“Pastor, I’m troubled by your sermons.” The pastor asked why. “You used to speak about yourself as a sinner when you preached about sin,” came the reply, “but now you only speak about us. You use the word ‘you’ a lot.” The charge was true, but only partly true. The preacher had in fact echoed the words of John the Baptizer who said of Christ, “I am not worthy to unite his shoelachet.” However, he was also compelled to say, “You brood of vipers…”
As it happens all too frequently the parishioner had started from the wrong premise. His concern would have been alleviated had he considered who it is who speaks on Sunday morning. That means asking the right question. Unfortunately, the question and the answer to the question are not so obvious to most today. The question which should be asked is this: Whose word is spoken on Sunday morning? The answer? God’s word, of course. That’s the easy part. If this is so, and it is, then who is speaking on Sunday morning? The answer again is God. The pastor, like John, is just a voice. If one is permitted a very poor analogy, it could be said that the pastor plays Charlie McCarthy to God’s Edgar Bergen. The pastor is the wooden puppet. The words belong to another. “He who hears you hears me.” (Lk 10:16) Now if all of this is true, and it is, then we can see that the troubled parishioner had approached the matter from the wrong angle. Would God say, if he were speaking to us, “Ah shucks, fellows, I’m just as awful as the rest of you. See, I’m including myself so you don’t have to have your feelings hurt.” The preacher speaks in the stead of God. He speaks as God would. To say, “You brood of vipers…” is indeed most appropriate. It would be worthwhile if someone would study how the prophets from Elijah to John addressed their audiences. I’m willing to wager much that they never said, “Ah shucks…”
Thinking Like Americans
To be sure the preacher is just as awful as his auditors, and there are many ways that this can be indicated while preaching. Just the same a caution needs to be urged, and once again it ought to be framed in the form of a right question. Let’s ask. What lies behind the objection which the church member brought to his pastor? Isn’t it, finally, pride? We don’t like to be told by other sinners that we are sinners. If we’re honest, we would have to admit that we don’t like to be told that we are sinners by God either. Furthermore, as Americans, we don’t like authority figures. We’ll have no king, thank you! For all our praise of the pastoral office there is an underlying mistrust and disdain for authority. It’s a love/hate thing which spans the millennia. The resentment surfaces when a pastor speaks the word of the Lord to the people as the Lord himself would speak it. That’s too much for the prideful flesh to take.
And Cheap Absolutions
Our prideful resentment about being called sinners and our mistrust of authority extends to the second word which all orthodox-evangelical preachers are privileged to speak: the Holy Absolution. Just as our sinful pride doesn’t want to hear from another sinner that we are sinners, so it doesn’t want to hear from another sinner, “Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” No, we’ll find our own absolution, thank you! Strangely enough it is the very thing which the troubled parishioner wanted to hear from his pastor which becomes this man-made absolution. In spite of the mistrust which we have for authority there is still an esteem, which borders on awe, which many people have for the men of God. Pastors are viewed as being above the average church member. They don’t seem to have the doubts with which others struggle. It is thought that their prayers are more apt to be heard by God than those of the flock. Now when it comes to the question at hand a kind of demonic logic emerges. The lofty position of the pastor serves the needs of the flesh. The flesh reasons that if God’s holy man is sometimes just as bad as we are, then we aren’t as bad as we first thought. It is a satanic absolution which finds comfort in the fact that good people are sometimes just as evil as we are, and that we’re very much better than most others (in whatever gutter we can find them). It worked for the Pharisee praying in the temple, why not for us. However, no true absolution ever began with, “Ah shucks…”
We believe, teach, and confess that both pastor and people have fallen short of the glory of God and that there are no degrees of wretchedness. Thanks be to God that pastor and people are both equally justified before God through the blood of Christ. The pastor has the privilege and charge to proclaim God’s Law and Gospel to his people. If he sometimes speaks as God would speak let no one be put off, remember he’s just a voice. §
The Reverend Peter M. Berg is pastor of Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois. This article was originally published in October of 2004.