You will write about the sermon, right? Maybe on Monday? What it was like to mount the pulpit once again. How long has it been?
(Gordon, in a comment on my blog)
The last time I preached was October 1, 2006. It was World Communion Sunday, the fifth anniversary of the beginning of our bombing of Afghanistan after September 11, and my last day as associate pastor at First Congregational Church of Hanover, where I served for three years. Yesterday was the second Sunday in Lent, the anniversary of the day Pope Pius XXII declared Saint Claire of Assisi as the patron saint of television, and my first time to preach at Pilgrim UCC.
Part of leaving the church in Hanover was also choosing to no longer be a vocational minister. I was even listed as “retired clergy” in the Mass. Conference directory, a label I choose over that of my friend Joy who reminds me I’ve “left the ministry.” I feel called to cook professionally, to write as if it were a profession, and to be the spouse of the pastor on a personal level. Being Ginger’s husband is my favorite thing.
When Ginger asked me to preach because she and Carla, our associate pastor, would be on the Women’s Retreat, I was happy to accept. Part of the reason was, of course, because Ginger asked me. Part of the reason is I like getting a chance to say what’s going through my mind and heart. Most of the reason was I love worship and I love getting to help lead in worship.
I love being a part of the church and The Church.
Since we’re still not unpacked completely and my clerical robe is still in the Pod, I wore a suit to preach yesterday (an event in and of itself). I’m glad it worked out that way. I didn’t feel as though I was stepping back into a role I had chosen to no longer play. Instead, I felt more like it was just me doing my part in the service along with the liturgist and the choir and the other worship leaders. I don’t feel like a Reverend anymore. (Did I ever?) I do feel like a contributing church member. Yesterday, my contribution was the sermon.
Worship requires a recipe, much like cooking dinner. You have to figure out the ingredients and how they are going to mix together to make something compelling and comforting at the same time. The sermon, even as a part of the total mix, requires a recipe of it’s own: text, thoughts, connections, and people. Many years ago, Gene, one of my friends from seminary, was talking about what he was learning about preaching. He said when he tried to preach to everyone, he got to nobody. When he thought of five or six specific people in the congregation and wrote his sermon to speak to them, it felt like everyone came out of church saying, “I felt like you were talking straight to me.”
I’m grateful that we have been in Durham long enough for me to feel something other than brand new here and to have a few relationships that have moved past introductions to allow me to preach with specific people in mind. I’m also grateful that I think of the sermon as a conversation starter in the context of a community of ongoing conversation rather than a Word From The Lord.
As I’m writing, two things come to mind.
When I was growing up in Baptist churches, people who felt God calling them into ministry either “surrendered to preach” or “surrendered for special service.” There are a couple of blog posts at least dealing with that vocabulary, but I’ll have to do that another time. As a youth minister, I began to realize that the only time we made a big deal about someone following God’s call on their lives was when they “surrendered” for ministry. I don’t remember ever being a part of a service when we celebrated a young person feeling called to be a physical therapist or a carpenter or an accountant, an actor, a teacher, or a chef.
The other story probably happened not long after Gene made his comments about preaching. I was in a church in Central Texas where Miss America was scheduled to come and give her testimony. One of the men in the church said, “Why is it when we have someone special come to speak they have to be someone famous? Aren’t there any plumbers who want to talk about Jesus?”
I’m not saying ministry, as a vocation is something that is no big deal or doesn’t require special gifts and skills. One of the reasons I’m retired is I don’t have the gifts or skills to do the job in a way that didn’t eat me alive. The story is told of Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist and poet, being at a cocktail party when a physician approached her and said, “You know, when I finish my career as a neurologist, I think I’ll write a novel.”
“And,” Atwood replied, “when I finish my career as a novelist, I think I’ll take up brain surgery.”
I am saying there was something redemptive for me to step into the pulpit, not as a minister, but as a church member, as the spouse of the pastor, as Milton to speak my part of the conversation.
After church, Dewitt and Alice, two wonderful people I am getting to know, asked me to go to lunch with them before I had to go to work at the restaurant. While we ate, Dewitt was wonderfully specific about the things that had spoken to him in the sermon. He obviously listens better than I do on most Sundays.
The conversation continues.
I’m not sure if that answers your questions, Gordon, so let me try a bit more succinctly. Sunday was a good day. I stepped into the pulpit with those who have been church for me in the past holding me up and those who are becoming church for me sitting in front of me and calling me on.
It was a good place to be.