When I was courting The Rev. Carl Parker’s daughter (who eventually became my wife, Patsy) Mr. Parker was serving as a District Superintendent in the Marion District of the Methodist Church. I was nervous. I wanted to make a good impression. I was considering entering seminary in the fall, and I wanted the approval of this preacher’s family.
Because a District Superintendent does not serve one congregation, but supervises those preachers in the district, Mr. Parker spent many Sundays in the pew rather than in the pulpit, a situation that he detested.
That particular Sunday, the preacher was a master of ambiguity and equivocation. Mr. Parker squirmed in his pew as the preacher carefully qualified just about every statement made in the sermon. Mr. Parker withdrew his large railroad watch from his pocket at five-minute intervals throughout the sermon, the watch that had been given to him by some thankful congregation of the past. He would gaze at his watch, shake his head, thrust it back into his pocket and groan slightly. The poor preacher continued to flail away, thrashing at his subject, rather than delivering it.
“We need to be more committed to Christ…but not to the point of fanaticism, not to the point of neglect of our other important responsibilities.
“We need to have a greater dedication to the work of the church. Now I don’t mean that the church is the only significant organization of which you are a member. Most of us have obligations to various community groups….” And on, and on. Every five minutes, with some ceremony, Mr. Parker withdrew his gold railroad watch from his pocket, opened it, looked at it, remained surprised that so little time had been used, closed it, and slapped it back in his pocket with regret.
After service, all of us in the District Superintendent’s party brushed right past Mr. Milk Toast with barely a word of greeting. Mr. Parker led us down the sidewalk back to the District parsonage, like ducks in a row. He went right through the front door and charged up the stairs. Pausing midway, he whirled around, shaking a finger at me and thundering, “Young man, if God should be calling you into the pastoral ministry, and if you should ever be given a church by the bishop, and if God ever gives you a word to say, for God’s sake would you say it!”
Mainline Protestantism seems to be suffering from a failure of theological nerve. Our trumpets suffer from our uncertain sound. The bland leading the bland.
Courage to speak arises, in great part, from the conviction that God has given us something to say. I recall Leander Keck (in a debate on the most effective sermon styles) saying “When the messenger is gripped by a Message, the messenger will find the means to speak it.”
As preachers, we know the challenge, in a relativistic culture, if standing up and saying, “This news is good, this word is true.”
On one occasion Walter Brueggemann said to us, “If you are a coward by nature, don’t worry. We can still use you. You can get down behind the biblical text. You can peek out from behind the text saying, ‘I don’t know if I would say this, but I do think the text does’.” I like that image – the preacher hunkered down, taking cover behind the biblical text, speaking a word not of the preacher’s devising.
Courage to speak requires clarity about our source of authority. If we only stand in the pulpit to “share ourselves,” or to “tell my story” as some misguided recent homiletics has urged us, then the church shall end, not with a bang but in a simpering sigh after a thousand qualifications and reservations.
This Sunday, take Mr. Parker’s advice. If God gives you a word for God’s people, for God’s sake, say it!
William H. Willimon