Chicken Sh*t Sermons and Polite Company

America’s four-year presidential election cycle poses a unique challenge for churches, synagogues, and mosques, and for their priests/ministers, rabbis, and imams.

Retired after years behind the pulpit, I now take my rightful place in the pew. I come to pray, sing the hymns, listen to the Scripture readings, and hope for a word from the pulpit that speaks a powerful Word into the wordy world that has hurt my ears all week.

Like author Annie Dillard, I wear a crash-helmet to worship. I expect something to happen. I expect to be “in an accident” with the Word of God, a word that rattles my bones, awakens me from lethargic acquiescence, and—as it did to Isaiah in the temple in the year that old king Uzziah died,—fills the house with the smoke of divine majesty, shakes the foundations, and elicits Isaiah’s response. “Here am I. Send me. (I have a crash-helmet.) Send me!”

I don’t go to worship to escape. Nor do I go for a partisan rally. I go on Sunday morning for worship—to make what the psalmist called “a joyful noise to the LORD”, my only rock and salvation, and to celebrate the gospel’s transforming assurance and challenge which my own troubled heart and mindI cannot produce for myself. I need the worshiping community. I need public worship that cuts through the partisan babel that saturates America’s anxious public life. Divine worship is a public event.

But religious institutions and their leaders live on the razor’s edge between public engagement and spiritual irrelevance.The tax code’s 501c(3) status recognizes the importance of religious traditions and institutions to the health of the body politic. It also prevents them from endorsing candidates for public office, which poses an interesting dilemma for leaders adherents.

The last two weeks, worship has been down in the church I attend. I’ve wondered why.

Research shows that worship attendance soars on Sundays following national tragedies like 9/11. People need a word to console and strengthen them. In the midst of a national election campaign the likes of which we’ve never seen, one might logically suppose attendance would rise, not fall. Unless . . . .

“Unless what?” I ask myself. Unless a church’s leaders are ignoring the faithful who come into the pews wearing crash-helmets? Or unless, perhaps, the people expect from the pulpit the rancorous echoes of partisan righteousness? Or, perhaps, the worship experience itself is failing to awaken the ears of worshipers to hear the chorus Isaiah heard in the Temple in the year that the political order was at stake: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord! God of power and might. The whole Earth is filled with your glory. Hosanna in the highest!”

I’m old. I still expect something momentous — something I don’t yet expect — to happen during worship.

The Rev. Dr. John Fry, who taught our preaching class at McCormick Theological Seminary, introduced us to crash-helmets long before Annie Dillard put the metaphor in writing. Senior Minister of Chicago’s First Presbyterian Church, John would later be summoned before The U.S. Senate Government Operations Committee’s Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, chaired by John L. McClellan (“The McClellan Committee”) because of allegations related to civil disturbances in south Chicago.

John had reached beyond the church walls to develop a relationship of trust with the gang that ruled the streets. It was John’s work that resulted in the Blackstone Rangers surrendering their guns, which were then locked in the church safe awaiting the pending truce among the Rangers, their rival gang, the Disciples, the Chicago Police Department, and the U.S. Treasury Department. When the Chicago Police Department broke terms of the agreement by shooting a disarmed gang member, the street quickly returned to its old established order. The McClellan Committee laid the responsibility, in part, on the doorstep of the Rev. Dr. John Fry and the board of First Presbyterian Church-Chicago.

The first session of our seminary preaching class is etched in our memories. John pulled the chairs into a circle to critique the student sermon we had just heard in the chapel. We commended the preacher re: matters of form, not substance: a fine introduction, good development, and solid conclusion. Then John asked,”You want to know what I think? That was a chicken sh*t sermon. The gospel cuts with a knife! Anyone who does that again in this class will get an ‘F’” We were all like chickens with our heads cut off, but we never forgot the difference between real preaching and :chicken sh*t.

John’s words have rung in our ears for 52 years. Now I sit the listening side of the pulpit, relieved of that onerous responsibility but still waiting for a word that cuts through the crap. Sometimes it comes; sometimes it doesn’t.

When it doesn’t come from the pulpit, it still comes through the Scriptures. Or it comes from a line tucked away in the Eucharistic Prayer (the prayer that precedes the Sacrament of Holy Communion), as it did yesterday:

“At the meal tables of the wealthy where he (Christ) pled the cause of the poor, he was always the guest. Unsettling polite company, befriending isolated people, welcoming the stranger, he was always the guest.”

That little line, along with the communion itself , spoke a clear word to a distressed heart and mind.. The polite company was disturbed by Christ the guest, and the service ended with a Dismissal that seemed to place Isaiah’s age-old response to God’s glory— “Here am I.Send me!” on the worshipers’ lips anew during a presidential campaign that is anything but holy:

“Take us out into the world to live as changed people because we have shared the Living Bread and cannot remain the same. Ask much of us. expect much from us, enable much by us, encourage many through us. May we dedicate our lives to your glory.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 17, 2016.