I have now been on the other side of the pulpit for six months. My overwhelming response to this new vantage point is deep gratitude. Every Sunday feels like a miracle: I show up, the feast is prepared, I am welcomed. I don’t need any credentials. There is no security screening, even after the tragic events of Charleston. I don’t have to pay to enter or to leave. I don’t need a reservation or a ticket. Where else does this happen? It is a nonsensical business model, and yet it persists.
I show up and someone greets me and the lights are on and the musicians are robed and the bread and wine are not only ready, they are served to me. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. During my first few unrobed weeks I ran through a list in my head of all the people who made Sunday morning happen: nursery volunteers, communion preparers, the sexton, Sunday school teachers, choir members, pew stockers and so many more. I marveled that this miracle happened every week. I was overwhelmed with gratitude.
My gratitude spilled over to the sermon I received in the pew. Preaching is hard and Sundays roll in like the waves of the ocean. Capturing and keeping the attention of a 21st century congregation is no small task. I have seen people on their smartphones. I know that telltale jerk of a head as someone dozes off to sleep. I have heard that small, precious child whisper, “Mom, this is boring!”
Preaching is daunting. Add to the mix our Book of Confessions’ assertion that preaching is the Word of God and Paul’s declaration that people come to faith through the Word proclaimed. No pressure.
Knowing all this makes me exceedingly grateful for the sermon. And yet there were some weeks when I came eager for the Word of God and I got an apology instead. Not apologetics, but rather a sermon that seemed to say, “Sorry folks, I know this isn’t much, but it is all I’ve got to work with, so go out and do the best you can with it.” It wasn’t an apology for the meagerness of the sermon. That’s fine with me. God takes our meager offerings, blesses and uses them. It was an apology for the gospel, as if the gospel wasn’t enough.
It was something along the lines of “Go out there and make it a great day!”
Or, “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” Or, “Don’t worry be happy.” Or, “I’m OK, you’re OK.”
I was left to wonder why the gospel matters. What difference does Jesus make? How does Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reorder the world and my life within it? How does this Truth transform and why should I live my life in response to it? I wanted to ask the preacher: Why does the gospel matter to you? I have no qualms with testimony so long as it is about what God has done for you and not what you have done for God.
For the first time in 25 years I had to “find a church home.” We landed in a downtown church where the preaching is consistently thoughtful. But the real draw for us was Al. Al is a lay reader. Al is tall, walks with a cane and sports a grey buzz cut. His accent reveals that he is from somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon line. Al leaves it all in the lectern, ending his intense readings with “THIS is the Word of the LORD!!” Every time I want to shout the response, “Thanks be to God!”
One week after worship I told him how much I appreciated his reading. He said, “I practice all week. I want to get it right. It’s important. Something comes over me and I have to get it out. I am passionate about it!” That passion is evident.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for Al and the Holy Spirit at work in him. I want to know the God Al knows and loves, the God who is clearly transformative for him and there is no better preaching than that.
Grace and peace,