I preach 30 Sundays a year for the Church of Christ in Lake Orion, Michigan. They’ve been kind to me and I have benefitted from their grace and love through challenging times in my life. I often wish I had more to offer in return.
It’s not preaching like I’ve done it before. My sermons don’t carry the added thickness of pastoral care like they did for congregations that I served full-time. And I don’t spend as much time on sermons as I once did. Truth is, I often don’t get to my sermon text until Saturday morning. I try to have a sermon in mind at the end of my Saturday morning time. That puts a lot of pressure on Sunday mornings. I get up early, eat breakfast at a little cafe and write my sermon there. I then go to Starbucks for real coffee and memorize my biblical text while I upload caffeine. Sometimes that’s a verse or two, but most of the time its a fairly decent chunk. I’m often amazed that I can get it memorized in such a short period of time.
It’s all sermon prep without a net. One false move and I simply don’t have a sermon ready. So, I can’t have chatty waitresses or long lines at Starbucks or a loud group of people nearby. As a result, I’m often anxious on Sunday mornings, which is precisely the mindset you want to be in when you’re about to bring the Word of God. Not!
Yesterday I was particularly anxious about my sermon. We are preaching through 1 Corinthians and I had drawn chapter 14. Tongues, prophecy, women keeping silent. You know, easy stuff. Some guy trying out for my gig on a full-time basis snagged 1 Cor 13 the week before. Who couldn’t preach a good sermon on that? Even John Lennon could preach that text. 1 Cor 14 is a tar baby.
I wrote my sermon at the cafe. So far, so good. But got to Starbucks and encountered a long line. And I’ll just be honest and say I was not particularly in a Christian frame of mind.
And then it got worse. A woman carrying two bags with all her worldly possessions, with stringy scraggly hair and a vacant look in her eyes appeared near the register. She was hovering, looking at the pastry case. She was clearly oblivious that there was a line and that she should be behind me. And I had a biblical text to memorize.
The people in front of me were served, slowly. The scraggly haired woman kept staring ahead vacantly, not participating in the good order and societal decorum of the line. And I knew deep down somewhere that she would choose the place right in front of me to interject herself into the world of commerce and sermon preparation.
And she did. The people in front of me got their orders and she simply walked in front of me to the register. And I should say that I wasn’t thinking particularly Christian thoughts at that moment. I HAD A SERMON TO PREACH! SHE CUT IN LINE! RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME! THERE IS NO GOD! @#$%*&!#$!
I found myself in a parable unawares.
The woman at the register shot a glance at me. She knew. And then she looked at the woman and smiled. “Just coffee today?” she asked kindly. It was in that moment that I recognized myself in the parable. I was the rich man despising Lazarus. I was the laborer who had come early in the day, infuriated by the kindness of God to those late to the game. I was the religious leader passing by the man lying beaten on the side of the road. I hate when that happens. I found myself staring at my really nice leather shoes and at the necktie that I had chosen with a sense of pride in my stylishness. I am a man of unclean lips.
“It’s on me today,” she said to the angel we were entertaining unawares. My day was re-set.
I didn’t get my text memorized that morning. I lost the need to after witnessing this divine encounter. And I didn’t mind as much as I might have later that morning when the person presiding at the table, eager to make his comments about the offering, jumped up after the bread but before the cup making a hash out of decency and in good order.
You would think that by now I would know about moments like these, and come to expect them even. Some of you are thinking it serves me right for waiting so late to prepare my sermon or memorize my text. I think you might be next in finding yourself in a parable not of your own choosing. I’m simply hoping that by the grace of God I’ll be better when I’m older.