Stranger in the pulpit

It’s not that I’m afraid of upsetting people. It’s that I’m afraid of upsetting them and never knowing that I upset them. I’m afraid that it will fester, and then explode over some unsuspecting pastor (probably theirs), who will then have to clean up the mess that I managed to make in their church on a hot July Sunday.

Periodically (especially in the summertime), I receive an email or phone call from a fellow pastor asking me to preach in their church while they are on vacation. Because I don’t have an ongoing Sunday morning gig, and because I know that the more I preach the better I get at it, I usually say yes without giving much thought to anything besides how I will get there.

There are two pulpits where I feel decidedly at home. The first is Grace Baptist Church, where the pulpit is actually a borrowed music stand in the fading parlor in the crumbling building of a Presbyterian church from whom we rent space once a month. The Gracies are the folks who have called me to serve, a dozen or so queers and allies who like each other so much that they just can’t quit each other. I’m new, but they like me, and I like them. Preaching to them is like conversations on the fifth or sixth date, when you are half still trying to impress, half starting to let them see who you really are. In the build up, it is frequently terrifying. But in the delivery the exchange is electrifying, at least for me, because I am slowly falling in love with them.

The second is the Community Church of Wilmette. I showed up there on a Sunday in September 2009, to begin an internship. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with the people,  joined the church, and was ordained there. Six years after walking through those doors, I have preached a lot of sermons to that gaggle of suburbanites living in one of the wealthiest villages in Chicagoland. When I speak, I am speaking to people I love dearly, and it changes what I have to say to them. When I make eye contact with John or see Judy smirk at something I say, my heart swells with love.

Pulpit supply, on the other hand, is a risky business. I preached in a friend’s pulpit on Independence Day weekend. I am the worst possible person to give a 4th of July sermon, since I grew up elsewhere and my emotional connection to this country is still rather tenuous. Not only that, the June leading up to this past Independence Day was chock-full of horror and wonder, and reflecting on what those things say about our nation, well, it leads to some pretty intense sermonizing. But what is my responsibility to strangers in the pews? How does one preach both responsibly and prophetically to people with whom one has no relationship? In preaching, as in therapy and in surgery, you have to “close” people, you have help them be ready to back into the world, but unless you know them, how do you know where their tender parts are? Is it ethical to preach about difficult issues in a congregation where I have never been and where I may or may not return, among people with whom I have no relationship?

When I call a strange congregation to repent of and then actively work to dismantle our national sin of racism, I believe that I am being appropriate; all white Americans must be called to this work. But I don’t know what groundwork has been laid, the ways they have been living out this call in their own lives, or the struggles that they have gone through. When I invite them to courageously step into God’s call of radical welcome, I have no idea what other calls they are struggling to respond to in their lives. I don’t know what they need to hear, or how they will hear things, or what they will do after they hear it.

Maybe that’s o.k. Maybe, instead of sending me into a swirl of anxiety, it should move me to rely more on the Spirit’s movements. Maybe this should remind me that “Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Maybe it is a reminder that I am called to a particular preaching moment, to proclaim the Gospel message as faithfully as I am able, and to not insist on control over the rest. These are good reminders, of course.

But I am wary of them, lest they become excuses for treating this enormous calling carelessly. The last thing I want to do is to preach irresponsibly and then chalk it up to “letting go and letting God.” I am extremely wary of the power with which people imbue the pulpit, and the potential for harm, because of the way I and others whom I love have been harmed in the past.

And herein lies the problem: preaching in “strange” pulpits strips away the warm fuzzies I get in my “home” pulpits, leaving me vulnerable to impostor syndrome and to the paralyzing fear that I am not worthy of this calling, and may never be. “Who are you to say this to these people?” a voice whispers in my ear. “What if you’re doing more harm than good?” Or, “If they knew you, knew who you really were, what you’re really like, they wouldn’t sit there listening to you. They would walk right out.” And that dreaded one, “Someone is going to figure out that you’re just a huge con. They’re going to see that you have no idea what you’re talking about and they’re going to tell on you.”

I need to get over myself, of course. At the heart of this is hubris, the need to be validated and feel like my words are important. But even deeper than pride, there is a call to own the voice I have been given, to proclaim the Gospel to which I have been called, and to open myself to falling in love everywhere I go, even to strange suburban pulpits. It is a terrifying call, and a splendid one.

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