couple, both working minimum wage jobs, with a child just diagnosed with cancer.

There was the kid who’d scored the winning touchdown in last year’s high school championship. Now at a college up north, he’d come home for a weekend—so he’d confided to the preacher—to tell his parents about his drug addiction and needing their help.

A woman softly cried at the end of the pew opposite the college student. Her spouse had cheated on her and her response had been to gain weight and despise herself even more. The preacher had begged her to see a counselor. Why do some so easily conclude it’s their fault for another’s stupidity and cruelty?

The gentleman with the bowtie in the back of the sanctuary—who’d “owned” that real estate on the pew for six decades and through a dozen preachers—had decided against chemotherapy. He fussed with the carnation on his lapel. He’d worn a fresh yellow flower every Sunday since his beloved wife had died five years, three months, and twenty-two days before.

The mayor sat with her family near the stained glass window depicting Daniel in the lions’ den. She’d told the preacher at a Starbucks a few days ago that she planned to announce her resignation. A rising star in state politics, she’d try to explain at a press conference tomorrow why she’d diverted funds. Maybe she’d get ahead of the story before the reporters and bloggers posted their versions and her life changed forever. She’d done a right thing in a wrong way, she said. The preacher listened as they’d sipped coffee together. Right now, she draped her arm over the shoulder of her youngest, a girl bullied every day at school because of her stutter.

In the front pew on the right side, where he’d sat as a kid, the soldier back from his fourth tour in Afghanistan drew stick figures on the worship bulletin. He’d attempted suicide shortly after returning home, unable to escape the grim images of buddies who’d died. The preacher had helped him connect to a psychiatrist at the VA hospital.

They all waited for the preacher and his sermon based on a jealous and fearsome Old Testament God. A God that demanded Jeremiah condemn wayward believers for lusting after glory that has no value.

Jeremiah’s time was little different than now, the preacher thought. How could God not have anger at a world always at war, always spawning new diseases, always bullying, always spreading fear, always lonely, always cheating, always arrogant, always looking good on the outside while rotting at the core?

The preacher rose. He left the manuscript and its misspelled words on the chair. The pages fluttered from the overhead fan cooling the sanctuary in the summer’s heat. Stepping forward, he realized the broken shoelace had come undone. He cleared his throat, and then gazed at these people he served and loved. He told them about Jeremiah’s angry, disappointed God . . . about the hurting God threatening to abandon a people that so often pursued the meaningless and the worthless.

And yet, in spite of Jeremiah’s honest take on God’s dim view of creation, the preacher knew he’d also tell these foolish people how much they were loved. Even he was loved. If these people had confessed many of their faults to him, he possessed a hundred more secret sins that only he—and God—knew.

Jeremiah wailed that the priests no longer asked, “Where’s the Lord?”

But the congregation asked. The preacher had no guaranteed answer, only belief.

God would not desert them.

God would not condemn them.

God, amazingly, would always choose to hurt with them.

Didn’t old Jeremiah, even at his prophetic worst, believe that?

The preacher, flawed and weak and underpaid and overworked, also believed it.

And so, in the pulpit without a piece of paper to stare at, he stared at his congregation and told them the little he knew about the angry and disappointed God who would always love them.

What else could he preach but the truth he barely knew himself?

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6 Comments

  1. I enjoyed this so much, thank you.
    ‘God, amazingly, would always choose to hurt with them.’ I never ‘heard’ this in my heart before. That’s what I love about your writing, I can read a posting and it is good. Later, something about it works its way into my heart and when I re-read it, I am lifted. This one will come back to me with insights and comfort and I will be grateful for your attention to detail and thoughtful prose.

  2. Larry,

    This is a remarkable and thoughtful response to the comment of Jeremiah. To reflect on the response of a pastor to his/her people is to be a downhill skier moving through the gates on a steep slope. Each gate important to execute with precision and care, people are hungry for hope. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t but that can’t mean we don’t try. Sometimes we miss the mark and yet the next gate is staring us in the face.

    The preacher has to start with his/her own person, seeing the lack and sin she/he is facing within themselves. Listening to the people, to really know what people are facing in their own lives. This is how to gather fodder for our paltry offering on a Sunday morning to hurting people. It is way to difficult for any person to contemplate unless they have searched their souls and realized the message is also for them.

    Thank you

    1. Thanks, John. I can’t say I did it all of the time, but any of my truly “good” sermons were first preached at/for me. Why, with hope and humility, try to proclaim the “good news” to the congregation if I don’t see myself as one of the hearers needing the word? Straddling the pulpit and the pew invites vulnerability.

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