When I started the summer, I was happy to have a couple of preaching opportunities set up. After all, I’d only preached twice during my internship. A couple of phone calls and emails later, and all but a couple of my Sundays were booked. It has been a good challenge to pray over what which scriptures to wrestle with week-to-week, especially given that most churches on my list are not on lectionary. The first couple of sermons were for the remnant group of a church just days following a painful and sudden schism.
The next two were for churches that are vibrant and healthy. Next up will be a church I’ve visited off and on for the past 4 years. They were between pastors and struggling to find their mission when I first preached there. They offered this beginning preacher a chance to learn and grow. And in time, I learned that I brought them a message they needed to hear as they healed from a difficult pastoral relationship. They have since called a pastor and together discerned how to expand their ministry in the community. After that, I’ll be at a church I haven’t visited in a couple of years – helping fill in the gap between the last date their departing pastors preach and the interim arrives. And finally at a retirement community chapel service.
In some ways, it feels like the work I did as a substitute teacher. Since I had spent years in my own classroom, I knew what a gift it was to have someone who actually took seriously the work of filling in. A good “sub” allows the teacher to focus on vacation or getting well or whatever conference they are attending. As a congregant, I always knew when a guest pastor brought his “B” game – a back-pocket sermon that was only slightly adapted for use in this new context. Or when they used the opportunity to preach all 12 of the sermons they wished they’d heard recently. I hope that I can “sub” in with a fresh word that the Spirit has provided for the people gathered that day. And that I would not be too great a distraction as I work through an unfamiliar liturgy.
A few things that I’ve learned in this season of itineration:
1. The lectionary is a handy tool, except when it’s not. There are just some weeks that it’s really hard to jump into a passage without having run up to it in the preceding weeks. But the “choose whatever you like” freedom can be just as difficult.
2. It’s really hard to get a sense of who a congregation is from their website when it hasn’t been updated in a long time. And really- mission, vision, and goals aren’t that helpful to someone who wants to know about your church’s personality. Newsletters can be eye-opening, especially when the pastor’s letter gets rambunctious.
3. A visiting preacher must hold at least these two things in tension – the freedom of the outsider to be prophetic and the lack of context that urges caution. It’s a bit like flying blind to go into a congregation’s sacred space with a Word from God. Especially when we believe that the Holy Spirit comforts and disquiets in equal measures.
4. The new cast recording of Godspell is better pre-preaching commute listening than local NPR Sunday programming.
5. There is something magical about the way that a sermon comes to life in the act of preaching.