Our church is one that people sometimes refer to as a “major pulpit.” It’s an interesting way to put it, isn’t it, because the church is not a pulpit. And I don’t even preach from the pulpit these days. I preach in the midst of the congregation, out among the people. That is what the church is – the people. And the Word is meant to be in our midst. In fact, it is in our midst: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Only we don’t act that way very often. And it has taken a lot of effort for me to enact this belief with my preaching.
But, hard as it is to let go, something profound happens when I walk down that center aisle during a sermon. For one thing, I do not separate myself from anybody else. We are all there together, waiting for the Spirit to speak. I have prepared the sermon (oh, yes….) but even so, I am often surprised by what happens to me in the preaching, how some turn of a phrase takes on a new and deeper meaning for me that it did not have in the practice time, how I suddenly see something I did not know before. But the most powerful thing for me is people’s faces, wearing the signs of what is behind their eyes: watching and listening, daydreaming, fighting boredom, sometimes reading a book or napping. It is a microcosm of the life of faith as I experience it myself. The Word is right before me, and sometimes I am paying attention, sometimes I am bored, sometimes I am distracted and busy, and sometimes I am just worn out with it all. But still the Word speaks. And I may hear some of it in spite of myself.
My prayer before preaching these days is that my words may be transformed into the Word that the people need. That means that it isn’t anymore so much about what I say as it is about what the people hear. It isn’t all about me and how good a job I can do with the sermon. I doubt I will ever let go of my need to study and prepare and do the best I can. But these days, I am learning to trust that it doesn’t all depend on me. I am learning to trust the Holy Spirit. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t easy to walk out there in the middle of the church and preach.