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.


Ever dream of being lost? Or confused? Distraught? Inconsequential and dispensable? Join the club.

    Scene 1

It’s my first Sunday back from a sabbatical. I am returning to the pulpit of the large church with the great music program. I love this church and am glad to be home.

    Scene 2

It’s Sunday morning just before worship. I’m running VERY late. My robe is in the office up several flights of stairs but I can’t remember exactly where. It’s just “up”. The robed Choir – the best in the city – is coming down the stairs while I’m trying to go up the stairs to find my robe in the lost office. No one in the Choir acknowledges my presence. They are in a rush down to the Chapel.

    Scene 3

I walk into the Chancel. The Chapel is fairly full. Attendance is good. I take my normal seat as their Pastor, prepare myself for the Call to Worship that will follow the Choir’s Choral Introit. Three Choir members dressed as animals crawl out onto the front of the Chancel and start to sing. I realize then that there is no Order of Worship. Instead there is a music program.

(The music program has always been a thing of controversy. A great blessing with the highest standards and exquisite classical musical taste, but it is also criticized for drawing attention to itself and demanding disproportionate financial resources from the church budget. I am a big supporter of the music program, but have also worked to maintain its rightful place in worship and within the broader life of the church.)

    Scene 4

I am confused and annoyed that this appears to be a music program stuck into the hour of Morning Worship. This is NOT worship. The congregation and I have been blind-sided. It is not what anyone in the congregation expected. It is performance, not worship.

Two members of the congregation who love music but who care more about the integrity of worship get up and head for the doors.

More people – five or six at a time – are getting up and leaving. Disgust is emptying the place.

    Scene 5

I am no longer in the Chancel. I am in the rear balcony pleading with those who are leaving.

“This is not worship! This is something else. I’m sorry. This has to stop!” But the few people who remain are heading for the exits.

    Scene 6

The Director of Music is deeply distressed. He’s gone too far, and he knows it. Finally…he knows it. So do some of the members of the Choir. What to do? Call them together quickly right now…but newer members of the Choir whose faces and names I don’t recognize are heading down the stairs for the doors. They don’t like conflict and, I suppose, feel hurt and unappreciated, like their Director.

    Scene 7

I realize that I had returned from sabbatical without giving the church office an Order for Worship in time to meet the deadline for printing. I am disappointed with myself and upset with the Director of Music. I’m feeling lost. Alone. Invisible. Clearly dispensable. My first day back from sabbatical there has been no welcome, no acknowledgement. I have lost all of the control that, over the years, has kept the Music Program, its Director, and its critics from killing each other in ecclesiastical warfare, and, from the looks of it, everyone and everything I have worked for is…lost.

What the Book of Revelation was REALLY about

No book has been more abused and abusive than the Book of Revelation.

Gunnison Memorial Chapel, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY

Gunnison Memorial Chapel, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY

Martin Ramirez Sostre. inmate held in solitary confinement, later pardoned.

Martin Ramirez Sostre. inmate held in solitary confinement, later granted clemency by NY Gov. Carey..

Below are excerpts from a sermon preached at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY inspired by Martin Sostre and re-reading the Book of Revelation. The sermon was published by The Christian Century (March, 1974).

The first half of the “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom” introduces the hearer/ reader to the case of Martin Sostre’s resistance as a political prisoner incarcerated in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, known as “New York’s Siberia” or, as the inmates refer to it, “the Hell Hole of the New York Prison system”.

It was during my weekly Wednesday evening program and visits with prisoners there that I learned about the case of Martin Sostre, held in solitary confinement in resistance to dehumanizing prison practices, and joined the campaign for his pardon.

Excerpts from “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom:

“Incarcerated on the Aegean Island of Patmos, a penal settlement of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., was a political prisoner named John. He wrote a political-religious manifesto declaring open resistance to the Roman Empire. The Revelation to John – the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible – is the earliest extant Christian tract deliberately and openly directed against the pretensions of the world’s greatest power. In the Revelation to John, resistance to Roman power and authority is so inextricably bound together with worship of God that they constitute two sides of the same coin. Worship and resistance are the twin sides of faith’s freedom to celebrate God’s gift of life. The unity of resistance and worship is expressed with notable clarity in the passage where the fall of mighty Babylon occasions a celebration in heaven. The destruction of Babylon is joined to the salvation of the world itself and is the sign of God’s power and righteous rule over the nations. Only those who profit by Babylon’s wealth, power and injustice have reason to mourn her fall, while those who have ‘come out of her’ – who have disentangled themselves from her oppression, corruption and imperial claims – have cause to worship God and sing joyful hymns of praise.”


“Babylon is the state or nation in its presumption to be God. Babylon is any state, nation, or constellation of principalities and powers, which attempts to rule as final judge of persons and nations. Babylon is any such power – in any time or place – which makes its people subjects, calling them into idolatry of the nations, and any state or nation that persecutes its prophets of righteousness, peace and justice while rewarding the aggressive supporters and the silent ones who acquiesce. America is Babylon.”


“Envision once more a visit to Clinton Correctional Facility. Remember the disorienting sensation of having left everything familiar on the other side of the wall, the feeling of walking out of a real world into a nightmare, the shock induced by the size of the walls and the presence of the guards – strange and terrifying.

“But the closer one gets to the prison reality, the more one comes to realize that it is not so strange, that it is simply a more exaggerated and visible form of our own everyday reality in the face of death. Here on the outside, the walls are not visible, but they are much higher. Out here the guards do not stand poised with machine guns, but they are real and far more powerful – the guards our own fears provide.”
“Then I heard another voice from heaven ssying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…’” (Rev. 18:4 RSV).

A commentary will follow soon on my experience of visiting Martin during the time he was transferred to the Federal Detention Center in NYC where he was held as a witness in someone else’s trial. Prior to that visit, none of us in Northern New York had been able to meet with Martin because of his refusal to see visitors on the principle that the rectal “searches” required before and after visits violated his human rights.

NY Governor Carey eventually issued a pardon.

To turn away from beauty

    “Requiem” by Eliza Gilkeyson,

arranged for choir

by Craig Hella Johnson,

sung by The Chorale in Vienna


She had come to the church to worship God,

to hear a touring choir sing classics  with

some spirituals–she thought the choir was good.


The young liturgical dancer was lithe,

quite serious as she embodied grief

and bafflement at death from tsunami,

earthquake, and flood.


The choir prayed for relief,

for understanding from Mother Mary.


The worshiper, offended by the dance,

looked at the floor, her eyes narrow and hard,

her jaw was clenched, her lips were white and thin.


In choir and congregation there were tears

in sympathy with grieving mother, child…


To turn away from beauty is a sin.

– Steve Shoemaker, on tour, Vienna, Austria, June 12, 2012

“Where are the ashes!!!”

Gordon C. Stewart, February 24, 2012

It happened on Ash Wednesday.

“They’re missing! Where are the ashes?!” It’s fifteen minutes before the Service. “Where are the ashes!”

Every year I put the ashes for the Ash Wednesday Service in the credenza in my office. I never gave it a second thought that we had moved the credenza out of my office last fall. I rush downstairs to look for it. No credenza anywhere. Then…I remember. We sold it at the Annual Fall Festival! Somebody has our ashes!

What to do with no ashes? Burn some newspapers? Smoke a cigar and use the ashes? No time.

I grab a pitcher and pour water into the baptism font.

I begin the Service with the story of the missing ashes. Smiles break out everywhere. Maybe even signs of relief. “Instead of the imposition of ashes this year, we will go to the font for the waters of baptism, the waters of the renewal of life.”

We have some fun justifying the change in the Service, focusing on the that part of the Gospel text for the day – the words of Jesus himself. “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen my others….But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret…”(Mt. 6:16-18).

People come to the font, one-by-one, for “the Imposition of … [Water]”. I dip my hand into the font. “Pat, (making the sign of the cross on her forehead), “Dust to dust; ashes to ashes. You are a child of God. Live in this peace.”

After the Service is over, one of the worshipers asks whether anyone has done the same for me. She reaches her hand into the font. “Gordon, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. You are a child of God…..”

I’ll never forget it. Neither will they. And somewhere in this world someone has a credenza with a sack full of ashes. Whoever you are, feel free to keep them. They’re all yours.