Almost forty years ago, we went to the very same church, the very same building, that is, except it was, back then, a different congregation. It was First Church, no less formidable than any fortress out here on the edge of the Plains, a church beloved by its people in part because of the greatly successful ministry of a man who had left it to establish a college right there in town. It had back then a wonderful history, still does. Two services every Sabbath were filled to overflowing. I remember going at night and sitting so far back in the balcony the deacons should have passed out opera glasses.
The preacher back then was a stemwinder, a “pulpiteer,” a word only the truly churchified can properly use. A “pulpiteer” is a man who knows how to make the pulpit ring. Because the beloved pastor had become the college president, the undershepherd in charge, back then, came with a reputation for holding forth like few others. In delivery he seemed almost bipolar, capable of communicating as powerfully by shouting and by whispering. The sheer amplitude of his sermons was extraordinary.
He was capable of hellfire and brimstone. He didn’t just dabble in it either; when it suited him–I’m sure he’d say, when it suited God’s voice through him–he shake the foundations of the sanctuary because he had, although it rarely showed from the pulpit, a verifiable mean streak that made him seem almost dangerous. His Frisian blood could boil over once in a while, and because it could, people were never bored by his sermons. He was, in a way, like watching fire.
It was a different era back then because all around, people thought, were agents of Satan seeking to devour. The watchword was wariness–of Barthianism, modernism, of cheap grace and, oddly enough, fundamentalism. There were enemies stalking everywhere. People were rugged Calvinists back then, Christian soldiers. If they weren’t, they got the heck out of Dodge. We lived in the wake of the kind of severe, historical moralism that measured out the Christian life in specific, liveable ways, that kept definitions clear as daylight behind gorgeously fashioned fortress walls. We knew who we were and we weren’t them. The stemwinder was somehow confident that Christ was about to return, and there’d be hell to pay.
Today, that same church, come Sunday, holds about a third of the parishoners it did back then. Those who sit in its chairs–the pews are long gone–are anything but monolithic. Many of them grew up elsewhere; in the First Church of old, everyone was local. At best, today’s people sing heartily; forty years ago, a hymn sing raised the roof. No one has sat in the balcony for an evening service for decades.
Yesterday, the preacher–who’s been here for the last 12 years–stood behind the pulpit, opened the Word, reached for his ritual glass of water, and pulled out a bottle of beer, a tangy little prank that worked beautifully. The people laughed because the joke fit the preacher’s very heart and soul, and because they knew he would.
I don’t believe I remember today’s pastor ever raising his voice. He never pounded the Bible, even though it was forever in his hands as he preached, as if he were almost afraid of letting it go. He never shouted, never put a fist to the pulpit, never flailed those in front of him with anything more or less than love. Last night, he quoted a parishoner who told him that he had only one sermon really, a sermon about grace.
He’s not as broad chested as the stemwinder, and when he walks into a room, he doesn’t fill it with his personality–the pulpiteer had a personality like a balloon from a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. That’s not meant to imply, however, that people are not conscious of his presence in the back of the church. He simply makes little of himself.
He didn’t preach in the old way. His design in holding forth wasn’t to be God’s own voice; he never said “thus saith the Lord”; but even though those words never came from his lips, they were always there. He preached from the depths of his own heart and soul, a place where all of us lived too. He knew what we felt because he felt it too. He had the unmistakable blessing of empathy, and that meant he didn’t so much tell us how to live as show us. Unlike the first preacher who stood behind that pulpit years ago, the one who was there last night, with a bottle of beer in front him, doesn’t deal in fears. He told us last night he has no idea what Paul means by “soon” in Romans 16:20: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet,” and he marvels at the paradox of a peaceful God crushing anything.” Just marvels. Doesn’t necessarily understand. After all, God is God.
More than anything, I think, he marvels at life itself, and the God of life and death. He stands in awe of God’s promise of love and the mysterious deliverance from sin He somehow dispenses. He doesn’t try to be on his knees before the Creator of Heaven and Earth, he simply can’t help himself from being down there when he considers how unlikely it is that God loves us. His single sermon is grace.
Maybe it’s because I’m forty years older myself, maybe it’s because I’m smarter, maybe it’s because I’m vastly different than I was years and years ago when the pulpiteer was way up there in front of the church, a mile away, his voice carrying powerfully into the rafters anyway; but this man, this preacher, this gracious pulpiteer we said goodbye to just last night–this man held forth the promises of God in a way that made those promises seem as everlasting as they are. Even though he preached only one sermon and everyone knew what he’d say, he was always surprising–because grace is.
In the old-fashioned sense of the word, I’d say he never preached. He touched–and there’s a world of difference.
Last night, all during his final sermon from up front, there stood on the pulpit beside him, a bottle of beer he opened himself.
Lord, we’ll miss him greatly. He is simply irreplaceable. And for his ministry, his profession of faith in our lives these last dozen years, this morning and through eternity itself, I and so many others will be, literally, forever thankful. He taught us–he taught me–a single sermon: grace.