"It's not about me." " It's not about me." Say it a hundred times, Michael, and maybe it will get through. It's one of the oldest and most fundamental statements of our Faith. This ministry we share is about God and about people. But sometimes, I allow myself to get in the way.
Case in point: Sunday, June 22. We were midway through Pride Month, getting ready to enter Pride Week. I wrote the sermon and re-wrote it and re-wrote it again, trying so hard to say what I felt the congregation needed to hear about a topic so close to the heart of our church. Then, early Sunday morning, I wrote it yet again. While preaching I became almost completely absorbed with the text and the theme. That's not without precedent, of course. In fact, that's how a preacher should (and ordinarily does) feel about every sermon. But, this was different. The subject is so essential to our DNA at Marble, and I wanted so sincerely to say what I felt God desired and our people needed. Anyway, following the sermon and during the closing hymn, I looked at faces. I prayerfully wondered: "Did he receive the comfort I know he needs?" "Did she feel a nudge to be there in some way for her close friend who is struggling?" "Will I get an unhappy e-mail from that person (who perhaps thinks I went too far) or from that person (who perhaps thinks I did not go far enough)?" So, I began to pray about finding some way to quickly re-state the central theme, some way to call all of us to stand on the same page, on God's page. No longer was I thinking about the structure of the service. Instead, I was hyper-focused on the message and the people. You know, of course, that during my first four years at Marble we concluded services with the sermon, the closing hymn, and the benediction. Suddenly the last year and a half's new approach went right out of my mind. I was still back there in the message – Did I help the people, did they hear what I intended, and how would they respond to my words? A light came on. I would re-state it in the benediction. So, after the hymn, I stepped forward and delivered the benediction that I had been urgently formulating as we sang. Literally I hit the center aisle on my way to the door when I thought: 'Good Lord, man, you completely left out the Offertory!" Thank God Travis Winckler calmly stepped forward and continued with Worship as outlined and intended. Meanwhile, I realized that now I had to do yet another benediction – this one jokingly referring to the fact that I was not standing in front of the people, but also tying that to a call for the people to come out into the world as vessels of grace and love.
You know what the problem was, of course. (At this point, in an attempt to justify myself, I could easily clamor for excuses: Between Sunday morning sermons, WeWo sermons, Worship Without Walls sermons, blogs that are mini-sermons, and guest appearances, I write about 170 messages a year. Add to that the pastoral work, the administrative requirements, etc., etc., and sometimes I get tired, like everyone else. Blah, blah, blah.) But, it wasn't fatigue. It was instead that for a moment I forgot what the moment was about. Even after all these years, I briefly forgot. It was right to be so focused (almost fixated) on the message and its importance. No problem there. But, what I forgot was that while we preach, the sermon belongs to God – and after it is preached, the sermon belongs to those who heard it. "It's not about me," about whether I communicated effectively enough or about how people will respond to me once it's done. Somehow that's what I briefly forgot and why I was subsequently so disappointed in myself. I should have concluded the prayer after the sermon and then just let it go. I did not need to re-create the message in a benediction. I simply needed to trust it into God's hands and into yours.
Funny. I began the sermon that Sunday by referring to times when I am flawed or foolish. Apparently I concluded the service by reiterating that point. But, I also began the sermon by talking about how you folks are so clearly allies, supporters, friends to those of us who need kindness and love. And once again as I stood at the Fifth Avenue door, greeting people while a bit embarrassed, I experienced what I had talked about. I experienced the sense of community that is so essentially Marble. One by one you simply stepped forward, not remarking on my mistake, but instead saying, "Thanks for the sermon you preached today." It was a loving and lovely reminder of what I knew but for a moment had forgotten: Once preached, I can trust the message to those who heard it. You will do with it what God calls you to do. I'll not soon forget that beautiful lesson (nor, I promise, will I ever again forget the Offertory!).