I have a predictable routine every Sunday, walking through the same hallways and past the same pictures to the pulpit. With each step, I am closer to that moment when silence is broken, and words are called forth by the church. This short walk happens every week with little variation, but it is also full of the mystery of God, for in the silence before the words, the church speaks before the sermon does.
As I walk to the pulpit through the hallways of the church, I am reminded that they are layered with the ordinary conversations and overwhelming concerns of the people of God, which are never cast aside as we enter the sanctuary for worship. The walls have a history that reach beyond the people, telling of the joys and the burdens of the saints throughout the years. The walls stand as a testimony to the high joys and costly burdens of life that are always silent stowaways, unspoken attendants, gathering with us as we worship.
Since these concerns are not left in the parking lot, a sermon should always use words that are both honest and sensitive, using words that are strong enough to weather turmoil, but sensitive enough to console tragedy. Honest words are often hard words to say because they neither seek praise nor cower under criticism. Words spoken with honest sensitivity have a quiet strength because they seek redemption, not out of flattery or fear, but in order to heal and to convict without ever abandoning compassion.
Upon entering the sanctuary, my eyes are drawn to the center of the room, where the altar sits in front of the pulpit. The room is built in a round, in a sphere, gathering the community of faith literally around the altar and the pulpit. The altar is a simple brown table where the bread and the cup are placed for communion, and behind the altar stands the pulpit, where we read the words that have shaped the church for centuries.
The words of the sermon must pass through the center of the room, speaking not only of our calling to faithfulness, but also of the faithfulness of God, as the altar reminds us that God's grace outlives, outlasts, and outdoes every mistake and every disaster. No false hope is given, but a sermon should embody the true hope of the steadfast, enduring love of God that is found around each and every corner of life.
Encircled by the reverence of the sanctuary and anchored by the dark, heavy wood of the pews, I walk to the pulpit with my final few steps. Every week, I am thankful that there are only three steps leading up to the pulpit. I am grateful because high altitude around a pulpit is dangerous.
Whereas, it is not indicative of every high pulpit, I am thankful for only three steps because ministry is not a high calling; it is a low calling. With too much altitude around a pulpit, there is the risk of using words that reach too high and that never reach low. The words of a sermon should serve people's needs, finding them where they wrestle with hard questions, face crushing fears, hunger for food, and starve for compassion. A sermon should reach low by speaking to those who gather for worship as well as speaking for those who suffer around the world. A sermon should never end in a high place, distant from where the grace of God is needed urgently.
After climbing the stairs, I stand on a small area of carpet behind the pulpit, where the silence is finally broken. The silence is filled with words, but it is also filled with the subtle screeches of loose boards. While preaching, I can feel the boards underneath my feet and below the carpet creak and move, as I shift my weight from one foot to the other. There is a weak spot in the floor just behind the pulpit where I stand.
The weak spot behind the pulpit reminds me that the words of every sermon should never lack conviction, but they should always bear the weight of humility. The pulpit is a place for definitions, naming God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; but the pulpit is not only a place that defines, it also respects the mystery of God. The pulpit must speak with humility about following Christ and not only explaining God, trusting instead of defining.
When the sermon is finished and the silence returns, I offer a benediction. Following the benediction, I walk out of the sanctuary and back to my office, but as I walk through the door of the sanctuary, I always notice the hinges. Fortunately, the hinges are on the outside of the door. The doors of a sanctuary should never open into the room; we should always pull the doors open to enter for worship, so that when we leave, the doors swing out into the world.
As the doors swing out into the world, I am reassured that even though the sermon is done, it is not finished. The words of the sermon can travel out of the sanctuary with the people of God. Even though the sermon has said all it can say, God may speak through its memory. A sermon is a fleeting moment, but it can also be a lasting moment.
As I walk back to my office, I am deeply grateful that the church speaks before the sermon does, and I am also thankful that the church continues to speak after the sermon is done. The church continues to extend forgiveness, offer compassion, walk humbly, share generously, do justice, and serve kindly. The church continues to speak.