One of my favorite fellow seminarians at Yale, a Baptist minister, is a one-man Amen corner for some of our student preachers. An Amen corner consists of the people who say, “Uh-huh” and “Amen!” to affirm what the preacher is saying. When one of us is preaching at seminary, you can often hear him saying, “Preach it, ____!” and “Uh-huh” and “Yep.” I love it.
Preaching becomes a regular part of most seminarians’ lives by about the second year, if not sooner. Some of us have had the privilege and the luck of getting some preaching experience before we get to Yale. I was very fortunate that my sponsoring rector back home let me preach several times, so I had worked off some of the first-time preacher’s nerves before I got to preaching classes at Yale or my preaching assignments at my internship site.
Unless you have preached, it’s hard to explain how preaching is different from public speaking or teaching or acting. All public speaking has a purpose, but preaching comes with a different kind of mandate. It’s an office of the universal Church, to somehow convey the word of God, or to interpret it, for people who have come to listen.
I mean, think about when the President of the United States makes an important speech. He always speaks with the seal of the President of the United States behind him because he carries the office of the Presidency with him. If he were incapacitated, the next person in line would stand in front of that seal and deliver the news with all the force of that office.
Well, preachers have a seal behind them, too, but that seal is, um, from the Office of God. That’s not such a tangible thing. I mean, one doesn’t get elected by the U.S. public to preach. By hook or by crook, whether we hanker for a preaching spot or dread it, we get up there to say something that we hope will be of value to people and in service to God.
When I felt the first stirrings of a call to the Episcopal priesthood, I could not imagine myself preaching. For the first year, I thought, “Oh, I couldn’t get up there.” It wasn’t that I feared public speaking. I am an English instructor, so I have often stood in front of groups and delivered off-the-cuff lectures and led discussions, and I have felt perfectly comfortable. I have sat in a Q-and-A session with Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia and felt comfortable asking him questions and offering my two cents.
But I didn’t think there would ever be a day when I would feel comfortable preaching, or would even want to preach.
Well, I do now. I can’t explain to you how that transformation happened. I used to think I had nothing to say, and it was not my place to say anything from the pulpit. Now, when I have a preaching assignment at my internship site or for a preaching class, I will initially think that I have nothing to say. I’ll sit there for a few days, going over the readings and praying, thinking to myself that the sermon isn’t going to come. I start to regret signing up to preach at all.
But invariably, the sermon comes, and it often isn’t what I expected it to be. Only once in my preaching life have I thought to myself, “Boy, I have something to say, and I’m gonna say it when it’s time.” The rest of the times, I have had to go over and over the readings over days, waiting for some divine inspiration about what I should say. A lot of us believe that God helps us with what we should say. I mean, we work at it, all of us in our different ways, but we still expect that the Holy Spirit is going to work through us.
For me, it’s still hard to trust that that is happening. One time, my rector asked me to fill in a preaching slot with three days’ notice. I thought, “I don’t think I can pull it together that fast!” And so I pondered and pondered and pondered, and the sermon finally arrived the night before the service. I guess God can work as fast as she wants.
But still, even with those fast assists from God, I still tend to question whether I’m saying what the particular congregation needs to hear, or what God wants me to say. Is it too much storytelling? Not enough storytelling? Too long? Too boring? Too controversial? Too obvious? Not obvious enough?
But these questions are vain questions. I don’t mean futile questions; I mean questions stemming from vanity. Without vanity, I could simply enter that pulpit, trusting that God will work through me, or that people will yank me out of there if I’m way off base.(In my Principles and Practices of Preaching class last semester, we got the following advice to the question, “What do you do if you know your sermon is a real dog, but it’s the only sermon you have?” The answer: “Walk that dog proudly!”)
Preaching is not about impressing people. It’s about getting that office done for God, presumably with God’s help.
Sometimes, my trust in God’s help comes around. It may not happen until after the sermon is delivered, when it’s too late for second-guessing anyway. I’ll do the hand-shaking ritual at the end of church, when the preacher greets people, and people offer their comments. The people at my home parish and my internship parish are very kind, so they rarely will tell me when they flat out disagree (even though I know that some of them occasionally DO flat out disagree). Instead, someone who was especially touched or comforted or challenged by the sermon will let me know that the sermon helped them. It’s the Episcopal version of the “Amen!” corner.
And that is very gratifying, but not to vanity. It’s gratifying to know that, despite my difficulty trusting that God will show up to help during a sermon, God apparently shows up anyway. God is good. All the time. Even when we can’t tell.