Friday, September 17, 2010

Preaching on the Edge

Last Sunday I had the privilege of preaching at Pulpit Rock in Sandwich Notch, a beautiful outdoor setting in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire. The “Tour Through Sandwich Notch” was composed of many stops along the Sandwich Notch Road with many speakers. It was sponsored by the Sandwich Historical Society and organized by Suzanne Pohl of Sandwich.

Pulpit Rock is a natural rocky outcrop that stands about fifty feet above the Sandwich Notch Road. Resembling one of the high pulpits found in colonial meetinghouses, it has a cliff behind it that acts like a sounding board. The spot is a natural amphitheater allowing the preacher’s voice to reverberate from the opposing hill.

Sunday was a drizzly day, and the climb up the rock was steep and slippery. The lichen and moss, which had gathered on the stone over the centuries, did not help matters any. People suggested that it was too dangerous to ascend the peak and that I should preach from a lower location. But having dreamed of sermonizing from the top of that peak for 28 years, I was not about to let a little weather stop me.

From the top I peered over the edge at my congregation of 50 hardy souls below. I am not one who loves heights, but the thrill of the moment counterbalanced my fear of falling. I preached from Psalm 61:2, “From the end of the earth I will cry to You when my heart is overwhelmed; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”

I spoke about the Quaker heritage of the site, the value of inner silence, the beauty of God’s natural revelation around us, and the transitory nature of life. I quoted Jesus’ words about the man who built his house upon a rock. I talked about Moses preaching on Mount Sinai and Mount Nebo.

As I preached, I consciously tried to keep my feet firmly planted on solid rock. But as I ended my message, I noticed that I had unconsciously crept dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. This was truly a death-defying sermon!

As I think of the experience, it feels like a metaphor for preaching. It is easy to take the homiletically safe road when preaching - predictable topics, standard scripture texts, traditional doctrines, conventional morality, expected social issues – staying safely within the well-trodden boundaries of Christian pulpiteering. It is the ecclesiastical way. But Jesus clearly said that his way was very narrow and not very safe.

While driving the old dirt road to Pulpit Rock, I had a conversation with a geologist, who was scheduled to speak at another stop. He mentioned Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” I shared what I had heard Frost say (in a recording) about that poem. He said this was his most misunderstood poem. People think it is about the poet taking “the road less traveled by,” but the title of the poem clearly states that it is about the road he did not take.

It is easy to consider oneself to be a bold, prophetic preacher (“I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”), especially when one enjoys freedom of religion, a steady salary, and a retirement fund.  But most Christian preachers in most countries today do not enjoy those luxuries. Just yesterday I read about Christians being persecuted by Buddhist extremists in Bangladesh. Every religion has their bigots.

One of Jesus’ early sermons was so dangerous that his Nazareth congregation forcibly removed him from the pulpit and nearly tossed him off a nearby cliff. (Luke 4:28-30) I am just glad that no one was up on Pulpit Rock to nudge me off if I got too close to uncomfortable truths.

Wait a minute! Come to think of it … there was a woman who climbed up there with me. And she waited on the rock behind me out of sight throughout the message. She said she was just waiting for us to descend the rock together for safety’s sake. But what if she had other instructions I am not aware of? I guess I must have preached a safe sermon after all. I am still alive to tell the tale.
Look carefully at the photo (click on it to enlarge) and you will see me preaching on the top of Pulpit Rock. Photo by Jude Davis.

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