The first section of the “Of Use Podcast” probes how the guest was trained and formed for the work God has called that person to do. Many of the posts in the Stories section of “On Reflection” will feature my answer to this question. In that spirit, I present how Doug taught me what was truly important when preaching.
The relationship I had with Zion Episcopal Church, Oconomoc Wisconsin while attending seminary (Nashotah House) from 1988 to 1989, included time attending a Sunday morning bible study. We looked at the scripture being proclaimed later during worship. One lay person, Doug, attended faithfully. He was an older man, not much older, I suspect, than I am now as I remember our time together.
The Rector took a risk and invited me to preach one Sunday early in my seminary training. I worked hard on the sermon. Sunday came, I mounted the wineglass pulpit, and delivered the sermon. At the conclusion of worship, the queue formed as people spoke to the clergy as they left the church. Doug approached me and vigorously shook my hand saying, “That was a great sermon. You ought to be a Bishop.” With a swelled head, I was determined to build on that prophecy and write an even better sermon when next I preached.
That moment came six weeks later. As the queue formed, I saw Doug about halfway back in the line. I tried my best to make the line move faster. If I was a bishop with the last sermon, what would I be with this one. I was clearly focused on getting my personal “Nielsen Rating.”
At last, Doug gripped my hand and said, “That was a great sermon. I can hear you!”
Deflated as I was in the moment, God used Doug to teach me a powerful lesson. No sermon is good, much less great, if it is not communicated effectively. Doug affirmed that I had a loud voice that he could hear. God was challenging me to make sure I had something to say that was worth hearing.
Today when I preach, most often as a guest when the regular priest is away, I still work within the following parameters that I noted in answer to a question from the Office of Transition Ministry concerning liturgical practice. “My seemingly extemporaneous sermon reflects my interaction with God during the week and is a time when I open myself to share what I encountered. This sacred preparation space finds challenge in the weekly lections and calls for theological reflection rooted in a discipline of ongoing study. How healthy relationships that respond to God’s holy invitations are shaped within the tension among Benedictine values such as living in a wholesome rhythm, humility, and answering each other’s call are often at the heart of my sermons. I attempt to hold the context in which we live our lives open to the transformation that inevitably comes from listening carefully to God.”
I’ve never forgotten the deeper gift that Doug offered me when he revealed what it was like for him to sit in the pews waiting to be nourished by the Word of God. My imagination has Doug wondering why there is a period of silence after the Gospel is proclaimed while the priest is gesticulating. We preachers, myself in particular, need to be heard, especially in a world that seeks to overwhelm the message we are privileged to share. Indeed, we do need to be loud. And, we need to be humble. I never became a bishop though, truth be told, I heard other voices and my own ego fuel such an aspiration. When Doug said, “That was a great sermon. You ought to be a Bishop,” I was seduced by the confines of secular culture. When Doug said, “That was a great sermon. I can hear you,” I was invited by God to defy those secular norms with the message of abundance offered by Jesus. Thank you, Doug, for letting me know that I have something to share that is worth listening to. And, thank God, for a relationship that makes such proclamation possible.