Thursday, January 11, 2007
The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter
President Ford kept his good humor
The funeral of America’s much-respected 38th President Gerald Ford is a reminder that we tend to remember the best and worst in our history. And if this is true of presidents, it is also true of preachers, even if most of us ministers do not occupy podiums as public as the well-loved, former president.
I do indeed remember the best and worst sermons, and my memory of terrible sermons in association with President Ford is not coincidental. I heard my two “all time worst” during his presidency, and one of them concerned him!
Now, let me say that it takes more than mere length to create a bad sermon. Indeed, I have sat enthralled by sermons of an hour and more from a wonderful preacher --- an Episcopalian, no less --- who held congregations spellbound during my seminary years. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but brevity alone does not always lend itself to rightly dividing the word of truth --- which is, according to Scripture, what we preachers are charged to do.
Also, I am quite aware that thanks to 24-hour cable TV, one can find an almost endless supply of bad sermons, but in that case, one has the option of changing the channel, so these do not count as entries on my list.
After all, if you are present in a worshiping congregation -- short of feigning illness and rushing out with a coughing spell, you just have to sit and endure the tirade until the bitter end. All of us who go to church have had to do that--even those of us who preach for a living.
The one terrible TV sermon I will note was a couple of years ago when a (very famous) TV evangelist was holding forth on Good Friday, expounding the Seven Last Words from Christ’s Cross as “Precepts for What to Do When You’re Having a Bad Day!” I guess Calvary was a bad day for poor Jesus. Really!
I rather like the ways of the Russian Orthodox in Chicago who stand for their services. True, that can get tiresome, but in their tradition it is no sin to wander outside and come back in when refreshed.
When I’ve been, there is quite a bit of polite milling about, as worshipers (mostly the men and nursing mothers) enter and exit, and generally make themselves comfortable in any way except sitting down. If we American preachers had to submit to that, I wonder if we could hold our congregations for sermons? It might be an interesting test!
Now to the two worst sermons I ever sat through. One was about President Ford, and the other was not. The one that was not occurred in a congregation where I happened to be as a guest, and the preacher was a son of the church who had returned home after many years, and had been invited to serve as the guest minister. His text was from the Book of Revelation 20:12, “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened ...” It was a picture of the Great Assize --- the great and terrible Day of Judgment.
But the preacher that morning said there were other books that we relate to much more intimately in this world, the check book, the date book, and the phone book, and proceeded to expound upon them. We are, it seems, a people of books, and we are held in a certain tyranny by them all!
I could tell the congregation and their minister were not impressed by the wisdom of their prodigal son. It reminded me of our Lord’s own word that “a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country.” For this reason, I have taken especial care with the sermons I have preached on the few occasions I have ventured into the pulpit of my own home church.
The other sermon --- the one concerning President Ford--was delivered in one of the great churches of America --- a real architectural treasure in downtown Philadelphia, Pa. I almost hate to tell the tale because the minister was a true servant of the church --- endearing in many ways --- but who, when I heard him, was well past his prime --- although he endured another ten years after the incident I am about to record.
The text was from the Book of Judges, chapter 9, the story of Abimelech, a famous Hebrew general who had laid seige to a Canaanite city named Thebez. The citizens of the Canaanite city had taken refuge in a tower and were about to be captured when “a certain woman cast a piece of a millstone upon Abimelech’s head, and all to brake his skull. Then Abimelech called hastily unto the young man his armor bearer, and said unto him, Draw thy sword, and slay me, that men say not of me, A woman slew him.”
If this text does not strike you as one of the best known in the Hebrew scriptures --- it certainly set me to wondering, and I had just completed an intensive course in Hebrew history as part of my course for ordination to the ministry. I have not come back to it since that Sunday, except to tell this story. The preacher held forth on the ignomy of being killed by a woman --- better to be slain by one’s own, than by a woman allied with the enemy! First it happened to the Hebrew general, and now it had almost happened in America. What was the world coming to? The way President Ford entered the message was by way of homiletical rebuke. The theme was “What Happens in Society When Women Get the Upper Hand.”
You will recall that there had been two successive attempts in a short span of time by women to assassinate the president. One of the women had been a follower of the California eccentric Charles Manson, famously named “Squeaky Fromme.” During President Ford’s funeral, the TV announcer noted that she and the other woman were still serving life terms in prison for their misdeeds.
I think what had pricked this good Republican preacher’s conscience was President Ford’s jesting remark after the second shooting that perhaps he ought to be listening more carefully to Mrs. Ford and supporting the ERA. Gracious submission, indeed! President Ford was admonished to take charge of the nation or soon we’d be having women doing who knows what! It was a sermon to remember!
I remember how this minister spoke with dramatic Victorian oratory, flowing doctoral robes, and sweeping physical gestures. The grand old church with its ornate classical dome rising high above the pews was large enough to seat a thousand and more, but as my eye scanned the room, I realized there were just 13 of us, counting myself, the preacher, and the organist!
The reverend cleric’s mistake was that he had copied the pulpit style of certain grand old preachers from a day long gone. And to people of today --- or at least to me then --- a budding young seminarian --- it was an interesting lesson indeed --- of what not to do when preaching!
Well, I guess, having told these tales, I had better start early preparing for next Sunday, for any minister knows that entry into the pulpit can bode both good or ill for preacher and people alike. It is humbling to think about what can make a sermon “memorable,” and I hope that everyone will remember that preachers, like the people to whom they preach, are fallible humans, subject to the same foibles as all mankind.
President Ford kept his good humor, and I think that is why many of us remember him so fondly.
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