Commentary

There’s more than one way to preach

Sometimes you communicate the Gospel best by acting with integrity

As a recently retired pastor people frequently ask me about how retirement is going. After exchanging some small talk about walking the dog and nationwide travel to visit our children I often feel the unspoken question is: “How can life be meaningful and worthwhile when you are no longer serving as a pastor and no longer having the opportunity to preach and lead worship?”

In John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the first person Tom Joad bumps into after a stint in prison is the man who baptized him in an irrigation ditch. But preacher Jim Casy says he “ain’t a preacher no more.” Jim is curious about whether the baptism did any good.

Preacher Jim Casy no longer trusts himself or his message when he remembers with regret that when he and his listeners were filled with the spirit, they and he became victims of his own sexual misconduct.

Even though Jim Casy no longer has the call to preach he travels with the migrant tenant farmers who are pushed off the land in Oklahoma by the Dust Bowl and by the banks and corporate farms of the Great Depression. When they arrive in California looking for promised jobs they discover the land of their dreams is a nightmare of greed and violence.

Jim gives his final sermon as he stands frozen in the searchlight of the self-appointed union busters. “You got no right to starve people.” Seconds later he is dead, his head bashed in. His death is justified by his enemies. After all, he was (they asserted) a communist. Who else would lay down his life for cotton pickers and migrant fruit pickers?

Our own lives may not be as dramatic or as filled with regret as the life of preacher Jim Casy. But we’re all in ministry. For those of us not ordained it is difficult to believe and practice the ministry or the priesthood of all believers. We always want to place ordained ministry on a pedestal, as though it has greater value than the ministry of other believers. We think this way in spite of what Martin Luther taught.

For those of us “former preachers,” spending time in the pew of a congregation and on the street as a listener might just help us overcome this “idolatry of the ordained.” I know how encouraged I feel when our pastor frequently takes the risk of proclaiming that “all are welcome in this place,” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Hymn 641) regardless of present ELCA policies for ordination. People need to know that they are welcome wherever they are on their journey.

I remember being in a preaching workshop at Lake Okoboji in Iowa with Professor Richard Jensen. We explored “preaching as story.” We practiced actually telling the stories of the Scriptures as well as bringing our own story into our preaching. In a group of our peers we were challenged to give an extemporaneous talk about something that really interested us. All but one of us had taken our turn. But one older pastor held back. He said he wasn’t much of a preacher. Finally, after much encouragement from the group, pastor Bob Floy walked to the front, popped open his briefcase and proceeded to tell us how his magic briefcase prepared him for any emergency.

Bob had extras of everything — two flashlights, extra shoelaces (in case one broke), extra socks, a full-scale first aid kit. By the time he was done unpacking and displaying everything, we were all laughing until it hurt. He had invited us into his own obsessive desire for security. He was laughing with us, and at himself. He knew full well no such security exits.

Not so many months later this faithful pastor died of a heart attack. He was driving home to Caroll, Iowa, after making hospital visits. But that is not the end of the story. At the news of his death, a Native American man on Hennepin Avenue came forward and said this Iowa pastor was the only person who had ever truly listened to his story. Pastor Floy had helped him recover his own dignity and identity while sitting with him in a diner on Hennepin Avenue.
A homeless woman with whom Floy had shared a bowl of soup told a similar story about him and his gift of listening. Of course Pastor Floy had tried to convince us, his younger peers, that he wasn’t much of a preacher. Clearly there’s more than one way to preach.

I am reminded of the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced his own death. During his last days in a Nazi prison, prior to his execution by hanging for his role in the resistance movement against Hitler, his prison guards asked him to listen to their confessions. They talked with him about their lives.
In his poem, “Who Am I?,” Bonhoeffer shared how conflicted he felt. “Others tell me I step forth from my cell like a country squire … while I feel restless and longing and sick like a bird in a cage … Who am I? This or the other? … Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.” (Letters and Papers from Prison, page 198)

Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together as a reflection on his experience teaching in an underground seminary. He says, “The first service one owes to others … is listening to them. Christians, especially ministers, often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.” (Life Together, page 97)

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Wheeler is recently retired from serving Bethel Lutheran Church (ELCA), south Minneapolis.