I’ve written two sermons in my life and preached one. The first – written, not delivered – was a full length, “give me something I can get my teeth into” challenge I begged of the SAP. The second was a 20 minutes to prepare, ten minutes to deliver number as part of a ‘Principles of Evangelism’ unit.
The first I prayed, sweated and toiled over for weeks. It was pre-bible college enrolment and, in reaction to ‘needing more’ in my heart, was answering the relentless call to dive deeper into scripture. Maybe because I’m late to the GJ&HS game or maybe, in echoes of my Divinity o-level at 15 years old, it is proof of God’s word never retuning void. Instead it is returning me. Back to dig deeper, to write again, much as I did in the exam hall in 1987, about the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. I recall being sprawled across the day-bed, making notes on the Gospel verses the SAP had ‘set’ me, feeling like I had returned home.
The second sermon experience was far more stomach-churning. 20 minutes? Dear Lord. The SAP received a volley of vomiting emoji faces. “You can do that,” calmly texted back the bloke who’s been SAPing and preachin’ for 20-odd years. Such faith.
Much like my early blog posts, I know when God is on a roll because He simply helps me flow it out between head, heart and keyboard. It was a daring, daunting whisper: “You can do this.”
“Yes. Don’t you feel it, love it, know it? Love Me?”
“Yes, but… You want me to do THIS?”
I’m no shrinking violet. I’m quite confident in my PR abilities to write a speech, jump up on a stage facing an audience of 1000s, and deliver a message. But a sermon? That matters. It’s personal. It’s more than unpacking scripture. More than God’s word. It’s my guide, my compass, my everything. It’s being willing to share my deepest heart connection to all and sundry. Does it read weird that thinking about delivering a sermon reminds me of the ‘butterflies in the stomach feeling’ of introducing ‘the one’ to your parents? Desperate that they love and think he’s awesome too?
Of course, unlike introducing ‘the one’ to your parents, God is unlikely to put His foot in it with an ill-timed joke and would always know the correct cutlery to use.
Yet, even so, this was a timed, tie-breaker, under pressure. Pick one of eight verses on offer, prepare a ten-minute sermon in 20 minutes… and GO!
Peskily, the verse the SAP had set me for my more leisured sermon preparation wasn’t on the list so I couldn’t even rely on that.
Yet there she appeared. One of my most treasured bible characters whom I look forward to meeting in heaven. The Samaritan woman at the well. I so identify with her is likely why I’m so fond of her. Who hasn’t made horrendous relationship choices in their life? Been let down by men who were supposed to offer security? Similarly, who hasn’t felt judged for those poor choices?
There were 30 of us in the classroom. Not everyone had to take the podium, there wasn’t sufficient time. “Who wants to go next?” asked the lecturer. I sat there, head down, heart in my mouth. “Put your hand up,” said God loudly.
I wasn’t immediately obedient. I’m more scared of God than the SAP, but I’ve got to admit the thought of telling the SAP I’d choked, next to God shoving at me, had my hand in the air.
“He won’t pick me,” I muttered back to God unfaithfully.
The lecturer picked me.
Taking a deep breath and praying hard I’d not stuff up, I stepped up to the lectern and began an exegesis of reality TV house renovations, broken-down fixer upperers, lonely people thirsting for affection, and the wonderful restoration offered by Jesus who doesn’t care where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and whatever awful wallpaper we’ve chosen to paper over the cracks.
I closed with the invitation to learn more: that perhaps you’ve been sold on the idea of the masterpiece, perfect show-home life and you’re just so tired and it’s not as fulfilling as you’d been led to believe and you are thirsting for more.
Or maybe if you already know Jesus, how are you responding to him? Do you still thirst for him? Are you letting Jesus refresh you? Or has your faith gone off the boil…and if so the call is to spend more time with him.
Or if you do know Jesus, do you still talk about him? The Samaritan woman blossoms once she understands Jesus’ affection for her and who he really is. Cast-out in the heat of the day, she is hopeless and defensive one minute, and then she returns to her village reborn, restored, vital, and unashamed. “You have to meet this guy!” she exclaims. The first evangelist to Samaria, sowing the early seeds that ripen and show harvest later in the book of Acts.
So there you have it. A fast sermon synopsis of what I delivered in that ten minutes.
I ended. Inhaled. And stepped off stage saying I’d never delivered a sermon before. To which the lecturer responded, “perhaps that ought to change. Especially if that’s what you do with just 20 mins preparation.”
There’s a line in Jane Austin’s Persuasion that sums it up: It was agitation, pain, pleasure, a something between delight and misery. Three hours afterwards I was still churning emotionally. Which is fairly unnerving for a chick who will do other sorts of public speaking without a eyelid bat. I glittered between, “woo, God is awesome and quite mad and He graced me with THIS sort of gift, what the, really?” and the flat-out, humbled, teary, breath-taking realisation that God is laying out a path that feels way too big and yet perfectly tailored and beautiful.
As the churning feeling continued I asked the SAP if it ever subsides. “I’ll let you know if that feeling goes if it goes from me,” he replied. Ah. Let’s pray it never does. Green round the gills preaching keeps you on your toes. This… well, this is important.
I’m also aware of some in Christian circles who believe I lack the necessary ‘tackle’ to preach. Whilst I have a heart, soul, and head for Jesus something a little lower is missing.
Similar to my opinion on Greek qualifications, I don’t think Jesus is going to reject someone when they turn up in front of him saying, “Yes, I heard this great sermon delivered by a woman, how she spoke resonated and that’s when I really accepted you.”
I can’t imagine Jesus saying, “No, wrong. My grace does not extend to you because you got to know me through a preacher who had female genitalia. Off to hell with you.” It doesn’t fit with the full picture I have of God and Jesus from the Bible and the time Jesus spent teaching and encouraging women.
Nor am I exaggerating. A believer I know has been told quite seriously by a male pastor she ought to question her salvation because she came to know, understand and love Jesus through the peaching of Bobbie Houston. I mean, really? Where’s the grace in that conversation? I’ve also been told that my seeking to study preaching is a sign of my sinful, broken nature that I ought to repent over.
There’s more, naturally. I can’t unpack women, church, leadership and preaching in one blog. What I do hold close is this:
When we accept Jesus the Bible tells us we are all graced with different spiritual gifts. Since becoming a Christian I have crafted the most creative, the most attuned, and the most heart-felt pieces of writing since..well, since ten year’s old. I suddenly found myself able to write, speak and explain Jesus and the Bible in such a way that resonated strongly with others – and it not only took me by surprise, it took a lot of UHT Christians aback too. I know it isn’t all on me. My writing and communications skills all blossomed, just as the Samaritan woman at the well blossomed, since meeting the Jesus fella.
I’m just going to go and grab me a bunch of head-coverings…. and tell everyone I’m not preaching, but rather prophesying. Yes, I can see Jesus shaking his head at that too.
“Dad, we did call the cheeky, comms PR chick didn’t we?”
“Yes, son, Yes we did. It’s going to be an exhilarating earth-exit interview, don’t you think?”
And that, dear reader, is why I call Him Abba and why I always refer to it as the gurney of grace.