Climbing the winding stone steps that rose into the pulpit, he felt a peace come over him. As it almost always did. The pulpit was a secure place, solidly clinging to the huge pillar, raised above the crowd, wrapping close around him. And the elevation, along with the ornate carvings and the focused lighting, reinforced the authority of the words he spoke there. God's words. He held up the large, gilded book for all to see, then opened it and read. His voice, amplified, filled the grand old church, rising with emotion as he concluded. "...God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God." The words echoed and disappeared, leaving a powerful stillness. But then another voice piped up, from almost directly below the pulpit.
"Amen, brother! Preach it!"
An amused murmur rose from the people, and he smiled generously. Once in a while there were strange moments like this. Last week, a tall, gangly fellow had stepped into the aisle during the prayers and sprawled out face down on the stone floor. But the congregation was very understanding. There was a psychiatric care halfway house not far from the church, and people from there often showed up for services. Some of them regularly. So occasionally there were minor disturbances, but he'd learned to just smile and carry on, as he did now. Their presence added a little color to the church, he thought. And didn't Jesus try to be friendly with social misfits like these?
Two weeks later there was another incident, involving a man he had never seen there before. Probably a new resident at the halfway house. It was in the second or third row, right in the middle of his sermon; all of a sudden the man's head lolled back and snoring was heard. At first this was ignored. And he had continued to preach, just raising his voice a little and watching the scene out of the corner of his eye. But then the snoring got louder and people started looking and there were some laughs, so an usher approached the man. The sleeping eyes popped open and stared at the usher. Then a gruff voice. "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath!" The volume of this proclamation, and the laughter that warmly welcomed it, sent the usher scurrying away.
It had been difficult enough to get back into the flow of his message after that; but the next week was even worse. The man―who he later found out was named John―showed up again, and again sat up front. This time, however, John did not fall asleep but listened intently. Throughout the sermon John stared at him. And there were no interruptions as he preached eloquently on the building block of society, the family, ordained by God as the fundamental human community. He finished with an Amen as usual, closed the large bible, and turned to descend the steps. That's when John spoke up.
"Who are my mother and my brothers?" John cried out. And spread both arms wide. "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother―amen, preacher?" He hesitated. So John answered himself, "Amen!" Then wrapped an arm around the person sitting on either side―a young man to the left and an elderly woman to the right―and gave each a loud, smacking kiss on the cheek. "Amen!"
That scene inspired him to preach about peace the next Sunday. Specifically the passage that concludes, "For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace." About orderliness in worship. But he didn't limit himself to that; he also spoke about how Christians can spread their peace throughout the wider society. How Christians can be a calming influence in a world full of conflict. This time John listened without any outbursts. He was relieved. Perhaps his message had touched something deep in the man's troubled psyche. As he stepped from the pulpit, he thought he recognized a quiet, thoughtful look on John's face.
But when an usher approached to collect the offering, John suddenly jumped up and grabbed the usher's long pole with a basket on the end. Then leapt into the aisle, shouting. "Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth―I have not come to bring peace, but a sword!" And immediately John began swinging the pole-and-basket with both hands, like a longsword. A woman shrieked. The rest of the people were frozen. Then two ushers rushed over, and John took a wide swing at them. There were several dodges and lunges. Then the madman was subdued. From behind the altar, as he watched them drag John away down the aisle, he was pretty sure he heard John say, "Yeah―this is more like it!"
The following Sunday, he stationed an usher at each church entrance. If John returned, they were to tell him that those who did not respect the other worshippers' here were not welcome. But none of the ushers saw the man. And John's face was not among those in the first few rows. He climbed into the pulpit with the familiar sense of peace.
But he didn't even make it through the scripture reading. A loud slam silenced him and he jerked up to see the front doors flying open and John lunging through. The man was surprisingly fast. And completely naked. Streaking up the aisle, John wailed, "Naked I came from my mother's womb and naked shall I return!" Then the nude man was standing up front, by the altar, with eyes closed and both arms raised. "Blessed be the name of the Lord!"
He could take no more. He shouted from his perch in the pulpit, his angry voice booming through the church. "A God of peace, not confusion!"
John opened his eyes. Looked at him. Then smiled serenely and spread both arms wide. "Who's more at peace than this?"
As John strode towards the door, none of the ushers tried to grab the naked man. And no one made a sound. So even from way up in the pulpit he heard John say to a woman in the last row, "The kingdom of God has come near to you!" And with a laugh, the fool was gone.
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