For a writer, reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead can be a bit deflating.
Not because it’s bad, but because her countless perfect sentences—so simple yet so penetrating—are enough to make almost anyone despair of what they’ve written.
In Gilead, we read the letters of a dying pastor (Rev. John Ames) to the young son that he will leave behind. In one of them, Ames tells of preaching during the carnage of World War 1.
In his attic, there are boxes of old sermons. Yet:
One sermon is not up there, one I actually burned the night before I had meant to preach it.
THE ONE THAT BURNED
At the time, the Spanish flu had broken out in the midst of the Great War, killing millions. Hence many young men were dying before they even made it to the trenches.
As Ames writes:
It was a strange sickness—I saw it over at Fort Riley. […] They drafted all the boys at the college, and influenza swept through there so bad the place had to be closed down and the buildings filled with cots like hospital wards, and there was terrible death, right there in Iowa.
Now if these things were not signs, I don’t know what a sign would look like. So I wrote a sermon about it.
I said, or meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers.
And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God
Now the part that I care about:
It was quite a sermon, I believe. I thought as I wrote it how pleased my father would have been. But my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was.
So he burned the sermon, despite the fact that it seemed like the most honest thing that he had ever written.
As Ames puts it:
It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it. But Mirabelle Mercer was not Pontius Pilate, and she was not Woodrow Wilson either.
APPLICATION: PREACH TO THE PRESENT
My point here is not whether Ames was right about God’s hand within in the Spanish flu. In fact, I tend to detest such claims to omniscience when it comes to God’s judgement via natural disasters (see here).
My concern is with a more common problem amongst preachers, myself included.
The temptation to preach to those who aren’t present, rather than the ones who are.
After all, it’s easy to condemn the Woodrow Wilsons and the Pontius Pilates when they do not sit in front of you.
It’s easy to decry those “soft” and “lazy” millennials to a room of aging baby-boomers–or to a room of “superior” millennials (see here). It’s easy to bemoan liberal rot to a room of midwestern conservatives; or conservative fundamentalists to an educated group of East Coast mainliners.
But what good is it?
It’s like railing to poor Mirabelle Mercer about the Kaiser’s war policy.
To preach to those who are present is more difficult, not least because you might step on the toes that sit beneath the pews. It forces us to ask about our besetting sins, which are always the ones we’d rather ignore.
The well-known Dallas Baptist, Matt Chandler, notes this tendency within his own context:
If I preach the sermon out of the book of Isaiah on justice, my inbox would fill with their glee that I would broach the subject. But if I applied it to the subject of race, then all of a sudden I was a Marxist or I’ve been watching too much of the liberal media.
If I spoke on abortion, I was applauded as courageous, as a ferocious man of God, and yet when I would tackle race I was being too political …
If I quoted the great reformer Martin Luther … never did I get an email about his blatant anti-Semitism. But let me quote the great reformer Martin Luther King Jr., and watch my inbox fill with people asking me if I’m aware of his moral brokenness.
His point is that it’s not just preachers who prefer the sermon to convict the absent, it’s often the parishioners too. “Lord thank you that we are not like those people.”
In the end, if there is a lesson here from Gilead, it’s that sermons must connect, convict, and encourage the audience that will actually hear them—not the one that won’t.
In short: Preach to those present.
Preach to Mirabelle Mercer.
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