Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Woe To Me If I Preach Not the Gospel

Ordained ministry is a complicated vocation-- moreso, no doubt, in churches that hew to a traditional notion of liturgy and sacraments and priesthood. Few would think to address an Anglican cleric generically as "Preacher." Preaching is but one of several professional competencies that a parish priest prays to be blessed with--along with pastoral wisdom and love, teaching, liturgical presiding, administration, leadership, vision, insight into organizational behavior, fundraising, and others.

I have as much fun as any of my colleagues presiding at the Holy Mysteries on the Lord's Day and other occasions. Give me a thurible with hot coals and fragrant incense (hypo-allergenic, of course), and I'm a happy priest. Put the music for the Preface to Eucharistic Prayer D sung to the Mozarabic Tone in front of me, and I'll show how how it's done, baby. Keep those articles and books on organizational behavior and leadership coming; I eat them up. Ask me to hold up a "your time has expired" card in front of the Archbishop of York, and, as I have demonstrated, I'm right on task.

But nothing gets me juiced up like preaching. Maybe it's my Evangelical upbringing...I don't know. All I know is that when the last strain of the Gospel Acclamation walkback music has died away, the only thing I want to be doing at that moment is opening my mouth to preach. I've been a staff priest during my ordained career, and I've had staff priests and deacons. So sharing a pulpit is not foreign to me, and I do it happily. People need to hear other voices than mine. I need to hear other voices than mine. And I certainly need a break from the labor of sermon preparation. But in that moment, in that split second when the Gospel has been proclaimed and all eyes are on the pulpit, I always wince if I'm not the one who's in it.

By most accounts, I am a gifted preacher. That would sound boastful, I realize, but for one thing: When I say "gifted," I am speaking absolutely literally. And I don't mean that I have been given the general skills that enable me to prepare and deliver a credible sermon--skills, for example, that I could take with me if I left the practice of priesthood and embarked on a career as a motivational speaker, or a courtroom litigator, or a politician. Many of the same skills apply to both art forms, but I have no conviction whatsoever that I would not fall flat on my face in any of those endeavors.

Rather, when I say that I know myself to be a "gifted" preacher, it is that the gift is given afresh for each individual sermon. I am devout to the point of superstition about beginning the process of preparing every sermon with conscious and intentional prayer. Before I even look at the appointed scripture readings for the occasion, I physically go into the church, light a votive candle, kneel at the altar rail, and invoke God's blessing on this particular sermon. "Let the gift flow, Lord. One more time, of your mercy. One more time, for the glory of your Name, the spiritual nourishment of your people, and the salvation of my soul. One more time, I beg."

Having thus been "dipped" in prayer, from that moment on, I know the process to be "covered" by the Holy Spirit. I then proceed to the work--the craftsmanship--of opening myself to four portions of Holy Scripture as if for the first time, of studying them (or one of them, at any rate) closely, of reading what others have found in those words, of discovering the message--the "one thing needful" that the Lord has laid on my heart this time from a passage that I have probably preached on several times before, of shaping that message into a form that will be compelling, of honing it into particular words and turns of phrase, and finally of making it all oral--making it...well, "preach."

It's hard work. It consumes hours. It feels like a sort of birth-giving. But if not for the the "covering" of prayer, it would just be me, and there's not enough of "me" to make it worthwhile for anybody to get out of bed on a Sunday morning and come to church to hear me.

I won't go so far over the cliff as to say something like "I preach, therefore I am." I have more of a life than that. But I can certainly empathize with St Paul, as he wrote in I Corinthians 9:16: "Woe to me if I preach not the gospel."

1 comment:

Mousie and Christy's Mommy said...

Hmmmmm...gladly give up your pulpit??

However, you most certainly ARE a gifted "preacher!" Your preaching of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ has changed my life these past 10 years. There is always a "nugget" in there to touch my soul. What a mighty God we serve!