So, I had to preach the sermon at my church today.
OK, I didn’t have to. I got asked to, by the pastor, on the way out of church last week. He was going away, and the person he had lined up to speak in his place had also been called away, so I was a second-string relief preacher.
I love preaching. I love public speaking in general, and I don’t get all that many opportunities, so I rarely turn them down. I said, “Okay!” and then went home to think, “What on earth am I going to write a sermon about in a week?” (I realize the professionals get a week to prepare every time, but I am used to a little more lead time.)
Well, there’s only one possible answer. If I have to come up with a sermon on short notice, it’s going to be about grace, because that is literally all I know, theologically or life-wise.
So I wrote this nice little sermon called “Angels on George Street.” It’s a title I’ve been dying to use — in fact, I wrote a song with this title once, but it was terrible because I can’t write songs, so it’s been buried in the rubble of my hard drive for some time now. The title comes from an image in my head, which, in its turn, comes from a bit of trivia that will only be understood by those who shared a Seventh-day Adventist childhood. SDA children are sometimes told that if you go to A Bad Place, like a theatre or a dance or (gasp) a bar, your guardian angel will have to stay outside because they can’t follow you in there. To my adult mind this presents the ridiculous spectacle of going downtown on a Friday night (George Street is where all the nightlife is in St. John’s, for those of you who don’t know) and seeing the streets lined off with angels lounging outside the bars, waiting for their charges to come out.
Anyway, I had this sermon written about how God’s grace is everywhere, when we’re sinning, when we’re in despair, even when we’re in church utterly failing to love one another, God’s grace never stops chasing us, never leaves us alone.
Last night, as I finished it off, I could not have felt less like writing a sermon. I was tired and I felt like I might be getting sick. And I was grumpy, for various reasons, and I just simply did not feel full of grace. But my key text was from 1 Corinthians 12: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” … so clearly I was in exactly the right mood to preach this sermon!
An additional complication, along with my having to teach Primary Sabbath School this morning (a burden my Trusty Husband Jason helped out with), was that this was my week to play the piano for church service. How could I do that and preach the sermon? (Read on, for the answer to that one!) Not being Superwoman and knowing my limitations, I called Phyllis, the Real Organist, and asked if she could play.
She said she was going out of town, so we’d have to use the Dreaded CD Hymnal. Well … OK. The CD Hymnal is actually a brilliant invention, especially for smaller churches like ours where only a couple of people are willing to play the piano or organ (lots are able; few are willing) and you sometimes need a backup. The only thing is it’s a bit stiff-sounding and unforgiving — if you get half a line behind, the CD Hymnal will not wait for you — so we try to avoid using it. However, Phyllis said I should just mention it to Sound Guy Brian when I got to church and all would be well.
So there I am in church with my sermon and my bad attitude, and who do I see but … Sound Guy Larry. Larry is the back-up sound guy sorta like I am the back-up pianist, and when I told him I needed to use the CD Hymnal his face got this blank and horrified look and he confided that he’d never actually used it before. Cool.
You’d think it would be easy, using the CD Hymnal — just punch up the number of the song and let it rip — but in fact it’s more complicated than you’d think, because in addition to the main hymns there are all these little incidental bits of music like the offertory, and the response after prayer, and some music for the children when they come up for their story. Also, our church service is broadcast on the radio, so dead air sounds really, really bad.
Anyway, I told Sound Guy Larry and Songleader Alice that I would play for the praise singing before the worship service, and then go up on the platform. And that got me halfways towards being in a good mood, because although I am a very mediocre pianist, playing for worship is one of the things that I really, really love doing, and it always makes me happy. We finished the singing, I went up onto the platform as the platform party arrived, the first hymn (Amazing Grace!) rang out of the speakers from the CD right on cue, and all was well.
Until Alice called for the offering. And there was silence. I looked up into the balcony, where the soundbooth is, to see Larry frantically staring at the machines and then shooting me a wild-eyed look of desperation with his hands in a “Play the Piano for Heaven’s Sake” position.
I realized he had nothing lined up for offertory, so I scooted down off the platform and played for that. Then I stayed there through children’s story and played the music for that, then got back up on the platform.
Next, the prayer was announced, and we always sing this song “Now Dear Lord As We Pray” right before prayer, and I knew Larry was prepared for that one, so I stayed where I was. Silence. The person announcing prayer said, “I guess we’ll … sing unaccompanied…” and I stood up and said, “No, I’ll do it…” and started to cross the platform to the piano, at which point the CD kicked in, and I went back to my seat.
By this time everyone was pretty much laughing at me, I think, so when I got up to speak I explained what was going on (hopefully this also helped those listening on the radio who wondered where all the dead air was coming from). The great part was, first, I was finding it all so funny that it had totally relaxed me, and second, I couldn’t think of a better opening to a sermon about God’s grace in our weakest moments. Sometimes we are broken and human and fallible, and sometimes we can’t even make a church service hang together. It was perfect. So I preached my sermon about grace, and I think most people got the point, and lots of them told me it was what they needed to hear. (Which I love. I’m not so crazy about hearing that I did a great job, although I know people mean it well, but that makes it about me, like it’s a performance, and I don’t think it should be).
The opening hymn played on cue, and I said the benediction. I had a package of Tic Tacs in my pocket because my mouth was dry after all the preaching and I wanted to be fresh and minty for the part at the back where you shake people’s hands and say God-bless-you. I was planning how I would take my Tic Tacs as we stood reverently on the platform during the quiet postlude music, then walk down the aisle to the back of the church, only … guess what? No quiet postlude music.
The silence grew. I shouldered my responsibility and, to the accompaniment of chuckles from throughout the church, went to the piano and played “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” The rest of the platform party went out to do the hand-shaking while I played the congregation out.
While I sat at the piano playing, my children appeared from nowhere to hug me and tell me I did a good job. While keeping track of the notes (remember I’m a mediocre pianist!) I said, “Emma, can you get the Tic Tac package out of my lap? Can you open it and take one out? Now can you put it in my mouth? Good!“ Armed with Tic-Tacs, I eventually made it to the back of the church to shake hands, and I was in the best mood I’d been for days (I also had to apologize to Larry for surprising him with the whole CD-Hymnal thing at the last minute like that).
It was a total grace event, a living parable of what I was trying to say about God’s power in our brokenness and weakness. Which is when I came up with my Thought for the Day about broken windows and letting grace shine through. (The broken-stained-glass-window picture, by the way, is by a guy called Frederic Poirot).
There are angels on George Street, angels on Aldershot Street (where my church is), angels all around. And grace everywhere.