It has been several months since I have preached, and lately I have been noticing a discomfort growing in me – a yearning with an almost physical dimension. Since discomfort is a wonderful goad in the work of becoming conscious of motive, I have been ruminating on why I love to preach.
It’s not about speech-making, though honing my skills as a preacher has made me a better public speaker. Nor is it about teaching, which has its own techniques and rhythms. It’s not even that I’m a really gifted preacher; I’m no Barbara Brown Taylor. Developing the craft is important to me, and I’m always trying out different ideas, but I don’t kid myself about having a golden tongue.
I once thought maybe there was a shadowy element in my love to preach – that it finally gave me a place where people had to sit still and listen to me without interrupting. But lately I’ve realized I actually like it best when I as the preacher kind of disappear and the Word takes over and does its magic.
And that’s it, really – a sermon is magic. It is like the seeds that the sower in this parable from the Gospel of Mark casts out into the world. The sower herself doesn’t know what is coiled up inside those seeds. The words she speaks are only a small part of the event of the sermon. The kind of plant she’s flinging out is mysterious, born of God, full of potential waiting to take root.
A sermon is generated by the community in which it is preached. It is not just that I know the people who go to my church, know what some of their metaphors are and know what we have been through together. It is not just that I have them in mind when I prepare – though all of that is certainly part of it. It’s that they begin working on the sermon, together with me, usually before it is even out of my mouth. They think, “let’s see what she has to say.” They accord me a certain grace. They are willing to listen. They open the eyelids of their hearts and let my words fall inside.
We all listen – in company with one another. There is a collective presence enveloping all of us. Pure attentiveness can give way to restlessness or emotional discomfort and positive regard can become dissatisfaction. Or, on the other hand, disparate thoughts can still as the magic of deep meaning washes through the room and God walks among God’s people, awakening and enlivening them. When that happens, it’s the best. It’s not me doing that; it’s the Word taking over.
Some sermons work. Others seem doomed to failure almost from the first word. Things get planted that I had no idea were even in the seed basket. Other things, things I was certain would take root deeply, hit the rocks instead. The seeds that grow in my own heart as my community and I create the sermon are magnificent and strange. Preaching is a powerful and wonderful mystery.
I enjoy the role of sower. I like picking up the basket and running my hands through the seeds. I like imagining how I will toss them out – where I will stand and how high my arm will arc when I release my grasp and let them fly. And I like actually tossing them and then seeing what happens. But more than any of that, I love the privilege of being used by God and by my community. I love the magic. I love how each toss of the seeds always ignites new possibility, and each word becomes the Word and falls on ground now thorny, now rocky and now deep and rich and fertile.
Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.
Image photo by Ann Fontaine: Godly Play, The Sower