Friday, April 5, 2019

The Daunting Joy of Preaching

For over twenty years I have been, among other things, a preacher. I enjoy preaching and have received enough affirmation to believe that I am, at least some times, pretty good at it. But, I also find it find it daunting, even a little terrifying. I enjoy preaching for lots of reasons, most of which I will get to later. For now, I’ll just say preaching is a kind of performance in which I get to play with language and images, engaging the hearts and minds – the imaginations – of those who hear. It is as close as I am going to get to my fantasy of being Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen, or Bob Dylan.

But, I find preaching daunting. The reasons for that are several.

I find the idea that I am proclaiming the word of the Lord to be audacious. I believe the Bible is inspired and that the preaching event is in some sense sacramental. When I stand in the pulpit to expound the faith, what I am sharing is not Matt Gunter’s latest ideas about God and life. I am proclaiming the very word of God. Incidentally, this is why, in spite of my natural tendency to informality, I prefer preaching from a pulpit. In any event, the idea that one is in some sense speaking authoritatively the Word of God is audacious enough to give one pause before daring to get into a pulpit.

But, preaching also seems presumptuous to me. What business do I, or anyone else, have presuming to say anything about the Mystery at that heart of it all? Even granted the revelation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ, how does our tongue not stick to the roof our mouth at the very idea that our words can come close? So much preaching, so much God-talk, sounds so glib or over-confident to me. Even at our best, all our preaching and teaching is stammeringly inadequate. How do we not choke on our words? Might we do better to just keep silent?

This is only exacerbated by the tendency to idolatry. It is so, so easy to confuse my own social, political, and personal prejudices with the Word of God. Or my own fears and shame. It is so easy to make God sound like an idealized version of myself. It is so clear to me when others do it. I can only suspect that the same tendency can infect my preaching.

Then, of course, there is my own sinfulness and ignorance. I am all too aware of the stubbornness of my own evil heart which is devious above all else (Jeremiah ). I am all too familiar with each of the Seven Deadly Sins. And I know just enough to know how truly ignorant I am. How can I be trusted to proclaim the Word of God? How dare I?

Especially because I believe in judgement. I will be held accountable for my preaching. As the Book of James warns, “Not many of you should become teachers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). And even more frightful, our Lord warns, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea”
(Matthew 18:6). I have wondered if at ordinations we might place a miniature millstone around the ordinand as a sober reminder of the awesome responsibility for which they are being set apart.

And there are lots of ways to earn the millstone. Bad behavior and hypocrisy will do it. Preaching heresy or other false teaching will do it. But, so will the more common mistake of just making the glorious and awe-inducing gospel into something dull, boring, and domesticated.

Then there are those times when the shadow of doubt passes over me. Yes, bishops sometimes doubt. At least this on does. Not so often as I used to or so profoundly. But, every now m and then a voice in the back of my head suggests that my preaching is little than something like George, in ‘Of Mice and Men’, telling Lenny about the rabbits on the dreamed of ranch that will never be (see this video clip).

And even when there is no shade of doubt, I am often caught up short by my inability to articulate adequately what I a am pretty sure I have experienced of God and what I think I do know. How does one convey that in words?

And, so far, that’s all just me. Preaching is also daunting because of the context into which we preach. We live in an age of cacophony in which truth buried in an avalanche of information, noise, and rubbish. Every person in the pew has been bombarded during the week by more stuff than human beings are designed to process. And I am supposed to say something that cuts through that? Why not just whisper sweet nothings into a hurricane?

And each sermon-listener comes with a built-in filter that guarantees that some things will be kept out and other things will be transformed into peculiar things I never said. Can preaching reshape imaginations that have already been and are being shaped so fundamentally?

The people I am preaching to will not always listen or respond the way I hope they will. They certainly won’t always agree with me.

It can feel pretty futile. Sometimes I have an image of myself as the preacher having nothing but, “Blah, blah, blah” coming out of my might and the blah, blah, blah’s just falling to the floor and piling up in front of the pulpit, never actually reaching the congregation.

But, daunting as it is, preaching is also a joy. It is an awesome responsibility, but it is also an incredible privilege.

In spite of all I have said, I do dare to preach.

I dare to do it because I believe the Holy Spirit and the Church have called me to do it. That gives me some confidence.

Like Jeremiah, I cannot hold it in.

The Christian story of Jesus is the most beautiful and hopeful story known to humanity.

I believe the gospel is true and transforming. It is the story of our awe-inducing, but loving God
romancing all humanity and all creation. I count it all joy that I get to be a matchmaker in that romance.

I enjoy preaching because I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8) and want to invite others to taste what I have tasted.

I have known God's mercy and delight. I have experienced God’s grace pouring over and soaking into me bringing forgiveness, healing, and transformation. I want others to experience that grace.

I can dare to get into a pulpit however daunting because of that grace which not only casts out fear, but also assures me that, as I make myself available, God will work through me. And sometimes in spite of us.

I can count on the Holy Spirit Alchemist to take the lead of our words and turn it into the gold of God’s word for God’s people.

And they are God’s people, not mine. Along with all else that is vying for their attention and loyalty, the Holy Spirit is already and always singing the Trinity’s love song into their heart with or without my preaching. Remembering that can be quite freeing.

So, preaching is indeed a daunting thing. It is good to be daunted. All that is daunting about it can lead to humility and holy reticence. But, God’s grace is sufficient and it is indeed a joy and a privilege to be charges with such an awesome task.


  1. Thank you, this was just what I needed one hour before the 5PM HE service, seven minutes after finishing the sermon for same.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Shay. I am glad you found it helpful.