The funeral was for an 18-year-old woman who had been found dead in a hotel room. One of her sisters was a member for our church; the rest of her family were lapsed Roman Catholics. Her friends were gay and bisexual youth who loved to party on South Street.
Among the mourners were several people who had been drinking. There was one man who was wound so tight with anger, that I worried he could kill someone. Yet here was my chance to reach them with the good news of Jesus Christ. Some were seeking solace; some were clamoring for justice; some had told me in so many words: "We don't want to hear any nonsense from you!"
How do I preach to that crowd?
This stark example may not be far removed from our everyday task of preaching. The people in our pews, and those we are sent to bring in are hurting, are hungry for a healing word, and have little experience of sitting still and listening to a sermon. They don't want to hear any nonsense, either.
I personally don't like the word "unchurched." Among other things, it implies that those in the fellowship of faith are "churched," and I can't imagine a more deadly condition. Jesus was consistently attacked by the "churched" of his day.
And yet most of the people we preach to are not used to listening to sermons. They do not respond to theological treatises. They are used to demanding work, chaotic family life, and TV. They respond to action, images, questions, moods, and stories.
|If we invite the strangers to sit at table with us, we have to grant them the freedom to exist fully among us.|
Perhaps an even greater blessing is that I became a militant atheist for years, then an agnostic, and finally what we would call today a "seeker." It taught me that those seeking God, and even those who deliberately run away from God are not stupid, more selfish than we are, need to be scolded, or are looking for a church home.
They are, instead, looking for a word that transforms.
Do We Believe?
In our head, we preachers know that we are justified by grace through faith. In our heart we know the great cost of Christ's love for us. Seekers don't care if we know that. They want to hear if we believe it, and what difference it makes in our life, and in theirs.
We have the privilege of having interns and field work students from the seminary serve at New Creation. When they preach, I usually sit in the back rows of the church. I do that because I want to gauge their voice and eye contact from a wider range.
But I also sit in the back rows so I can see how the sermon plays among people in the back rows: how it plays among the teens chewing gum; how it plays among the parents trying to keep their toddlers quiet; how it plays among the first-time visitors, who aren't sure about church; and how it plays among the "crowd."
We all have the crowd in the back of our churches: the ones who can't read the bulletin, but are ashamed to tell anyone; the ones who are angry and bitter about life's losses; the ones who were beat up last week; and the ones who were out drinking all night.
They just seem to be disinterested. But they are really pressing us for the Word of God. To give it to them, we have to speak not only the Word, but also the "languages" of the "crowd."
We need to speak the "languages" of the business executive, car mechanic, single parent, smart-mouthed teen, and silenced victim. We need to speak the death of our own neighborhood, and its resurrection in hope.
I don't believe that there can be an elevated language for the kind of preaching people are hungry for today. We are not conversing with the angels. We are bringing God's Word to people on the run, and we have to catch them where they are.
Jesus learned to speak the languages of the crowd. He wasn't a farmer but he could speak "seed crops" with the best of them. He wasn't a fisherman but he knew his fish. He wasn't a woman searching for coins, but he knew her heart.
I know I need to practice these languages, but I can't do that without visiting a lot. If I do not visit my people at home and work, my preaching words may be crisp, nice, clean, and even funny, but they'll be like cotton candy.
(I also can't preach with the solid "meat" of the faith unless I spend enough time visiting the Word in my life. If I don't have a problem with the Word as preached to me in passages from the Bible, it usually means I haven't gotten into the Bible deeply enough.)
When I was newly married, I visited a number of churches with my wife, Luisa, a native of Chile. She was learning English, and so I would translate the sermon. Because many churches don't appreciate whispering, I began to jot down points to help me remember. (It is truly amazing how much you can write in pencil on the back of a pew card, and how little you can make sense of it when you read it later!)
I found that I needed to write down very little of the best sermons. The best sermons had images and stories that were unforgettable, and it was these images and stories that carried the content. Didn't our Lord preach the same way?
I was taught to preach by having the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other, and to preach God's Word to the context. I don't think that's a bad technique, but I don't think it's sufficiently incarnational for our world. It tends to lead us to preach a God that is static in the Word, and not dynamic.
If God's Word does indeed visit us, and does not return until it has accomplished its purpose, where do we find God's Word working its way but in the community we serve? If we see our visiting of the written Word and of the people of the Word as a search — a seeking to discover the Word of God here and now — will not the Holy Spirit guide us on the search? Will not the Spirit give us words for the Word?
I don't remember much of what I preached at that funeral — I guess my images were not unforgettable. I know I preached the death of Jesus to the death we know, and the resurrection of Jesus to the hope we cling to. I hope that my words touched some hearts. I do know that I have a God who is seeking me, and all the lost, and will indeed use me as part of that search.
Patrick Cabello-Hansell is mission pastor of Iglesia Luterana Nueva Creación (New Creation Lutheran Church), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.