After working this past semester as an adjunct professor in preaching, I realized once again how daunting our task is.
As preachers, you must not only mix your best scholarship and exegetical work, you must often toss in a dash of church history and systematics, if nothing more to avoid over-salting with heresy. Then, of course, as every good chef or real estate agent knows, it must all be packaged in an attractive form. Thankfully, unlike the culinary or marketing worlds, in preaching, presentation isn’t everything; content matters.
But when you consider all that goes into preaching and that for those of us who preach week after week (not counting the funeral, wedding or extra-seasonal sermon that must work its way in there), it can be a grinding and heartbreaking task. And not only that, in spite of the fact that by now I have preached more sermons than I care to consider, each and every time I go up to the pulpit I find the moisture that would have normally gone to my salivary glands has somehow, through the evolutionary magic of adrenaline and cortisone, been redirected to my underarms. I’m nervous, and it’s not from lack of practice or preparation.
It is this: we preachers bear the Word of God, no small thing. This is cause enough to give even the most easy-going among us some alarm. We, who have our little life shambles and our grubby secrets — and each one of us do — are called into this place, into this life, with this conviction that we are called for this task and most days, even fully trust that we are given the gifts. Yet, we also know that preaching is hard, hard work and that it taxes us and unless we are lucky enough to be one of those astounding extroverts that thrive on this sort of thing, preaching wears us out. For many of us, by Sunday night we are ready to sling back a couple of martinis, dirty please, and settle in for a long night’s sleep.
This past semester I saw my students work with all of this. Even with great gifts for preaching, I watched as they gave all they had. I watched them work and pray and struggle to become good preachers. I watched as they tried not to rely on canned poetry or bad dramas and head scarves and sentimental schlock they found on YouTube but to reach into themselves and trust, really trust, that they had already been given everything they needed to be good preachers. I watched as they found their gift for prophecy, for poetry, for proclamation that can only come from a passion for this gospel, a belief in what they are doing and that it matters.
And I was overjoyed, often more than they were, each and every time they saw their gifts manifest. I suffered when one of their sermons fell with a plop, when their mouths were so dry their lips stuck to their teeth, when they couldn’t stop shaking. My heart swelled in joy when they discovered the promises of Christ carried on their work and words, lovely and broken, like petals moving on water. I watched them bear the promises of Christ in their bodies and lives and histories, and I watched them proclaim this strange promise that heals and forgives and raises dead things.
But I never told them this: it never gets easier, or less heartrending. It never stops aching. It never stops becoming a love song, nor any less a song of surrender. The Word of God never loses its power. And you will always be human, bone and blood, your soul a little shattered, a little raised. You will always know hope and dread, most of the time simultaneously. You will always take your body with you into the pulpit, and this powerful Word will drum like blood in your ears and stagger, foolish promises, out of your mouth.