As the called and settled minister of this congregation, I have responsibility for worship. While I have the privilege of working with and learning from wise members of the congregation, it is my holy obligation to provide some guidelines for use of the pulpit. Often, the power of church is such that we must set our sail by the star eternal rather than be pushed and pulled by the winds of the season.
And so I offer you my rules for preaching.
- Know your gospel.
- Stand in awe of the people before you, for they contain multitudes.
- Keep your deepest conviction hinged to deepest humility.
- Honor the joy and the sorrow.
- Leave a way out.
Upon reflection, it seems that these rules might be useful in more situations than preaching. Let me explain what I mean by each of the five above, and you can be the judge of how useful these rules are.
Know your gospel.
Everyone of us has good news to share with the world. There is a reason we get up in the morning. There is something that gives depth and meaning to our days. For those who would preach, the first task is to know your own good news.
We find our own gospel through contemplating the work of our living. Test your life through silence, through communities of accountability, through measuring the weight of your heart and you will find your gospel.
How do you know if it is good news? Forgive me for turning to Paul, but it seems to me that the “fruits of the spirit” are useful here. Does your gospel bring you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc? Even if you gospel is radically prophetic, how does it feel when you lay your head on your pillow at night?
If biblical imagery does not work for you, perhaps the teachings of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, or any number of other faiths which speak of the value of integrity in speech.
If still not convinced, I refer you to Bernice Johnson Reagon’s song, I Remember, I Believe:
My God calls to me in the morning dew
The power of the universe knows my name
Gave me a song to sing and set me on my way
I raise my voice for justice, I believe.
What is your song to sing?
What is your gospel to share?
Stand in awe of the people before you for they contain multitudes
Our authority to be in the pulpit is a human authority, conveyed by the congregation. Each person who comes on a Sunday brings their whole selves; their brilliance and brokenness, their kindest thoughts and their anger at a world too often unfair. They bring stories of God from childhood and experiences of wonder from last week. They bring their hearts and souls to the company gathered.
To preach to these people, you must first love these people. You must trust them to hear your words with grace and you must be willing to work on your words for their sake. Loving them means bringing your full and honest self, nothing less. It means being willing to be vulnerable with them. And it means trusting that they will find a way even if it is not your way.
This tradition is founded on an unspoken understanding that people are not a means to an end. They are whole and holy right now. They are able to find what they need. We can offer a container, a sign post, and a community to consider big ideas, but we always do so with great respect for the people.
Keep your deepest conviction hinged to deepest humility.
There is always a real possibility that we are wrong. Though we may have an abundance of expertise and access to the power that is the pulpit, we make no claim to perfection. Believe your gospel as deep as your bones. And be willing to let it go. It may not be what another needs or it may not be true at all.
This impossibility is the work of the spirit. To serve the spirit is to live in paradox. Deep belief makes it possible to speak. Deep humility makes it possible to hear the speech of another. Both are needed for truth and goodness to emerge.
Honor the joy and sorrow.
Every time you take the pulpit, some people before you will be experiencing great joy. Life will be going well and they will want to celebrate. This is good.
Every time you take the pulpit, some people before you will be experiencing great sadness. Their thoughts will drift back to the struggle of life and their hearts will be heavy. They have come to worship to be with their community. This is good.
A professor of mine used to say, “remember, you are preaching to the abuser as well as the abused.”
To prepare to preach, we must prepare for the paradox that life in community always holds both and one does not eclipse the other.
We honor the joy and sorrow when we give hope, when we make room for people to apply the sermon to their own lives. We honor the joy and the sorrow when we can be fully present to the pain of life and not let it swallow us.
Therefore it is best if the preacher can be honest with the pain and the joy of their own lives. When we can be present to our own story, we will serve the congregation’s story with more equanimity and grace.
Leave a way out.
Simply put, there should be no compulsion in religion. Many among us can use language, charisma, and rhetoric to bring people to a place where there are two choices: agree with the sermon or feel like they are a bad person.
This is sometimes seen as “powerful” preaching or “effective” preaching.
I do not want effective preaching as much as I want heart-expanding preaching or people honoring preaching or preaching that invites people to cultivate their own integrity.
The church is not here to win the day, count souls saved, or fix the world before Tuesday. We are here to practice love and justice in respectful common community until our love spills out and blesses the whole world. We are here to become more human, not to make humans do our bidding.
Friends, these are my rules for preaching .
I tell you these thing because I believe that there is a grace that sustains us as love calls us forward.
And I am posting this blog because I believe that you, whoever you are, are already whole and holy and good. The world needs to hear your gospel.
We need your good word, even when your gospel differs from mine. Who knows? Between us we might find a new way of living.
Because we need each other when we mourn and would be comforted. We need each other to share the celebration and rejoice in the gifts of this life.
And if you agree with nothing here, that is OK too. You remain a blessing just as you are.
Until we meet again,