“Listening to people I could enter into their lives, walk with my feet in their shoes; their desires, their needs, all passed into my soul, or my soul passed into theirs.” Balzac 1799 – 1850
Something happens ‘between the pulpit and the pew,’ between you and me, in this setting…when ‘it works.’ What is that thing?
We’re here to connect; to make a connection between you and me, and to make connections within ourselves, which is to say ‘to understand’ ourselves and one another better.
How do we do that? It has a great deal to do with the activity we call listening – listening as a religious practice; and here I remind you that the root meaning of the word religion is ‘to re-connect,’ from the Latin verb legare, to connect.
We engage in that process – the process of connecting – in a variety of ways – this way of connecting is one of our traditional ways; I think about the human issues that confront us, and the basic human questions that are bound to emerge, and I prepare a sermon, a response to those questions, and I call upon the poets and others to help us ‘connect the dots.’
Of course you could hear a good sermon without knowing anything about the person who delivers it, just as you can enjoy a good meal without knowing anything about the person who brings the food to your table; without knowing anything about the chef or kitchen help.
Or you could go to a restaurant regularly, get to know the chef and the wait staff – and become familiar with the dining room – maybe even have a favorite table, all of which contribute to the feelings around and appreciation for the meal.
By analogy, you can visit churches and synagogues from week to week, or from time to time and walk away feeling inspired, which is to say ‘spiritually nourished,’ or you can get involved in a particular house of worship – get to know the clergy persons and other staff, and allow them to get to know you…give something of yourself…all of which contribute to what you get out of the Sunday experience.
When that happens, when we create opportunities to get to know one another on a personal level, then something different happens ‘between the pulpit and the pew,’ something qualitatively different.
I remember the first time I stepped into this pulpit. It was a Sunday afternoon in October of 1983. I had received an invitation from the search committee to consider ministry here, so I drove down from Attleboro, which is just above Providence, RI and I found an open door and tested the pulpit – like taking a test drive in a car.
Immediately I had the feeling that this was a pulpit in which I could be comfortable. Of course I couldn’t see the pulpit itself, anymore than you can see your car when you are driving in it, but I could see this extraordinary space – there’s a great view from up here!
One of the interesting things about this pulpit is that it is mobile…it sits on rollers. It’s a nice metaphor – a pulpit on wheels. It’s not locked into one place, anymore than one’s mind ought to be ‘locked in.’
It reminds me of Emerson’s famous saying: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Like the pulpit, the pews are also portable.
You are here by choice – it’s no vice to choose to stay home with the Times, or to play 18 holes of golf on a Sunday morning, communing with nature while keeping track of your own score and carrying your own set of clubs.
(If only I had the wit and wisdom to turn a round of golf into a metaphor about one’s life – how we all start out on that first hole, doing our best, but going off course from time to time and landing the rough or getting stuck in a nasty sand trap where we’re bound to gain some humility – but occasionally sinking a long putt, wondering why you can’t do that every time, and gradually improving your drive, secretly believing you can hit a hole in one on the par three hole, then being slammed back down to earth by dropping your drive into the water. You get the point, even if you don’t play golf.)
As I was saying, it’s no vice to stay away on a Sunday morning – and it’s no virtue to be here. It’s simply a choice. Sometimes it feels very rewarding – it may have something to do with the sermon, it often has a lot to do with the music or the candle lighting, or simply sitting with a window on the world outside.
Emerson, who had a lot to say about the space ‘between the pulpit and the pew,’ reminds us that even a mediocre sermon can be rewarding, as he told the 1838 graduating class of clergy at Harvard, saying:
“I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily it is not always quite in vain. There is a good ear in some men (sic) that can draw supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment. There is poetic truth concealed in all the common-places of prayer and of sermons, and though foolishly spoken they may be wisely heard.”
Our shared purpose, then, is to provide supplies to virtue (isn’t that a wonderful phrase!) and the process of providing that supply is a two-way street.
(I wonder if Emerson’s notion of the ‘good ear that draws supplies to virtue works the other way, too…a sermon though wisely spoken may be foolishly heard. I’m thinking of the Beatles’ song, Eleanor Rigby: “Father McKenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear. No one comes near.”)
The point is that what happens ‘between the pulpit and the pew’ is a dynamic process characterized by a very particular kind of energy, and occasionally followed up with effective action.
It’s nice to feel inspired by sermons and poetry when you’re sitting in the pew, and it’s nice to feel inspired when you occupy the pulpit.
The words used from the pulpit must have some yeast in them…the words and the way they are delivered must have something that keeps them from falling as flat as matzo, a quickening yeast that makes the words rise without sounding too fluffy.
The yeast comes from authenticity or sincerity – the listener needs to know that the speaker really believes what he’s saying.
The preacher in our congregations is a person who was once in the pew and got the idea planted in her head that said, ‘I could do that; yes, I’d like to do that, I’d be good at doing.’
Listen again to the way Mary Oliver summarizes it in her wonderful little poem, Messenger:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Part of the purpose of the pulpit is to remind you of your work…loving the world, in spite of the faults, flaws and limitations of we who are the caretakers of the earth, we humans.
What happens ‘between the pulpit and the pew’ has a lot to do with what happens between Sunday afternoon and the following Sunday morning…and very little of that has to do with hearing the minister speak – it has to do with a presence – it has to do with what Balzac said:
“Listening to people I could enter into their lives, walk with my feet in their shoes; their desires, their needs, all passed into my soul, or my soul passed into theirs.”
Something in us is drawn to this pulpit-to-pew, and pew-to-pulpit process.
Some call it God, and if, as I believe, God is the awareness of the presence of the Creative Power of life within each of us, and in all Life, then we might say that what potentially happens ‘between the pulpit and the pew’ is an act of worship, and may, therefore, be one of the most significant and meaningful things we humans have come up with to cope with life, and beyond coping, to be inspired – so far.
The person who occupies the pew listens with a discerning ear, ‘the good ear’ as Emerson put it, and the preacher in our congregations, without lectionary or creed, must pay attention to what’s happening in and around him – must respond to what Balzac says has ‘passed into his soul’ as he listens to ‘the people.’
You are most likely familiar with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – it’s often used at wedding ceremonies. It’s actually a sermon that Paul wrote it to the members of a church he founded in the Greek city of Corinth – he was, in the current sense of the word, their minister, for about two years, then he left to continue his work of spreading his version of the Christian message, which he had a big hand in creating – it’s often said that Paul invented Christianity.
After he was gone from Corinth for a short while, Paul got word that his group in Corinth was falling apart – there were power struggles going on – there were debates about theological issues; for example the nature of salvation – whether they had already been saved by virtue of accepting Jesus as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, or would have to wait for Jesus’ return to be saved. There were disagreements about money, and so forth.
There were ethical problems – some members took other members to court, there were scandals involving prostitution, and disruptive behaviors during worship services with people speaking in tongues — very loudly, thus demonstrating their spiritual superiority over one another. So Paul was upset, prompting him to write:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Growing up in the Congregation Church I listened to the minister begin his sermon with a prayer that began with a passage from Psalm 19: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight.”
I found a variation on that theme this week:
Lord, please fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff,
And then please nudge me when I’ve said enough.
I think I felt a nudge – I’ve said enough…for now.