Martin Copenhaver, in the marvelous book on the real lives of ordained ministers that he co-authored with Lillian Daniel, This Odd and Wondrous Calling (I really should get a commission for every copy that gets sold on my recommendation!) wrote a chapter about why he greets people at the back door of the church sanctuary every Sunday. It’s his chance, he says, to touch base with them, perhaps to get a quick glimpse into what is going on in their lives: an upcoming surgery, a pending transition, a little triumph or a looming challenge.
It is also, of course, a chance to hear reactions to what he has just said in the pulpit. Sometimes these are along the lines of: “Nice sermon, Reverend.” Or, “I really enjoyed what you had to say.” But sometimes, Copenhaver writes, the sermon is just the beginning of the conversation. As it was when he preached an anti-war message and had a retired general engage him rather heatedly on the way out the door.
I’ve had similar instances in my ministry. Like the time ten years or so ago that I decided to express my support for a then just-released statement of our denomination’s General Assembly encouraging gun control measures. I was preaching on the Beatitudes, in particular “blessed are the meek,” so it wasn’t like it was totally out of the blue. I did make it clear that I knew not everyone would agree with me, nor did I expect them to do so. That being said, the congregation I was serving at the time was populated with a host of gun owners, many of them N.R.A. members. As I moved into the gun control paragraph in my sermon, people in the congregation crossed their arms and furrowed the brows. If looks could kill, I would have been maimed, at the very least. As my hearers greeted me on their way out that day, I learned firsthand what Copenhaver meant. That sermon was just the beginning of a number of conversations. (Not too long after that I found a great cartoon, depicting a pastor behind a bullet-riddled pulpit. The caption read something like this: Pastor Bob decided that this would be his last sermon on gun control.)
In my current congregation, a number of my sermons have created dialogue as well. Several years ago, in a sermon on the persistent widow from Luke 18:9-14, I mentioned the peace protests of Father John Dear, who enters military bases and hits F-16’s with hammers. The very next day I received an email from a church member who was working in the Pentagon at the time. The dialogue that ensued helped both of us come to understand more about each other and how Christian theology and various stances towards war intersect.
Just this past month, on Mother’s Day, I indicated my opposition to amendments banning same-sex marriage. Many members of my congregation told me they appreciated my courage in taking that stand. But not everyone agreed with my position. One parishioner, who happens to disagree with me on the subject, engaged me in a loving, thoughtful and well-reasoned email conversation several days later. We both grew from the experience.
Earlier this year, I conducted a memorial service for a church member who frequently engaged me in email dialogue about things I said in my sermons. We came from different places on the political spectrum, and our interchanges, while respectful, could occasionally have a bit of an edge. Perhaps it helped that we had a deep appreciation for the game of baseball and the life of the mind in common, but Peter and I grew to really value each other as friends and conversation partners. We loved each other. And I dedicate this post to him.
I think one of the places the Scarred God meets us is in the vulnerability of honest and respectful conversation, even disagreement. So it is my hope that “Serving A Scarred God” might become a place, not just for me to share my thoughts in posts, but for you who read them to react to them.
In other words, I hope that this is just the beginning of many conversations….