Redeeming the Sermon
“On the day named after the sun, we hold a meeting in one place for all who live in the cities or the country nearby. The memoirs of the apostles [the gospels] or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the overseer gives a talk urging and inviting us to imitate all these good examples. Then we all stand up together and send up our prayers.”
Justin Martyr from his First Apology. Circa AD 138.
On February 7th of 2010, I resigned as the pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio after seventeen years of service. On that day I walked away from the delightfully esoteric and creative art of preaching.
I loved preaching. I loved the way it stretched me emotionally, spiritually, biblically, and creatively. I loved the high calling of colliding with the scriptures during the week and sharing the results of that collision with my brothers and sisters on Sunday mornings. It was challenging and meaningful to me. But it was also dangerous. There is a dark side to preaching. I know there is for me, and I suspect there is for other preachers, whether they recognize it or not.
Preaching is a perfect storm of temptations for a first born, high achieving, approval craving, people pleaser like me. It is a public performance with an ancient history, bound on one side by exegetical rules, on another side by congregational tradition and expectation, and energized with personal charisma, creativity, and spiritual energy. The stakes are high. If you fail to inspire, people will sometimes fall asleep. But if you capture their imaginations and challenge them, they may come up after the service, obviously moved, and tell you that their lives have been changed.
Of course you correct them immediately and say, “If anything good came of that humble sermon, then it was the Holy Spirit and not the messenger who should receive the credit.” You say that, but it was your sermon. And it’s hard not to feel proud of your own work.
What a dangerous thing is preaching. It’s like dancing with the devil every Sunday morning.
And there is this: if I'm preaching, I will not be fully engaged with worship. I will be distracted, fussing with my notes, working over my transitions, and making mental changes to the message right up until the last moment. How can one member of a faith community stand outside of the worship event, Sunday after Sunday, and not pay a spiritual price over time?
For years I struggled with the dangers of this calling. I tried to strive for excellence at my craft while putting to death my pride. I balanced my own discomfort against the obvious goodness of the preacher's calling. It is right and good for a community of faith to call upon one of their own to study the scriptures and bring the fruits of that study to the congregation. So I did this for my church, as best I could, for many years.
And then one day I was done. I knew it in my bones. The toll of the strange emotional detachment with worship and the public nature of the performance (And I think it IS a performance no matter what we call it) became more than I could take. I reached a strange tipping point and resigned. I have not regretted my decision in the least. And I told myself I would not preach again in 2010.
Then a couple of weeks ago I was asked to deliver the closing sermon at a wonderful writer’s retreat at Laity Lodge. I hesitated. I was inclined to refuse, but the request was honest and innocent; something stopped me from saying no. After I got home I received two emails from people for whom the sermon had been meaningful. Something about my struggle and journey with the scriptures lined up with their lives. Apparently it was worth the time. And even worth the danger to me, I guess.
What are you gonna do? Preparing and delivering sermons is work. And human work is a wondrous mixing of our sin and weakness with the power of God. I still have no plans to preach. As far as I know I’m done with that. But grace is often found in exceptions. Closing your mind to possibilities is as much a sin as pride.
So I’m glad I revisited this strange, quirky calling for one more Sunday. I’m glad not for myself, but for the two dear souls who sent those emails. When I read them I started to cry a little. Because everything we do - even the good and holy things - needs redemption.