The 17 year old staring back at me from my glossy prom picture can’t be me.
He just can’t.
He’s wearing a painfully pinstriped tux, made of material cut from somewhere between Dick Tracy and Johnny Cash’s Man in Black. Underneath, he’s wearing an off-white, collarless dress shirt with a black onyx button- sort of like an outsized cufflink or a bolo tie minus the string- where the bow tie would go on a more sensible person.
He can’t be me, I think whenever I see him. Please, let it not be me.
The hair is fuller. The face is thinner. The frame not yet filled out, the eyes affecting a very deliberate Richard Gere type squint (it was 1995). Were it not for the presence of my future wife there in the photo I might have plausible deniability but instead all I have is gratitude that she married me in spite of my crimes.
The prom photo stays hidden in a brown box along with other old photos, yearbooks and swim team ribbons. I pull it out once year or so in a bout of ill-advised nostalgia. And whenever I see it- the terrible tux, the excessively gelled hair, the long Luke Perry sideburns (it was 1995)- I think to myself: What was I thinking? It can’t be me. He looks familiar but he can’t be me, I say. I pray, my memory chastened by embarrassment.
That’s pretty much how I feel when it comes to my old sermons.
In the same guest room closet, in a different brown box, I keep all my old sermons. After having preached more or less regularly for 12 years the box is nearly full. It contains a little over 500 of my attempts at preaching. In it, there are sermons preached in small, dying churches and large, growing congregations.
There’s a folder full of sermons preached in a hot, sticky prison chapel where the air was every bit as thick as the inmates’ restlessness. There’s another folder of sermons from weddings and baccalaureates. There’s a fat folder of funeral sermons, among them are many sermons where the dearly departed enjoyed their full biblical allotment of years, a few others where suicide gave the sermon a different hue and more sermons than I’d like from funerals where the casket was not more than 3 feet long.
In that brown box are 530 Sundays worth of sermons. That’s approximately 10,600 minutes logged in the pulpit and 1,060,000 words written in a black moleskin or typed on a laptop, all in an ongoing and often elusive effort to explicate the biblical text.
And if I have any wisdom gleaned, any perspective, it’s of the ‘lessons learned’ currency: embarrassment that that voice in the sermon is mine; dismay that anyone’s been willing to listen to me; wonder that through me (in spite of me) some of have heard God speak.
The homiletical equivalent of my prom picture is a sermon I preached long ago on the story of Balaam’s Ass, in which I thought it would be clever to assume the perspective of the ass.
Though it was not my intention, I made an ass of myself.
Whenever I look at that prom picture I blush with embarrassment. I can hardly bear to look at it even though I know my meticulously cultivated look in 1995 was more than acceptable.
That’s how I feel about my preaching whenever I read through some of my old sermons. I’m sure my preaching was adequate in the moment, but with the passing of time even my best homiletical musterings look as awkward as a tuxedoed 17 year old. The cadence and rhythm feel familiar. The sentence structure looks like mine. The irony is all me. But did I really say that? I find myself asking. Did I really make a metaphor of the incarnation or the resurrection? Did I really dilute the Gospel so badly? What was I thinking? That can’t be me, I say.
Kurt Vonnegutt quips about the fear that comes once you realize the world is run by the people with whom you went to high school.
Eventually one realizes the Church’s pulpits also are filled by the people with whom you went to high school.
And maybe for those in the pews that’s grounds for fear. But for preachers, I think, it’s a kind of grace. When it comes to preaching, none of us is perfect. We never were and we never will be.
Nor do we have to be. The words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts only need to be acceptable. God does the rest.
If its possible for the living God to inhabit my words on any given Sunday and speak through them, then I suppose its possible for God to take my embarrassment and spin it into wisdom. Or at least perspective.