Bible in hand, I walk with palms sweaty and heart pounding to the front of the sanctuary. I look at their faces, some are bored, some expectant, but all hopeful for something bigger than themselves and better than their lives. There goes Ray, whose wife left him 5 years ago because of his addiction to heroine. She took the kids and he took a nose-dive. He shows up at church periodically, seeking divine ecstasy that will keep him from getting high. What am I going to say to Ray?
There, way in the back of the sanctuary where she always sits is Rosie, the cynical 17 year old who would rather be sleeping on a bed of nails than listening to my sermon. Her parents threaten to take away her car unless she attends church. Rosie stopped listening to sermons 2 years ago after she had an abortion. When I step up to preach, she slouches, crosses her arms, and listens to her iPod, every once in a while muting it to hear if anything I say will make life more attractive than death. What do I say to Rosie?
There in the second pew with the big smile is Lois. She loves to “praise the Lord,” to use her words, but her puffy eyes and empty stare reveal the heartache her verbally abusive husband is inflicting. She would do anything for him, but he treats her like trash. She is fearfully running from the question that keeps haunting her, has God abandoned me? What do I say to Lois?
The words God gave me to share this Sunday morning and the manner with which I say those words stand between Ray, Rosie, and Lois and the demons of seductive addiction, hopeless despair, and extreme disappointment that are set on devouring them. What can I, the preacher, do in moments like these facing demons like these that are suffocating people like these? I have no sword, I have no six-shooter, I have a sermon. A sermon! Words woven together with the fabric of biblical truth and the thread of contextual realities. A sermon! 3500 words spanning 30 minutes to a group of people who are gazing at me, waiting for me, daring me to say something that will make God and his kingdom more real to them than the very real pain and problems that are sure to show their ugly faces again when the Sunday clock strikes noon. No one can see it but I’m shaking in my shoes, doubtful that this sermon will be enough to protect these people from these demons on this day.
My sermon looks like an underdog against the demons that have attached themselves to the people I love. What is worse, I am wrestling with some of my own demons, like the one on my shoulder who whispers in my ear before I stand up to preach “who do you think you are…you have nothing to offer these people…you are more messed up than they are…do you really think your words, of all things, can make a lick of difference in their lives?” Once I snap that rascal off my shoulder another appears. This one reminds me of my successes in hopes that I will rely more on the power of my words than the power of my God through words. With an even harder flick, I get rid of this demon too.
The preacher stands between heaven and hell, between hope-hungry people and the demons we know all too well. Who in their right mind would dare to stand up and speak out good news against odds like these? Who has the audacity to believe that grace-filled, truth-painting, Spirit-anointed words really can do something miraculous to people whose hopes are hanging by a very thin thread? I the preacher, despite the odds, dare to believe that God just might show up and use the so-so words of this so-so preacher to transform so-so people into disciples who change the world.
And so I open my mouth to release the words God has given me, knowing full well that if he doesn’t bring the dead bones of my mediocre sermon to life it won’t live and bring life to the dead. But God does show up, sometimes in ways I expect to see him but usually in ways I do not. On any given Sunday it’s hard to see exactly what God is “up to” through the sermon. But the cumulative impact of sermon after sermon after sermon, spoken with love to the same group year after year, is much more visible. These people before me seem a bit more faithful, more hopeful, more committed, more reliable, more selfless, more victorious than they did a few years back. The reason? God is here. Though the demons may seem bigger than my words, these monsters are no match for the God who hovers over the deep of the sermon and of those who hear it.
Ray, Rosie, and Lois are leaning forward in their seats just now. God is using my words to restore the paradise they lost in the fall. Before the sermon is even over I have already decided to give it a go again next Sunday.
Dr. Lenny Luchetti presently serves as Assistant Professor of Proclamation and Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University. He began his 15 years of pastoral ministry when he was 23 years old. During that time he has served as the Pastor of a small rural church, the Assistant Pastor of a large church, and as the Lead Pastor of a congregation that grew from a small to a large missional and multi-ethnic church during his tenure. Lenny has taught preaching courses for ministers since 2003. He has preached at churches, camps, and colleges in the United States and around the world. His passion these days is to invest in those who are investing in local churches.