In twenty-four years of ordained service, and of all the things I do as a priest, I have discovered that sermons are one of the most challenging - and the most naked - thing I do.
Someone asked me once how long it takes me to write a sermon. "All my life," was my answer then. It continues to be the only truthful response.
I am preaching on Sunday for the baptism of a little girl whose grandmother was very dear to me. She died two years ago, having lost her eleven year-long battle with ovarian cancer. I find myself wadding - stuck, actually, right now - in the midst of the grief of her loss.
This child will never know her grandmother which makes me very sad indeed, but that's not the point of the sermon - the "Baptismal Love Letter" some of you know I write for these occasions.
For those of you who don't know, I write a "Love Letter" to the child being baptized as if s/he were preparing for Confirmation. Yes, it is a clever little device - part of the 'performance piece' of the art and science of writing and delivering sermons.
Make no mistake: Writing and preaching a sermon is a deeply spiritual and prayerful experience. But, homeletics is both an art and a science.
It is "Playing with Fire". (Okay, that's also a shameless plug for a book on the art of preaching by David J. Schlafer in which I was privileged to have one of my sermons used as an illustration. Never let it be said that I ever denied that a healthy ego is also important to the art of preaching.)
In the Baptismal Love Letter, I try to give the (now) adolescent an understanding of what happened during Baptism so s/he will better understand the vows they are taking for themselves.
I ask the parents to place a copy of the Baptismal Love Letter in the child's "baby book", along with the Certificate of Baptism, the Baptismal Candle and the Prayer Shawl.
I have no idea if parents actually do any of that. It's my hope and my prayer that, if they do, it might make a difference for this one child, this one soul.
I hope my affection for her grandmother will be obvious in what I have to say, but the challenge will be not to dwell on the grief of her loss but, rather, to take the spirit of the same faith which infused her grandmother's life and share that with her.
It will be to look at the gospel as a lens through which this child can meditate on the importance - the challenges and joy - of being a Christian.
And, I'll attempt to do all of that naked and without a net.
Or, at least, that's the way it always feels, Sunday after Sunday. I actually still get butterflies in my stomach before I preach. Sometimes, depending on what I have to say - or, more specifically, what God has given me to say - I actually feel nauseous.
Still. That's 25. . . 26 years later.
Everything I believe about the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be out there for all to see and know - as well as some of the things I don't believe about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There's no where to hide. No where to run.
Oh, wait. I lie. There are places to run and hide. I just can't go there. Not if I'm going to preach the gospel.
The dangerous part is that walking that tightrope of "Gospel Truth" can also be a fairly dangerous exercise in narcissism (see also 'shameless plug' above).
One of the younger clergy in this diocese tells the story that, when his fairly conservative rector stops by his office to check in mid-week before he's scheduled to preach, he says, "Oh, don't worry. I'm sure I'll have something important to say about the gospel. And, if I don't, I'll just talk about me."
That's the flip, jocular response, but the truth about homeletics is that, on one level, it IS all about the preacher. Even if the preacher does not use an example from her or his life to illustrate the gospel, even if the preacher merely reinterprets the text and does a quasi-bible study from the pulpit, the sermon remains the preacher's interpretation of the text.
Woe be unto the preacher who does not tell the truth about the gospel in his/her life! Woe be unto the preacher who asks the congregation to take the risk of believing or living the gospel when there is no tangible evidence that the preacher really believes and really lives the gospel s/he preaches.
The congregation will sniff out that lie in a heart beat. As Tennessee Williams wrote in his play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: "There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity . . .You can smell it. It smells like death."
Which brings me to another important point: The congregation is an essential ingredient to an effective sermon. St. Paul understood the important of audience. That's why he seems to say conflicting things in his epistles. He said some things to the people in Rome which were different than what he wrote to the people in Corinth.
To use the phrase from the theater, "It may play in New York, but it won't play in Poughkeepsie." I know I preach different sermons in Chatham than I preached when I was in Newark. Two very, very different congregations. Different challenges. Different joys.
Despite all these challenges, writing and delivering sermons is one of the real joys of my priesthood. I take it as seriously as I do presiding at Eucharist. For me, one does not make sense without the other.
For me, Word and Sacrament are combined in a mysterious, almost mystical union that must come from a place of truth in me in order for it to impart the mystery of our faith.
I would much rather struggle publicly with the text and raise more questions than provide answers, if that's the truth of that gospel text in my life at the moment. I think mature Christians appreciate that no matter where they live.
I remember taking a preaching course with Katie Geneva Canon in seminary. She stressed sermon preparation, almost to a fault. "If you haven't got a sermon written by Friday night, you'd best call the choir and tell them to sing another hymn, cause you ain't got nothin' to say."
For the most part, I usually finish my sermon by Friday, but there have been times when I've written what I thought was a perfectly fine sermon and then something happens on Saturday - in the community or in the world - and I've had to toss it out and write something that tries to make sense of the event through the lens of the gospel.
Have I always preached a good sermon? Hell no! The funny part - the irony - is that most of the time, when I feel I have really missed the mark, someone will come up to me - sometimes right after the sermon, sometimes years later - and say, "You know, when you preached that sermon, I really felt the Holy Spirit pushing me to do something. Thank you."
On the other hand, when I've felt this - THIS - sermon was one I hit right out of the park, what I often get in the receiving line is a luke-warm smile, a limp handshake and the words that sound to my ears like fingernails on a chalkboard: "Nice message, pastor."
I've learned to smile my best smile and say - as graciously as I know how - "Thank you." But oh, Lord, in those moments I just want to run and hide. Or, throw up.
Did I mention that preaching is also an exercise in humility?
There are two prayers I use before I begin to write a sermon that I'd like to share with you. Both were given to me years ago, after I completed the introductory course in preaching that used to be given at the College of Preachers (Now 'Cathedral College') in Washington, DC.
I had them framed and they hang in my office.
The first is from Philippians 1:20:
"I passionately hope. . .that I shall speak so boldly that. . .the greatness of Christ will shine out clearly in my person, whether through my life or through my death" (or through my preaching).The second is a prayer attributed to St. Francis.
"The preacher must first draw from secret prayer what s/he will later pour out in holy sermons; s/he must first grow hot within before s/he speaks words that in themselves are cold."So, off I go then, to play with some gospel fire. To struggle with the texts for Sunday and try to make sense of it for this new soul for Jesus. I hope to inspire her parents and family to assist her in her walk with Jesus.
Because, the gospel truth is that, without community around you, to support and encourage you in your journey in faith, being a Christian is much, much more difficult.
I know, as I look out over the congregation on Sunday, many will have their eyes closed, as in Dave Walker's cartoon.
I only hope to have one person in the congregation - just one - who is "visualizing Bible Passage in the quietness of own heart."
Just one soul - just one child of God - who hears the gospel in a way that inspires her/him to visualize the gospel - and, her/his life in the midst of it.
That will be enough for me.
For these are the 'crumbs' from which I gather up and bring to the Table of the Lord that we all may have a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet.