She baked cookies when I came to visit her, but I always feared they were laced with cyanide. We had that kind of pastor-to-parishioner relationship. If back-stabbing were an Olympic sport, she'd have brought home the gold. All smiles when talking to you, all bared teeth when talking about you. I was the object of her slander on a regular basis. Along with death and taxes, this too was a certainty of my life.
So one week, when the biblical text upon which I was preaching mentioned gossip and slander, her face immediately popped into my mind. As I stepped into the pulpit the following Sunday, I lambasted the loveless tongue that delights in the destruction of people's lives. Yep, I let 'em have it. And though I purposefully never even glanced in the direction of the pew where she sat, my every word was aimed at her gossip-loving heart.
As the service concluded, and the worshippers filed out, pausing to exchange greetings with me, she stopped in front of me, grasped my hand, and said, ''Pastor, that was an excellent sermon.'' And then leaning closer, eyes darting left then right, she whispered, ''Lord knows there are some people in this church who really needed to hear that!''
Of all the responses to my sermons over the years—positive and negative—that one has remained not only the most memorable, but the most instructive. She against whom I preached, in her unexpected response actually “preached” to me three truths I have never forgotten.
First, in a sermon that is meant to be for the edification of the entire congregation, to single out a parishioner to “preach against” is an abuse of the pulpit and, fundamentally, an act of cowardice. If a pastor has an issue with a parishioner, or for that matter, if any Christian has an issue with a brother or sister in Christ, he should speak face-to-face with that person, and attempt to resolve the problem privately. The pulpit is no place for personal vendettas, especially since there they masquerade as “pious exhortation.” Man up, and deal with the problem directly, or keep your mouth shut.
Second, though a preacher be as golden-tongued as Chrysostom, as erudite as Augustine, or as in-your-face as Luther, unless the Lord opens the mind of the hearer to heed his message, his words will only ricochet off a hardened heart. That doesn’t mean the pastor throws in the towel. Preach on he must, for that is his vocation, and he knows not if and when the Lord will open a chink in that armored for the arrow to get through.
And third, every sermon should be heard (and, for that matter, preached) as heaven’s proclamation, both of warning and comfort, to you. If other people’s sins come to mind when you’re hearing the law, immediately ask yourself how you have failed to fulfill the same commandment. Spend more time lamenting over your own failings, and less fomenting over how others have failed you. And hear the good news of God’s love in Christ not merely for “the world” but for you—for you in the midst of your guilt or grief or pain or loneliness or suicidal anguish. Wherever you are in the midst of this life that is so often dark with woe, know that where Jesus is preached, he is preached for you.
My parishioner was exactly right the day she whispered, ''Lord knows there are some people in this church who really needed to hear that!'' Indeed, there were. First of all, I did. Secondly, she did, along with all the other worshipers who gathered there in the Lord’s house, to hear the Word of God spoken to them all.