I asked the person at the church who scheduled me: Are you sure you want me to talk about Christianity? Will it be okay if I talk about Jesus and Mary, the Mother of God?
While my journey towards ordination as a United Church of Christ minister is far from complete, I had the good fortune recently to serve as a guest speaker at a congregation whose beliefs are, in many ways, different from my own. A Unitarian Universalist congregation invited me to speak on their summer theme of “exploring wisdom from the world’s religions.”
The morning of my speaking engagement arrived. I sat, the nervous guest preacher fidgeting on the dais in front of two hundred people, and listened as a long-time member of the community shared his personal testimony. He began his story by saying: Christianity almost ruined my life.” His story went on for a long time, long enough that I started freaking out and praying, so that by the time I got up to say the words “Jesus” and “Mary” I remembered something I learned a while ago: the best moments in preaching are the times when I’m vulnerable.
Vulnerability isn’t something I (explicitly) learned in Homiletics in graduate school. I learned to embrace vulnerability from watching Brené Brown’s TED talk.
Preaching, for me, is storytelling…and the story the preacher tells is the story of the people who are there, listening, making the sermon happen. Storytelling is co-creative, the speaker and listener working together, pushing and pulling against and with one another and the collective, diverse words, images, life experience and spiritual breath of everyone present.
Sure, some people sleep when I preach. Or at least, they close their eyes and I flatter myself that they are just really tired. (Probably they worked all night or their kid is sick. I’m sure that’s it.)
Before I became a preacher, I was a poet. Before I heard Brené speak, I didn’t have a word for the rare, transcendent moment that sometimes happened to me during poetry readings. Once in a while, while sharing a poem at the Tuesday Night Open Mike on the boardwalk in Ventura, California, I would feel as if everyone in the room was leaning forward, holding their breath, gone very still. I didn’t knew what caused it, only that it was holy.
About ten years later, I saw Brené Brown’s TED talk and suddenly had a word for that holy moment. When I started preaching, I began to intentionally invite vulnerability into my speaking.
Vulnerability in preaching is that moment when the preacher admits: I don’t have the answers and in fact, I am not sure that anyone does. The holy moment happens when the preacher steps aside from the curtain of their experience, in metaphor or story, to point toward something only half-understood, and creates a place for Spirit to step forward and speak.
While it is challenging to be vulnerable, in my experience it is also a lot of fun. Co-creating a sermon-story with a community of people who agree, disagree, aren’t sure, and may potentially be asleep is one of the biggest gifts I can imagine.
So that morning, preaching about Jesus and Mary to a community whose wounds with those words ran very deep, I felt like the luckiest not-yet-ordained preacher-woman on the planet. I was gentle and real and said what I try to say every time I preach, the most important thing that Mama G-d reminds me of when I am freaking out the night before, afraid that I have nothing to offer:
We are beloved. Whatever and however we believe, however and whoever we are, we are fiercely and relentlessly loved.
While I am still learning how to speak across and within diverse faith traditions, this Belovedness is one story I know for sure. Preaching from with-in/through/with-out my faith to people of many faiths is a chance for me to embody that Belovedness, to co-create a holy moment of noticing our Belovedness as vulnerable, messy, passionate people together.
Image by Cassandra Rae, courtesy of Flickr Commons.