Here’s an alliteration for you. The power and privilege of the pulpit. I just returned from a four day preaching festival of young preachers from all over the country. Over those four days, I had the privilege to hear sermons from many diverse voices, and the humble honor to preach my own sermon. I heard the Word preached from young clergy, seminarians, and everyone in between. Most of the preaching I experienced was very outside of my tradition— preachers moving around the pulpit, arms waving, voices raised in the passion of the moment. I was admittedly jealous of the preachers that had the confidence to forgo a manuscript. However, the diversity of preaching voices that I witnessed helped me to appreciate my own journey to finding my preaching voice. As I was experiencing day of nerves in anticipation of preaching my sermon, I realized that I did not need to try to emulate the other sermons I heard. My prayer was that my authentic voice would come through, and that the Spirit would move through me to deliver a Good Word.
Besides being a naturally shy person, I must explain another source of my nerves. I felt the weight of the pulpit. I felt the weight of every woman who has ached for a place at the pulpit, but has been told no on the basis of her gender. I felt the weight of the knowledge that many people today still believe that women do not belong behind the pulpit or in seminary. I felt the weight of every question I have received regarding my call: looks of surprise that I am seeking ordination, or that my undergraduate degree in religious studies led me to a Masters of Divinity program and not the mission field.
I stood in an empty hotel ballroom with shaky hands and sweaty palms the night before my sermon. I practiced my sermon several times in my hotel room, but I wanted to practice behind the pulpit. My heart started thumping in the empty room: I have big shoes to fill. I have heard countless sermons in my life, but as a little girl, I did not see women in the pulpit. Not because my tradition barred it, but simply due to time and place. I moved to Raleigh when I was ten and although my church had women clergy, I wasn’t exactly paying attention to who was preaching back then. I certainly had female role models and mentors in the church, but none of them were behind the pulpit. I didn’t even meet any other female friends my age pursuing ordination until I started seminary. That night standing in the empty ballroom, I realized that I wanted to be for another woman what my younger self did not have.
The next day I preached my sermon, and the Spirit of God turned my spirit of timidity into one of boldness. In that moment, I realized that God had placed me exactly where I needed to be. I was on holy ground. Moses’ bare feet on earthy ground; my stocking feet in black heels on generic hotel carpet. The God of the covenant, the One who called Moses to preach a Word of liberation, was calling me too. The weight of the pulpit was still there, and I think it always will be. I never want to take for granted the deep gift and responsibility that lies within this “odd and wondrous calling.”
It is my prayer that I will never forget what a deep privilege and honor it is to share the words that God has placed on my heart. Yet the preacher must always approach the pulpit with a spirit of humility, for there is great power in the pulpit. Consider this: the preacher has a captive audience who is trusting that the preacher will deliver a message rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But what happens when the preacher’s Good News isn’t Good News for everyone?
I recently experienced a sermon such as this, which was characterized by emotional manipulation and theologically problematic imaginings of God. Preachers, the words we use in our sermons matter. Does your language for God welcome rich imaginings of the Creator of the Universe? Or is God depicted as a castigating Father quick to punish His children? Will you use your words to set the captives free or to support the systems that oppress them? To borrow from liberation theology, if the Good News isn’t good for all of God’s people, than it is not Good News.
It is a great task we have before us, to preach a Good Word that is true to the character of God as revealed in Scripture. Now more than ever, it feels like we are in need of Good News. In a world bereft of Good News, may our pulpits be a place where the loving-kindness of God is proclaimed and grace is abundant.
Preach it, preachers! May you go forth to proclaim the Good News with the Spirit of God guiding your steps and the power and privilege of the pulpit always at the forefront of your mind.