Things that I, lay minister, have found out about sermons over the past year:
First of all: Give me the more unfamiliar, unlovely texts; the ones that no one remembers from Sunday School. For some reason I find them more intellectually engaging and actually easier to tackle with the congregation than the ones that come with a lot of preconceived assumptions and sentimental baggage. My idea of preaching hell is doing so on Christmas, Easter or the Sunday we tackle the Beatitudes. I'm just weird that way. Good thing I'm a layperson.
I've also found that there's something about small worship gatherings that throws me off-kilter. You'd think it would be just the opposite; that an intimate group of familiar faces would set me at ease. No. To me, behind the pulpit those Advent or Lenten evenings, it's like doing standup at closing time in an unpopular bar. I feel like I'm dying up there.
And then there's The Sermonator. This is my affectionate name for someone in our congregation who has taken it upon herself to become my personal trainer for preaching. Now, you have to understand that, being the very anal-retentive, self-critical soul I am, I start mentally dope-slapping myself for my homiletical inadequacies the moment I step out of the pulpit. I need, and appreciate, having some knowledgeable, objective other give me honest feedback, positive and negative -- even when the latter feels like a final rapier-stab to the heart after my post-sermon self-recrimination sesson; because at least it's coming from somewhere other than my own head.
But The Sermonator does not fall into the category of respected reality-checker. Imagine instead the love child of Ethel Merman and Cheers' Cliff Claven, and you'll get some idea of her m.o. The Sermonator is someone who, after a Sunday where I was feeling ill and ran through the sermon a bit breathlessly just because I needed to sit down as soon as possible, collared me in the fellowship area after the service and told me, loudly, "YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE SO NERVOUS! WE'RE ALL FRIENDS HERE! JUST PRETEND WE'RE ALL SITTING HERE NAKED! I'M SURE YOU'LL DO BETTER NEXT TIME!"
Thank you. Thank you so much.
The other week I did a fill-in Lenten service for our pastor -- one of those dreaded small-group homilies; my discomfort compounded by the gravitas and majesty of the text, Hebrews 12:1-2: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Oy. I spent all day writing the homily; thought it was crap; gave it anyway.
Afterward one of my respected reviewers described my message as "interesting," an adjective that felt like a baseball bat to the solar plexus. I said a few goodbyes and fled to my car...only to notice The Sermonator hot at my heels.
"I JUST WANTED TO TELL YOU," she declared, "THAT I THINK YOU'RE DOING A LOT BETTER!"
At this point I felt a weight descending upon each shoulder -- my good and bad angels had chosen this moment to manifest.
My good angel was in the guise of a pleasant Southern matron sipping a sweet tea.
"Well, bless her heart," exclaimed the good angel. "That gal is doin' the best she can, just like you."
My bad angel bore a distinct resemblance to Chelsea Handler. In one hand she held a pitchfork; in the other, a large vodka martini.
"SHUT UP!" screamed the bad angel. "SHUT UP! SHUT THE *&#@ UP!"
I decided I'd better pay more attention to the good angel. But I poured myself a big ol' glass of merlot -- we're out of vodka -- when I got home.