I’ve always maintained that the most compelling reason to plan and write sermons using the Revised Common Lectionary is to successfully avoid an unfortunate shift of the pulpit from a point of potential Gospel proclamation to an uncovered window into whatever happens to be on the preacher’s mind at the moment. As you know, that kind of shift can be very scary (and scarier in some situations than others depending on who is preaching, of course).
This week, however, I learned that there might be an even more compelling reason to stake your claim on the lectionary with urgent conviction then hang on for dear life: that is, if you ever have occasion for church members to be choosing sermon topics, which is what I allowed to happen just this past week.
You could argue that I should know better. And, I should, I should. But I am a young pastor (40 and under category for a few more days). And compared to some of my colleagues (you know who you are), still relatively inexperienced. And, it’s close enough to Christmas that I still had the words from In the Bleak Midwinter running through my head—you know: what can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would give a lamb….
Well, if you were a preacher, what would you give?
Here’s what happened. Last Friday night Calvary’s music department put on a wonderful evening entitled Calvary Presents Concert Series: The History of Love – A Cabaret Concert and Silent Auction. Our purpose in even trying such an experiment was to raise money for a year-long season to begin in June and mark the 150th anniversary of the church.
I must say: the fellowship hall looked amazing. One Calvary member even labeled his Facebook pictures “My Church is a Nightclub” (I, of course, wouldn’t know…). And all around our church community and neighborhood people generously donated items for auction—from valuable antique salt boxes to a week at the beach. I was not immune to this enthusiasm, so I thought hard about what I might possibly donate to the silent auction.
Finally, I had the idea that I could offer a topical sermon. That is, if you buy this auction item, you get to choose a scripture passage or a topic on which you would like me to write and deliver a sermon, which I will do during 11:00 a.m. worship from the Calvary pulpit.
Almost immediately upon offering said auction item I began to get nervous. As people started throwing out possible ideas (most of which cannot be published here), I remembered again what a strange church this is—that is, the kind of church where you can be yourself and people are not afraid to say what they think.
Note: I already admitted that I should have known.
Anyway, in the weeks leading up the auction the excitement over many auction items, including the topical sermon offering, began to grow. When people walked past me in the hallway they shouted out their ideas. Inquiries were made about remote bidding. I received sermon ideas in the form of what I consider to be threats from especially difficult church members, namely some of my colleagues. And, at home, some of my neighbors, who are not members of the church at all, rushed to buy tickets and made plans to attend largely for the purpose of bidding on the sermon.
I kept myself as calm as possible by using a technique my spiritual director recommends: self-talk. In this case, conversations went something like: “Don’t worry. You are a preacher. Preachers are masters of spin. You know that you can make a sermon illustration out of the most unlikely thing—you have many times don’t forget!” And, “How bad can it be? There are so few people familiar with Genesis 38:8-10—it won’t be a problem.” And there was even some conversation vaguely related to the possibility of starting a new career waitressing on the beach in Jamaica if necessary.
As the auction progressed I watched the bidding closely—not for the money (though, this brings up another critically important question: how much money is a sermon worth? That’s another blog entry for sure) but for the people who were bidding. And, in the end, one of the sweetest, kindest, loveliest members of the church out-bid everybody else to win the sermon.
The winner of the sermon and I are currently in negotiations about her topic choice. While it will certainly reflect her own theological interests and questions, I am confident it will not send me running to the Caribbean.
You would think I would be relieved.
Which I was, until Sunday, when a Calvary member who was not even in attendance at this year’s auction told me he just can’t wait for next year and then handed me his bulletin, on which he had scribbled the following: “Philosophical and Literary Underpinnings of the Sacred Text, Particularly Leviticus’ Rules; Resolving Conflicting Messages in the Bible Text; Understanding the Removal of Apocryphal Books from the Canon; Prejudice in the Bible: Gender Prejudice, Racial Prejudice, Nationalist Prejudice, Ageist Prejudice, etc.” …leading me to believe that this church member has no realistic understanding of my brain capacity and/or he was hallucinating while writing this list.
I feel that in many ways I dodged a bullet this year, but talk is already underway about auctioning off a whole sermon series next year. I can only hope that nobody around here finds out about this list anytime soon.