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The Experience of Preaching

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Two weeks ago, I did something I’ve never done before: with a roiling stomach and a slight quiver in my knees, I walked to the pulpit in my church to preach a sermon.

When my priest asked me back in January if I’d be willing to preach, I jumped at the chance. I enjoy public speaking and I’ve missed lecturing to the humanities students once a month, as I did at my academic job. And since we use the lectionary, I had an assigned passage already and no need to worry about coming up with a topic.

But despite my initial excitement, I was blindsided by my own emotional reaction to preaching.

I heard a woman preach for the first time less than a year ago. And despite believing in and supporting women preaching for at least the last ten years of my life, those previous twenty-five years of believing that women shouldn’t preach still linger in my soul. And so I was overwhelmed with uncertainty, doubt and feelings of unworthiness as I began to prepare my sermon.

It didn’t matter that I affirm and argue for and write about women preaching. It didn’t matter that I’ve been writing regularly for Christians for Biblical Equality. It didn’t matter that I’ve led several adult Sunday School classes. Something about stepping into the pulpit brought out all of my insecurity. I could, and do, argue that women, in general, should preach. But what about when “women” meant me, specifically? Could I do this? Could I preach?

I was, either ironically or appropriately, preaching on the story of Thomas and his doubts, from John 20. My central point was that Jesus meets us in our doubts, drawing us out of those doubts and into himself. I’ve certainly experienced periods of doubt about my faith, especially when my critical thinking turns into cynical thinking. But now I was drowning in doubt about my worthiness to preach.

And I want to be clear that my insecurity was about my intrinsic worthiness to preach, my status in the eyes of God. I never doubted my skills in studying a text, preparing a message, and speaking to the church. I’m actually pretty good at all of that, and after fourteen years of teaching I have plenty of experience in prepping, teaching and speaking. So I never felt unsure about my skill or my talent; the doubt went much deeper, to the question of whether I as a woman could serve God and the church by preaching — whether God wanted that kind of service from me.

And so, I felt weirdly divided: I thoroughly enjoyed prepping the sermon, but I felt existential anxiety every time I thought about actually preaching it.

Then came Holy Week. I wasn’t expecting, honestly, to meet God in any deep way; the previous month had been busy and stressful and not incredibly conducive to cultivating spiritual openness for the greatest feast of the Christian year. And yet, kneeling at the foot of the cross on Good Friday to pray, I knew exactly what I needed to leave there at the cross, what I needed Jesus to take up for me: my feelings of unworthiness.

Much to my amazement, Jesus did take them from me.

I’m not much of one for spiritual experiences; I tend to be much more cerebral than emotional, and I’m still not entirely comfortable with that strange and mysterious third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. But I experienced an otherwise inexplicable emotional relief that Friday night at the cross. The burden and shame of my unworthiness as a woman disappeared.

I was still nervous the next week when I got up to preach. This was a new audience, and they didn’t need to pay attention in order to get a passing grade on an exam. And I certainly felt the weight of preaching: getting something wrong about Shakespeare probably won’t affect a student’s entire life, but getting something wrong about Jesus might hurt one of my listeners. And yet I no longer felt unworthy as a woman; I felt beloved by God and supported by my church community.

And I even enjoyed myself, stretching muscles that I hadn’t used in a while.

I hope that I’ll be able to preach again. I imagine that I’ll still feel doubt and uncertainty and I’ll still wonder whether God is really calling me, specifically. But Jesus meets us in our doubts and calls us to serve him; how can I respond better than with Thomas' affirmation, “My lord and my God”?

(If you want to listen to my sermon, click here)

Tagged: personal | preaching