People ask me if I still get nervous before giving a sermon. I do. I don’t get nervous the same way I once did. Years ago, before delivering one of my first sermons, I worried and lost sleep for a week. I’m not that bad now. I do feel a pressure that falls on me like a weight sometime on Saturday, usually around the middle of the afternoon. The thought crosses my mind fairly regularly on Saturdays, “This sermon stinks. What am I going to do?” Then, on Sunday, I get to church and start worshipping God and the worry and weight vanishes like a bad dream. It’s funny though; a new and different weight falls on me on Sunday afternoons or evenings. Then I worry: “It wasn’t that good a sermon. I should have done it differently.”
I was a little more nervous than normal on Tuesday evening this past week. I had been invited to preach to the Presbytery of Philadelphia. This was to be a dialogue sermon I would deliver with another pastor named Janiel Dixon. Dr. Dixon is an African-American preacher serving a wonderful church in Philadelphia. She and I were asked speak about race relations in the sad, awful aftermath of the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. On June 17th, a white terrorist opened fire on the Pastor and some members of the Emmanuel AME Church after they had welcomed him into their Bible study. My legs started shaking from the moment I received the call inviting me to preach.
Janiel and I were assigned two passages from the Bible. One was from the prophet Habakkuk and the other from the book of Ephesians. In Ephesians, Paul wrote, “For he [that’s Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
We two preachers did what we do must weeks. We opened our Bibles and our study aids and went to work on seeking to understand what God’s Word says and then what God’s Word means. Pastor Dixon and I spoke on the phone and met together a couple of times. I learned that her legs were shaking too.
How do you talk about the race issue in the assigned 15 minutes before 250 colleagues? What can you say in that short time? Is there anything good that can come from this? Is there any change?
As Janiel and I met to plan our sermon, I made an effort to really listen to her and her story. “Take the cotton out of your ears and put in your mouth,” my friends in Alcoholics Anonymous like to say. Janiel confessed to me that when she talks about race with white people she feels the need to be careful so as to not offend. I told her that I was afraid of being clueless and insensitive. We each swallowed our fears and spoke and listened to each other honestly.
So how did the sermon go? I went through my typical thinking: This sermon will be a dog; and then, this sermon was a dog. I am grateful that I had the chance to preach it. I made a new friend in Janiel. She and I encouraged our colleagues to begin a friendship with someone different from you. We asked churches to come together to do mission. We urged them to plan now to attend the annual Black Heritage worship service on Sunday, February 14, 2016.
Was it a good sermon? We’ll have to see.