Does it happen to you, too? You show up to church on Sunday morning, listen to the Scripture read aloud, and God speaks a word to you in the silence of your wandering mind. It’s not audible this word. It doesn’t often come out of the mouth of the liturgist, exactly, or even the mouth of the preacher who often slides into theological abstractions and thickly veiled anecdotes. It’s what would come out of your mouth if you were called to clip on the lavaliere mic and stand, with your trademark tic, behind the pulpit for all to hear. I call it the “sermon I would have preached” syndrome.
Say the parable about Jesus and the lost sheep is the focal text for the week. You know the one. Jesus says, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” And the thought pops into your head right then and there, Well, what exactly happens to those ninety-nine while the shepherd is out looking for the one? You start to play with this idea as the Scripture reading is coming to a close and the song of response is kicking in. You know you should be paying attention and all but now you’re on to something, this one thing, and sometimes this one thing is all you can bear to learn in an hour, and sometimes you will have to learn this one thing without the help of the preacher.
Because very often the preacher will want to preach on the one lost sheep. The preacher will want to reassure you that no matter how far you wander away, God will find you. And you will say to yourself, I know, I know. I mean, you don’t fully know because it’s hard to grasp these sweeping spiritual truths, but you at least know in your head and the preacher telling you again isn’t doing much to bury the nugget deeper. It’s not that you don’t fancy yourself a lost sheep. But aren’t the odds in your favor that you’re one of the ninety-nine from time to time, too? And who exactly is in charge of the ninety-nine and why should they have to suffer their master’s absence? We are grateful God goes looking when we are lost. But are we not also resentful when God’s favor leaves us, us the well-behaved, us the dutifully-corralled, us the faithful-flock? And I’m not just referring to Scriptural rule-followers like the dogmatic Pharisees or the harried Martha or the dutiful brother of the Prodigal Son but real-life people who live quiet and disciplined lives without ever feeling the heat of God’s attention.
Speak to me about this I want to say, and every so often I work up the nerve to begin parting my lips but nothing ever comes out. Instead, I keep preaching to myself, tumbling down the rabbit hole of my mind, or I table my internal discussion and listen intently, if not irritably, to a word someone else would have for me. It is hard to tell what God prefers that I do.
This Christmas I heard things in church that were beautiful and right and good. I heard that we, as people who follow Christ, are called to be a light to the world. I heard that a baby boy was born to make an upside-down world right-side up. But these things did not speak to me. Instead, I dreamed up my own sermons. Instead of meditating on how the baby Jesus must have cried like any other, I dreamed about what it means to cradle a vulnerable God. Instead of pondering the bravery of a barely pubescent Mary who heeded the voice of God, I dreamed about how Jesus was brave, too, to risk showing up on earth’s doorstep wrapped in flesh. Tell me how I can care for this God. Tell me how I can be brave like this God. Tell me how you do it.
The problem with this syndrome is its symptoms are often narrow self-focus with occasional bouts of arrogance. For every sermon I would have preached, I forget that the sermon that actually was preached might have spoken a needed word to someone else. Take for example a lessons and carols service earlier this month that I described as “just fine” to my husband. Later I learned that the preacher received awe and compliments from a couple of old timers in the room for whom it was a refreshing revelation. I need reminders like this. So, too, do I need to be reminded of times I’ve heard sermons that I never in a million years would have preached but that comforted and convicted me in ways I couldn’t imagine if left to my own thoughts.
To temper myself from becoming overly critical or self-involved during worship, it’s important for me to check-in with others I trust afterwards. On the car ride home, I often wonder aloud, “When, if at all, did you hear a word from God today?” This helps me take the pressure off the sermon as being the sole point of instruction. It also gives me space to share what God spoke to me and listen to what God was speaking to those around me.
Sometimes I wish my mind would behave itself and learn to follow along in peace like all the rest. But that’s the complexity of Scripture, I suppose. Sometimes I am the 99. And sometimes I am the one who wanders away from the pack, only to be reminded that God will come looking.