I the Narrator

[1] I heard Pastor Friedrich preach hundreds of sermons. He was the only pastor of the congregation in which I grew up. Our family was in church every Sunday. I remember only one of those hundreds of sermons and actually only a part of that one. He preached on the text, “Judge not lest ye not be judged.” He said, “A week or two ago, I was driving down Euclid Avenue and another driver coming my direction was driving very erratically. As I pulled to the right I leapt to the conclusion the driver must be drunk. Reflecting on today’s text I realize there are many other reasons that might explain his erratic driving. Perhaps he was ill and in need of help. The car may have had something wrong with it. Perhaps a yellow jacket flew in the window and was threatenign a child in the back seat.” On he went with several more possibilities, all underscoring the potential fallacy of his initial judgment. He quoted the eighth commandment and Luther’s injunction to explain our neighbors’ actions in the kindest way possible.

[2] We had never before heard a personal story from Pastor Friedrich. This was the late 1960s. Some of us in the high school Sunday School class talked it over and concluded Pastor Friedrich must have attended a preaching workshop with a title like, “How to Spiff Up Your Sermons for a New Generation.” We thought so all the more because he was now lacing his sermons with colloquial expressions, saying things like “On Pentecost day in Jerusalem, Peter was preaching to beat the band.” We were relieved he never said groovy.

[3] Perhaps the preaching workshop was the product of our overheated teenage imaginations for, while he did continue with the quaint slang, I remember no further personal stories. That is too bad. I not only remember the story, it comes to mind whenever I find myself examining the speck in my neighbor’s eye. I think of it when I teach the eighth commandment to a confirmation class. I recall the story whenever I remember my beloved and now sainted pastor. A personal story born out of a Biblical text has the power to connect God’s word with the life of the listener.

[4] The preachers’ personal stories can also serve no purpose other than fulfilling his or her narcissistic needs. Tom Long, of the Candler School of Theology, tells a story that I remember going something like this. After an absence of long years a man came back on a Sunday morning to the church of his boyhood. An old friend fell upon him after church and they settled into the front pew to catch up on each other’s lives. At the same time a little boy got away from his parents who were busy talking to friends. The boy climbed into the pulpit, surveyed the scene in front of him and called out, “Look at me, mommy.” When his mother did not look, he persisted. “Mommy, look at me. Look at me, mommy. Mommy, look at me.” In the front pew one gentleman leaned into his friend and said, “I think I’ve heard that sermon before.”

[5] We have all heard that sermon before. Many of us pastors have also preached it. Pastor Friedrich could have told more personal stories. Others make us wince when they launch into yet another story of their childhood or stories about their children. A friend commented about one such preacher, “The Bible is much more interesting than anything I’ve heard about his life. Why does he do this?” He does it because we preachers look for ways to connect God’s critical and redemptive word to the lives of our hearers. A personal story on the impact of that word in our own lives is one way to help our listeners make the connection for their lives. Sometimes, however, the “I” gets in the way. “I as narrator” get in the way when I use too many personal stories. How many is too many? Every week is too many. Once in a preacher’s career is too little. Make it something in between.

[6] I as narrator get in the way when I am either the hero or the goat of the story. As the hero, the story quickly becomes about me and clearly that is not the case. Preaching is always about why I need a crucified and risen savior. The only reason for a personal story is to get that need across to the listener.

[7] Perhaps it seems less obvious why being on the losing end in the story is a problem. It is so because by such personal disclosure I either mine sympathy from my listeners and the point of the story is still about me, or I undermine the dignity and authority of the pastoral office. A pastoral counselor I knew was an effective marriage therapist. To his peers he acknowledged how insightful he was when dealing with other peoples’ marriages but how near sighted he was when it came to his own. This was an appropriate disclosure to his pastors’ support group. The people who came to him for marriage counseling would not have been helped by such a personal disclosure. The therapeutic relationship of counselor to client is not a perfect analogy for that of pastor to parishioner but in this instance I think it applies. Some things about our own struggle to be faithful should not be shared in a sermon.

[8] We can get the “I as narrator” out of the way by telling the story in the third person. We might launch into the story by saying, “I know about a pastor who….” We can say, “A woman I know, whom I’ll call Roberta….” In this manner the emphasis remains on God’s word of judgment and forgiveness.

[9] There are other ways we make personal disclosures in our sermons.

[10] The Bible is thick with meaning. It is porous to connections with our lives. We all observe and participate in powerful events that illustrate these connections. Our part in telling these stories is that of bystander. We figure in the story only as narrator. However, in doing so we disclose to the congregation that we have an eye and ear out for God working in the world. That self disclosure can lead others in the congregation to be on the look out for outcroppings of the kingdom of God. Our listeners will be more attuned to God working in their own lives and how their lives might function as a part of God’s redeemed and new creation.

[11] If we tell a story about events in the parish we currently serve, presumably the story will be flattering to those who appear in it. Even so, we need to advise them ahead of time and get their permission before we include the story in a sermon. No one should come to church for worship and be surprised to find him or herself as the subject of a sermon. I believe we should not use names or change the names of those involved even when we have their permission to use their story. To highlight certain people in a sermon narrative moves the preacher dangerously close to pandering. Before including such a story I believe the preacher must reflect on his or her reasons for telling the story. Am I trying to curry favor, smooth over a troubled relationship, or reward the big giver. What do our motives disclose about ourselves? How about those who are never named in a sermon? What are they to think?

[12] Avoid stories critical of people in former congregations. The people sitting in the pews in front of us will conclude, “It is better not to talk to this pastor about any of my personal issues. If I do she will be talking about me in her next parish.” In telling such stories we disclose a critical spirit and a pastor who may have some problems with empathy. That is not to say we can’t tell the story of the groom from long years back, who refused to kneel for the blessing at the close of the marriage service “because I don’t kneel to anyone or anything,” or the story of the neighbors from twenty years ago, who fell into a feud over the fence that ran between their back yards.

[13] We certainly will tell stories from parishes we have served in the past. We must be true to what the people in those parishes have given us permission to tell. A man told me the story of God’s powerful work in his life. I asked him to join one other member of the congregation in preaching on Transfiguration Sunday to give witness to the transformation God worked in their lives. There was one detail in the man’s story he told me he did not want disclosed to anyone else. I promised to keep it confidential. When I moved to a new congregation I told his story in a sermon. I forgot about my promise to him to withhold that one detail. That one piece of information made the story more dramatic. That one item gave even more evidence of the power of God to transform lives. However, I promised not to disclose it. Members of my former congregation read the sermon on the web site. The information soon spread through the entire congregation. When I realized what I had done I called to apologize. He forgave me. However, the damage was done. I could not call back those words. What did I disclose about myself?

[14] When we stand in the pulpit to preach all we have is our veracity. We endeavor to disclose our trustworthiness and the authenticity of our encounter with God’s word. Pastor Friedrich disclosed faithfulness to God, to his vocation and to the people of the congregation he served. That is the personal disclosure I aspire to emulate.