Princeton has a wonderful and blessed tradition where students in their last year can preach a “senior sermon” in Miller Chapel, this incredible building where many famous professors and Ministers of the Word and Sacrament have previously shared the Gospel Message with countless seminary classes before. I have partaken in this tradition, as have many of my friends and classmates. Witnessing the preaching over the last three years in Miller has been what I have come to consider an interesting journey; sometimes the preaching is incredibly thought provoking and theological, and other times, it is less than so and more testimony and political tirade. I can just hear my favorite preaching professor say from one of Stuart Hall’s classrooms, “WHERE IS THE GOOD NEWS IN THIS SERMON?” And I now find myself asking the preacher in my head day in and day out in chapel, “Where is the Good News of Jesus Christ in your seven minute message?”
It must be recognized upfront that every tradition speaks from a different place and in a different way from my own; yet there is a basic understanding that church and worship is not a song and dance performance act but a sacred opportunity to interact in community with other Christians in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Worship is not a time to conduct a concert, to glorify the self, but solely a time to GLORIFY GOD in community with others. The way this is done can happen in any number of ways – based on tradition, ethnicity, race, heritage, orthodoxy, language, etc. But it ultimately IS NOT ABOUT THE GLORIFICATION OF THE SELF. Not through the music, not through the prayers, and certainly NOT through the sermon.
The interesting part of becoming a preacher is that it gives you a stage, and in some cases, a very elevated one – one physically higher than the congregation, but also one theologically and academically higher as well. Preaching the word is a difficult task on a number of levels, but is firstly, NOT GIVING A TESTIMONY. It is not getting into the pulpit to share how Jesus touched a person’s heart, it isn’t an opportunity to share feelings, observations, nor is it a chance to give an account of a pastor’s walk with God. The pulpit is not a place to share political views, or to belt out a message of how the world has wronged an individual. That’s what a blog is for…
The pulpit is a sacred place, where God through the Holy Spirit speaks to God’s people. The message being delivered is not that of the preacher, but that of God and God alone. The message being delivered unites and gathers the community of God around that sacred message TO and FOR them.
Preaching is not something that is a right. It is a privilege. It is not something that every person can and should do, but something that an individual is ordained to do and selected to do by God. The message preached is not their own, but God’s, and at any moment, that privilege can be taken away. The pulpit has to be earned, and can easily be abused, as scripture shows, humans are not the wisest, nor the most thoughtful of creation. We are foolish, frequently poor thinkers, and not great at forethought. The message preached, the words used, and how it is presented all have the power to change and alter a life – either for the better or for the worse. And so preaching should be a sacred act and a Godly act alone.
As one of my mentors said best, preaching should be best left to the experts and to those who hold it to the highest esteem, and the theater should be left to those who enjoy the song and the dance. The Gospel is not something that should be messed with, nor should it be altered for the benefit of another’s agenda. The Gospel has one agenda and one alone: that of the God who was willing to selflessly be crucified on behalf of the sins of humanity.
So before each and every one of us gets up to preach, let us ask, are we preaching God’s Good News, with the intention of lifting up, challenging, shaking the foundations and also attempting to build back up. Preaching is not self-glorification, self-gentrification, and the attracting of attention. It is not to say, “See? I have it all figured out because I have this $90,000 theological education and you don’t…” Preaching is intended to gather in, not to exclude, and when the message does such, it is not done to the glory and honor of the God who was willing and able to die for all creation and sins, and for all time.
Think. Think about your words – prayerfully, and thoughtfully. They are not yours in the pulpit. And the minute they become such, back away. Step down, and pray. Pray for revelation, for discernment and for assistance. For maturity and growth, and for those people who can give assistance and clarity in life that isn’t there now.
We don’t have it all figured out, and the pulpit isn’t the place to figure it out, nor is it the place to make such a declaration. However, it is the place to declare the broken glory of our Lord, and the inclusiveness of that community to all – not because you are the gatekeeper, but because the Lord is.
But we can be a vessel for that message, if we are worthy and humble enough to embody that message. We can be a vessel for such a message if we are humble enough to recognize that we are not the literal Gospel of Jesus Christ, but Christ is, and we live because of the triune God. The pulpit is the place for the proclamation of the Gospel, and we can be the light on the lampstand for God’s word to God’s people in all situations, in all places and in all corners of the world. That is, should we listen, pray and discern what is right and true for the church and for the body.
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