“Some of the best things I have ever thought of I have thought of during bad sermons.”
- Wendell Berry, from Jayber Crow
Preaching is a dangerous business. For me, it’s a weekly wrestling match with myself. It requires that I be part poet, part theologian, and, although I hate to admit it, part circus barker. I must be bold enough to announce the greatest news ever told, while realizing that I’m only a sinner standing in the need of God’s grace just like everyone else.
As I preach, I try to find the right words, words that I’ve been thinking about and praying over for the past week. By sermon time all those words are jumbled together in my head. I think I know what all those words mean. During the week I’ve checked my thesaurus or dictionary more than once to make sure I have just the right words.
So I come to preach equipped with words. I deal them out to the congregation like a Vegas card dealer. But in the back of my mind I’m pretty sure I’m not playing with a full deck or that the deck may be stacked against me. All those words I threw together during the week come spewing out and as they leave my lips, they’re no longer mine. Every person there takes them in and makes something of them that’s entirely their own. As Paul Simon wrote: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” That’s why it’s a dangerous business: The chances of being misunderstood are legion.
When I look out from the pulpit on Sunday morning, some of the people I see are suffering through a troubled marriage or are recently unemployed. Still others are wondering how to deal with their suddenly out-of-control teenager or the grief of living alone now after 50 years of marriage. I’m supposed to have something profound to say to each of these people. They’re in church to hear someone say something true about the good news of the God who loves them. Through my words I’m called to help them make sense of their lives as they’re mediated through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
It is a fool’s errand. I must remember, however, that I’m one of the fools God has called to preach the Gospel. I must be foolish enough to believe that I have something important to say about the grace, mercy, and love of God in Jesus Christ. Otherwise, I should just sleep in most Sundays. I also must be foolish enough to preach all the while knowing that if I get it wrong, I might actually damage people’s relationship with God. St. John Chrysostom, one of the great preachers of the early church, ran from preaching for a long time out of a fear of just that. He figured his soul would be in danger if he did such damage. He was a wise man. It was a good while before he became foolish enough to set aside such wisdom and accept a call to the foolishness of preaching.
Yet when profound and true preaching actually occurs (and it does from time to time), Annie Dillard observes: “We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life jackets and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” Sounds about right to me. Preaching, after all, is a dangerous business.