The door of Church of the Advent Hope in Manhattan opens directly on the sidewalk on 87th Street. On a sunny Sabbath morning in the spring of 1987 I was standing there with a deacon greeting. I noticed a woman striding our direction from Park Avenue. She was dressed, headed somewhere to impress someone. As she got closer I could hear heels clicking on the sidewalk. Then she was past us, gone, pursuing her morning mission whatever it was. But in her wake, floating on the air, she left a dazzling, enchanting perfume. Its sweetness and magic were so powerful I almost ran after her to ask what it was.
I don't remember what she looked like. I don't remember her age. But still today thirty years later, I remember the captivating, beckoning aroma.
We preachers are like that woman. We make noise in our passing. We aim to make an impression. Then we are gone, on to the next mission, the next assignment, the next church. And what people remember most is the aroma. They recall, sometimes so viscerally they cannot put it into words, the ineffable spirit that prompts our words and shapes our lives.
One practice that I have given increasing attention to in the last two decades is taking care to always speak respectfully of the sinners I imagine are absent from my congregations. Several times, I have spoken with reckless abandon about “evil people” who were not present in my congregation, only later to regret my words. Not because the activities I had condemned were unworthy of condemnation, but because the people I was speaking of deserved more respect as persons.
When I have visited pedophiles and serial murderers in prison, I remember that I am coming to them as Jesus in the flesh. Of course, their wickedness is repugnant. Still, I work to keep alive the promise of redemption and transformation. The challenge for us as preachers is to demonstrate in the pulpit the same hope and respect we would instinctively practice if we were meeting sinners face-to-face.
It can be tempting in our preaching to rip and tear on really evil people, people who are widely scorned. We are certain no one in our congregation is a pedophile or human trafficker or drug dealer. No one in our congregation is an atheist or ruthless business executive. No one in our congregation has had an abortion. And thinking that none of these people are present we speak with a bluntness and dismissiveness we would never use face-to-face, not realizing the atheist we have just mocked is the son of our head elder. The ruthless businessman we have pilloried is the uncle of our Pathfinder leader. The pedophile is sitting on the left, third row from the back. And the woman who had an abortion is sitting fifth row from the front on the right.
In our preaching, we must speak clearly. We are called to exalt holiness and to condemn evil. We are also called to evince love and respect in every sentence. When our members hear our pastoral concern for outrageous sinners, they find space in our sermons to hope they, too, may find grace. Over time, as our sermons give evidence that everyone is held in our hearts with respect and affection, worship services will be suffused with the aroma of grace. Our members will be called back again and again to the pursuit of holiness by the sweet perfume of our words. The fragrance lingers for decades, beckoning our people to follow.
John McLarty is senior pastor for the Green Lake Church in Seattle, Washington