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When the church ordained me to the ministry, the presiding officer said “Take thou, Paul, authority to execute the office of minister of the Word; in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” And so I became a minister of the Word.
Most Protestant folks who have been ordained to the “holy ministry” see themselves primarily as preachers. As word-weavers, proclaimers, communicators, deliverers of messages from on high. We have something to say, and, because we have been set aside for the work, we are the ones to say it.
Effective preaching is the principal gift we offer to the lives of followers of Jesus. If indeed “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ”, good preaching is the sine qua non not only of the church (inasmuch as the church itself is the creature of the Word) but also the faith of its individual members. We are, as my father reminded me when the church set me aside for ministry, the ones who warn and teach others wisely, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:28)
But, hey, no pressure to say right things, or for that matter to say them rightly, right?
No preacher ever sweat bullets over getting that sermon done, right?
While the pressure to have some morsel to offer a hungry flock has dissipated for me over the years – after all, I’ll have something to offer, however mealy it may be – I have found preaching life propelled by two questions from disparate sources.
First, from Crossing Delancey, the 1988 film in which Sam, a brine-scented lower-East-side pickle monger falls in love with Isabelle, an upper-East-sider whose schedule is dotted with book readings and highly literate conversations. As the story weaves its way back and forth through the apparent mismatch, Sam sighs and ponders, “How do I speak to Isabelle?”
Second, the first line of the third stanza of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. After two stanzas contemplating the ugly suffering Christ endured in our stead, the worshiper asks “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?”
How do I speak? What language shall I borrow?
What words of mine have anything like the capacity required to mediate the grace of God in Christ to the teachers, farmers, accountants, paint brokers, executives, retirees, and children, who have entrusted me to offer them more than mere savvy counsel about the affairs of the day, but “wonderful words of life”?
Answer: none. Not a one, at least on its own.
Reformed folk abide in a Word/Spirit tradition, in which the inner testimony of the Spirit is more essential to the growth of faith than the skillfully (or sloppily) constructed product of any preacher’s wordsmithing. The Spirit may not impel us to dance or say Amen, but the Spirit takes the fumbling words we offer, and in a way that I can only compare to the five-loaves-and-two-fishes miracle, makes them more than enough.
Preachers are, in the end, set aside to be ministers of the Word, not masters of words. A “minister” is, after all, a “less than,” a “servant”, etymologically speaking. We serve the Word (incarnate, written, proclaimed), and though some may be more skilled at knitting subject and verb, we remain subservient to One who is outside our attempts at mastery.
How do I speak adequately of God’s love to God’s beloved? What language shall I borrow to lead a thirsty flock to the still waters of grace? I despair when I try to match up to the rhetorical eloquence of Barbara Brown Taylor, Frederick Buechner, Nadia Bolz-Weber, James Forbes, or Jeff Chu. (Hint to new preachers: never read the sermons of great preachers until you have finished your own. Probably not even then.)
But we serve none of these eloquent spokespersons. Servants of the Word serve only the Word, and the Word continues to become flesh and take up temporary residence among us as we open our mouths with grace, giving our all to tell the truth as we have borne witness.
Next time: Well, we also serve the sacrament. So, next time: Minister of Sacrament.