Preaching to & from the Pulpit
Last summer we welcomed Matt Westermayer as a field education student from Princeton Theological Seminary to work at Beacon full time, staffing our programs, loving our kiddos, leading worship, preaching, and building up community. He offered up this reflection as his time with us came to a close, and we'd like to share it with you. We are grateful for his gifts and that he shared them with us.
Summer internships at churches distinguish themselves among other temporary jobs. Collecting trash and playing sports with toddlers, who erupt in joy at your mere presence, constitute a day's work. Expect to experience the mundane up-keep of the church building and the magical moment of exposing your heart through the act of proclamation all in a single week.
On the two weeks leading up to July 13th, I spent every free moment thinking, feeling, and wrestling with Matthew 13. The process of writing this sermon brought me unparalleled joy. Words and speech move us; they change the course of our lives. This has never been more evident for me than on July 13th.
As a principle, whenever I preach, I desire to make the room as uncomfortable as I can manage. Frederick Buechner writes, "The preacher speaks both the word of tragedy and the word of comedy because they are both of them the truth and because Jesus speaks them both.” While I am only beginning to know the regular worshippers at Beacon, I sense they are like me. I struggle openly and will listen to a message of hardship and stunning grace.
The scripture for my sermon, Matthew 13, re-enacts Jesus' parable to explain to a skeptical people that God will one day make the world right. Despite some seeds falling into bad soil, God is planting a seed that will erupt into paradise. This idea makes me pause and tremble. How can I tell people to look forward to a redemptive day in the future while the present day has more than enough hardships? So, I labored through the sermon and made myself as emotionally transparent as possible.
While delivering the sermon, I approached the heavy lifting by saying, "I do not need to convince you that the world that we experience on a daily basis seems like a far cry from the world we want to experience."
People started to perk up.
"Some of us are hungry, and that's not a metaphor." I notice one congregant tilt her head back in an act of emotional anguish. I was nervous about pushing the wrong buttons, but I relaxed and felt an overwhelming nudge to keep speaking.
"Matthew 13 is a story about God's plans for this world and despite the constant reminder of failure, the seed will spout and renew all things, including your body, mind, and soul."
After proclaiming this with confidence, the hesitant woman in the pews spoke up. For fifteen seconds, the sermon came to an abrupt halt. Having only preached a handful of times, I have never encountered someone speaking back to me.
She cried, "When?!"
When will this new day arrive? The promise of wholeness sounded too good to be true. She spoke with honesty, humility, and pain. Strangely enough, she spoke exactly what I was feeling at the moment. The preacher, in this instance, was just another sufferer who needed to believe that this world would one day be put back together.
I will always remember that moment. I looked down and took a deep breath. I looked back at her and said, "I don't know."
Even with six years of professional study of religion and eight church internships, I realized I had no more expertise than this woman sitting in the pew. Yes, I spent an inordinate amount of time consulting the top thinkers on the Gospel of Matthew. Yes, I preached this text before. Still, we shared a moment of futility and desire.
The preacher has no golden plan or security blanket. The preacher simply decides to speak on behalf on the strong and the weak. Trained theologian or factory worker, we all want the same thing. We desire a world where kids do not go to bed hungry. We dream of love never disappointing.
After the service she approached me. She wondered if I wrote the sermon with her in mind. I smiled and said, "I wish, but I was writing for me. I think this means that you are not alone."
What a relief to know first-hand that the one behind the pulpit struggles, dreams, and yearns like those who wander in looking for a reason to continue fighting.
Far from shunning someone's participation in my sermon, I found her voice a welcomed presence. Preacher and listener alike desire a profound peace and on July 13th, we both spoke up.