When I was in seminary, “The Senior Sermon” was a rite of passage. Members of the senior class were scheduled, usually on a weekly basis, to offer a sermon at one of the community liturgies. Senior sermons were fraught with some degree of anxiety for the preacher. After all, preaching in front of one’s fellow classmates was daunting enough. Having to preach to one’s professors, the seminary administration and the staff, only served to heighten the stress. Some of us handled the stress better than others. For many of us, though, the senior sermon simply came down to toughing it out and getting it done. And for the most part, the sermons produced under these circumstances were theologically solid, biblically based and reasonably cogent.
I don’t remember what I said at my senior sermon. And since I don’t as a rule keep old sermons on file (either digitally or on paper), I can’t go back and refresh my memory. But I do distinctly remember two exchanges in the hours and days after the congregation had said “Amen.” at the conclusion of the sermon I offered.
In the refectory, later the same day, one of the seminary staff members — a person with an easy going humor, a quick wit and an infectious laugh — complimented the sermon at the salad bar. The exchange went something like this:
“Good sermon today, Gary.”
“Hearts were warmed! Minds were changed! Lives were transformed!”
(Laughter from both of us.)
We then went back to the business of constructing our salads.
Two days later, I saw the same staffer in the refectory. This time, standing in the serving line. She said,
“Hey Gary, remember that stuff I said to you about your sermon and how it impacted hearts, minds and lives?”
“Well, it’s worn off now and everyone’s forgotten what you said.”
(Again, laughter from both of us.)
We then returned to making our food selections.
Through the years I’ve thought about those two exchanges. In the first, I knew I was getting some good natured ribbing — the sort that happens with friends with whom one has developed a level of trust over time. In the second, even with the good humor, I knew I was getting a good lesson in perspective — and not simply perspective on constructing sermons and then preaching them. This staffer gifted me with the first of many lessons for an idealistic priest wannabe.
This priestly vocation is mapped out over time. To be sure, there are some powerful moments. Sometimes hearts are warmed. Sometimes minds are changed. Sometimes lives are transformed. Almost instantaneously. And I get to see it all happen! Right in front of my eyes!
But here in the burbs, as the priestly vocation intersects with the unfolding vocation of the parish I am called to serve, most of whatever God happens to be doing at any given moment is hidden from me. Rarely I am privileged to catch a fleeting glimpse of God’s handiwork in the lives around me. Most of the time though, life in the parish looks pretty ordinary — not unlike any other gathering of human beings. We worry. We gossip. We grumble. We kvetch. We compliment and complain. We praise and say, “Thank you.”
Some of us are stubborn. Some of us are sensitive. Some of us are playful. Some of us are serious. Some of us are cynical and others of us are naive. Some of us long to do great things for God and change the world (or at least Milwaukee). Some of us simply want to make it through the day and remain faithful to our faith. We’re all in this thing together — this thing called a “community of faith” — this parish. Fumbling along. Doing our best as best we can. Offering each other forgiveness when we fail. Cheering each other when we succeed. Hoping against hope that we’re getting some of this following Jesus stuff right. And in the middle of all of this, in moments when we probably least expect it…
Hearts are warmed. Minds are changed. Lives are transformed. Thanks be to God.