I'm a pretty good preacher. My wife gives me a report card every Sunday afternoon that ranges from C+ to A. She is a stingy grader, only giving me A's about every six weeks. During my five plus years at Ascension, people have stopped telling me what they think about my sermons, maybe because they don't want to be redundant. Maybe they think I don't want to hear what they have to say. Mostly, it's "good sermon" or "thank you for your sermon" -- if anything. On occasion, I will get "I didn't like when you said XYZ" and ironically, I really appreciate critique or negative responses because it means they're listening.
I used to be the young guy with amazing insight, now I'm just the preacher. I'm not complaining; I really love the preaching ministry. I have read more books about and been to more conferences on preaching than I can count. Despite my wife's middling ratings, I care a lot about preaching.
If you were to ask me what the goal of preaching is (without using a lot of church language), it would be to transfer energy. I want the Holy Spirit to flow from me to the people and back. More theologically, I want the energy transfer to have a name - Jesus Christ; Father or Mother; or Holy Spirit - just as long as God gets the credit. I am not trying to reproduce a TED talk, mainly because I can't out-TED-talk a lot of TED talkers. But I do resolve every Monday to Sunday to let God be in control of my preparation, preaching, and the liturgy. If I out-TED TED, then God did it and not me.
One part of why I care for preaching is that I want to create an itch that many don't even know is there. Maybe you are just congratulating yourself for even making it to church, but next time you come ask God to help you listen to the sermon. You might be entertained, but if God has God's way, you will be transformed.
Now cue old man with reading glasses hanging precariously off the tip of my nose, "that's the problem with the world today," I say. For generations, even when I was growing up, my contemporaries had a sense that church had something different, even if we hated the church. As I grew older (high school), the spiritual itch I felt had a name - longing for meaning - and the backscratcher was the church. I felt like the church fire alarm would trigger if I set foot inside; but I held out hope that there was something to that old time religion, even as I was soaking myself in KMFDM and self-loathing.
Preachers have a particularly daunting challenge today. For many who come to church, there is no felt need for transformation. We preachers have to work overtime to first create a spiritual hole and then offer the living and active Christ who can get to work filling that hole long after we've said amen to our sermons.
Some of the most transformative moments in my development as a Christian came from preachers who spoke to the gap that I did not know I had until they spoke. I was at a Christian conference nineteen years ago. The presenter was a country girl who had land and cattle. She had made charcoal drawings of the cattle she saw outside her window as a way to understand grieving and loss. Because she had slowed down to really observe them, she noticed how younger cows would just sit with older, sicker cows just because they were comforted by it.
At that point, I was regretting coming to this talk because it was too precious, too anthropomorphic and I was getting bored. She read Proverbs 3 about wisdom focusing on verse 15 about how wisdom is more precious than diamonds. Blah, blah, blah. I was really late for the door at the point. I was calculating how I could leave discreetly when she began singing a song. It was with Proverbs 3 for the lyrics, but instead of praising wisdom, she replaced wisdom with our names. She sung how we were more precious than diamonds..... I lost it. A huge gaping hole of self-contempt opened up like a flower. It was dark and ugly. So big that I could not even look at it. Her singing was opening something and at the same time filling in huge gaps with possibilities. Maybe the story of human failure was false. Maybe a sick cow like me could be worth something.
That's not why I am not rushing to put up screens in church and not having the service downloaded on iPad, because as lovely as my iPhone is, it is great at distracting from the ever-present holes our spiritual life present. In worship, there is space for gaps to exist and to let God do the rest. The Church is not always supposed to make you feel better; sometimes it's supposed to make you feel worse! It's God's job to write possibility on our hearts.
So I'm praying that every time I sit down to get ready for my sermon prep on Monday morning God will reveal the gaps in my own life and fill my words with possibility. Maybe I can trust that in God's good timing I too will be filled up to overflowing. Then my words will open the door for the spirit to come in and fill the church and her people.
When you sit in the pew, will you give me more than the standard, episcopalian Mona Lisa smile when you like something I say? I gave an energizing sermon just yesterday after Sunday services at a private Nigerian baptism. The sermon was 3-4 minutes long, but they "amen"ed and nodded me into a better preacher than I had prepared for.
Maybe you won't be standing up in your pew and telling me to 'testify' when I preach, but I will be a better proclaimer of the Gospel of Jesus Christ if I know you're with me. At the same time, if I bugged you in the sermon, tell me that too! One of my sermon anchors (a church lady who listens intently) looks like she ate lemons when she does not like my words. Hallelujah. I really believe preaching is the work of the people good and bad.
In the next post, I will tell you some of the things I do to get from Monday to Sunday.