Preaching. In theory, it sounds so straightforward. We engage the text, allowing it to speak to our hearts. We explore the text, understanding its meanings, its context, its nuances, and its history. Then we explain the text, coming up with something called a sermon. Ideally the sermon not only does justice to the text itself, but also places it squarely within the life of the hearers, inspiring and equipping them to adopt the text as their own, translating not only from Greek or Hebrew to English (or any other language), but translating the Bible from the dust of ancient Israel (and ancient history) into the flesh and blood of modernity. A modicum of talent in public speaking, a dollop of humor, three points and a poem and away we go.

The reality has little to do with the theory. At least, it should not. Sermons that are truly worthy of the name are not simply research papers with a bit of ourselves tossed in to make them personal, make them accessible, "putting the grass where the sheep can reach it" as my homiletics professor liked to say. Sermons are living, breathing, dangerous things, wrestling within the preacher long before they are acted out in the public pulpit.

We who dare to preach are not professors, teaching our people how to think. We are "Crocodile Hunters," spiritual versions of Steve Irwin leaping upon alligators and wrestling them into the mud. Rather than safely standing behind the guard rails, "do not taste, do not touch," we leap in before we look, daring God, the living God, to assault us with his word. Then and only then do we go into the pulpit, where we invite our congregations to leap with us into these dangerous waters.

"Here be dragons" as the old mapmakers wrote, and dragons there are in plenty. God's word is living and active and sharp, and if we have not been bitten, if we have not been cut, if we have not felt the pain of that sword piercing our soul and spirit, then we are in the wrong place. As Annie Dillard said, we should wear crash helmets to church. If we expect God to work through the clay that we wear, we had better be prepared for that clay to crack.

Some of us have seen that clay crack. For some of us the cracks go deep. For if we are honest with ourselves, honest with God, we realize that we are (in Frederick Buechner's painful phrase) "part time Christians." We preach on holiness, knowing that we are sinners. We preach on marriage, knowing that our own home life is full of tension. We preach against lust while admiring the body of the person in the third pew. We preach on prayer and do not pray, we preach on devotions we do not have, we preach on grace we do not give, we preach on stewardship we do not practice.

We do not come alone with this dilemma. An amen comes from the businessman who cooks the books. "Praise the Lord" says the church gossip. "Let us pray" intones the alcoholic deacon. "Shout to the Lord" sings the anorexic girl. "I surrender all" we lie, knowing that in each of us are wide swaths of unsurrendered territory. Tundra immune to the bite of the plow. Jars of clay, impervious to the light.

Yet, sometimes, we break. And sometimes our congregants break. We wrestle the alligator of God's word and lose, and in the losing we win. A life in need of grace is surprised by the power of love. Here be dragons, and we feel their fire and see their scales and smell their breath and we are overcome. In succumbing we find victory, in need we find plenty, in desperation we find hope. We stand at the door and beg to enter, and just as our hands tire from knocking, the door is flung open and we are shattered by the light that puts us back together.

Such is the glory and the terror of the pulpit. For once we set the word of God free, we do not know where it will go. Its plumb line is true, its judgments are staggering, its beauty is breathtaking, its majesty is awesome and awful. We dare not look, and we dare not look away. We moths fly to the flame, unable to escape the beauty that slays us. We look into the mirror of the word and see a clown's reflection. At first we think it is the mirror, a funhouse mirror, changing the thin to fat and the short to tall. Then we realize that the clown is not in the mirror, but rather in ourselves, and our clay breaks, and we are left in tears and laughter at the sadness and joy of it all.

Preaching is a dangerous work. We hold hydrogen in our hands, knowing that it could either evaporate into the air and be nothing, or it could explode into flame. Honestly, we sometimes are not sure which result we would prefer. The safer course is to let it go, air it out, hear the polite niceties as we shake people out the door, and thank God that he came nowhere near our church today. For the roar of the wind and the heat of the fire and the ferocity of the thunderstorm make us uncomfortable, though not as uncomfortable as the quiet voice that follows. For the voice that called light into being, the voice that spoke the word and the word became flesh, that voice is more soul-shaking than any phenomenon that precedes it.

So our clay cracks, our hands burn, with King David we abandon our dignity in the presence of the Almighty — and in the process God speaks. In the foolishness of the kerygma lies the power of God. We cannot explain it, for we know how full our folly has been. We become parishioners of our own parish, listening to God say things that never appeared in our sermon notes, speaking to corners of our heart that have not seen the light in years. Unless we preach first to ourselves, we speak to no one else.

And as our listeners see the work of the Word on our own lives, they may catch a glimpse of that light behind the façade, bursting through the cracks it has made. When our own hearts are broken, only then can we dare to break another's heart. We are comforted so that others may be comforted with our comfort. And that is a consoling thought.

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David L. Marvin is founder and president of REDZone Life Ministries, State College, PA.
You can see his website at http://www.redzonelife.com.

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