Preachers, It’s Not about You (But It Kind of Is…)
I was teaching a preaching course for Abilene Christian University this past January when I asked my students, “Who can be a preacher?” One of my students excitedly announced, “ANYONE can preach. God can speak through anyone.” The other students nodded in consensus and chimed in, “Yes, anyone can preach!” I joined their chorus and said, “I agree—anybody could be a preacher. So why does it even matter who is in the pulpit?” I asked this question with a hint of facetiousness, hoping to cue further probing. They paused for a few seconds. Did it matter who was in the pulpit?
On the one hand, to declare that anyone can preach is to affirm the inherent power and liberation that emerges as we contemplate God. When we gather to deepen our awareness of God, when we welcome people to proclaim what they believe about God, and in our drawing nearer to God, we find liberation. Throughout history, people have been surprised to experience this oftentimes shocking liberation. Nobody gets to claim a corner on the market of proclaiming gospel. Indeed, all of creation was created to know and proclaim the goodness of God.
And yet, it is problematic to move from “anyone can preach” to “it doesn’t matter who is in the pulpit.” I am reminded of a time when I preached for a wonderful, small country church in the south. This church had long leaned into their belief that anyone can preach, and they wanted to welcome me—a woman from Churches of Christ—to share a word. After church, I found myself in the lobby chatting with church members, when one man approached me and excitedly exclaimed, “Wow! Didn’t know a little lady like you could preach! I suppose if God’s willing to speak through Balaam’s donkey, God will speak through just about anyone!” Admittedly, I laughed. I knew he meant well, and I had never heard anybody attempt a compliment by way of Num. 22:21-39. What I heard in his comment is that he had once again been pleasantly surprised by the liberating power which comes through proclaiming the gospel. Of course, his comment was also a little backhanded, and revealed an uncomfortable truth. Sometimes our attempts to open the pulpit to “anybody” actually expose our prejudices; even a person who is no better than a donkey can preach.
In an attempt to argue for full inclusion, we have argued that the bodies who participate in worship are merely incidental; they don’t really matter. This move has proven to be dangerous on two counts:
First, when we argue that the body in the pulpit is incidental, we make room to hold onto our social prejudices. In effect, if I can affirm that God even speaks through animals, then I guess I can affirm that God would speak through a human who I consider to be less human than me. I don’t have to confront my prejudices—my racism, my sexism, my homophobia, my classism—if I am willing to admit that sometimes God does wacky things, speaking from objects of subjugation.
Second, when we argue that the body in the pulpit is incidental, we lower the standards for the lives of preachers who enter the pulpit every week. We tell them that the Holy Spirit will move and gospel will be heard no matter what flaws they bring to the pulpit, which in turn gives some preachers the sense that the way they live their lives outside of the pulpit has no binding on what is proclaimed within the pulpit.
So, what if we begin with the starting point that bodies do matter? God doesn’t speak through any ol’ body. God comes to be known through our bodies, through our senses. We learn about God through living in this world, and we come to better know God through our engagement with other bodies, as all humans are divine image bearers. So yes, it does matter that I see and hear God through your body. It matters that I see your body—every body—as a living sacrament. And it matters that our churches hear the gospel through all sorts of bodies.
When I was six years old, I was preparing to sing at a talent show. The song was “My Father’s Eyes” by Amy Grant, and my parents were hopeful that the message of compassion in the song would bless the audience (my mom had been the one to select the song). Before I went out on stage, my dad pulled me aside. He looked at me earnestly and prayed, “God, make Amy like a piece of glass through which others may see you and hear you.” He later told me that this is the prayer which precedes every single sermon he preaches. I soon adopted the prayer for every occasion of public speech or presentation, but it wasn’t until I was 29 years old that I began to think about the prayer in a new way.
I stood in front my preaching class at ACU, and I asked, “Are preachers like pieces of glass, through which others may see and hear God? Are people like glass?” We all sat silently for a moment, wondering if the idea might hold some truth. In the silence, I thought about the Chapel on the Hill, where my students would preach their sermons. The chapel is canopied by beautiful stained glass, where morning light pours through and immerses the chapel in cascades of color. Stained glass. Why had I never considered this before? “Class, is it possible that we are more like stained glass?” Yes, that’s it. We are like stained glass.
I have heard it said that in periods of low literacy throughout history, the faithful could look upon the stained glass stories of the church building, and see God’s movement throughout history despite their inability to read about it on pages. What is the stained glass of my life? What distinct colors do God’s mercy, grace, goodness, and liberation evoke from this body? My body is not incidental—it is sacramental, where God makes manifest God’s glory through the story of my life, the details of my body, the tone of my voice, the imperfection of my language, the femininity of my form, the quirkiness of my humor, and the depth of brokenness that I have known.
Preachers, it’s not about us, but it kind of is. Let us hold the gospel in such high regard, and let us hold one another in such high regard, that we welcome with great anticipation all bodies to proclaim gospel.