Something That Will Save Me
by Rev. Ann Willet on Tuesday, September 20, 2016
In every church I have served, I have been blessed with a church member who was willing to be a conversation partner with me in sermon planning. This is more than an occasional, “Good sermon, Pastor,” as they are leaving the sanctuary or a word of constructive criticism in a Sunday night email. These faithful friends have loved their church and their pastor enough to tell me what message from scripture speaks to them and how I might speak it more clearly. Without their input, I may have become so interested in the craft of preaching that I would have missed the opportunities to connect the gospel with life outside the sanctuary. And I need it just as much in my 13th year of ministry as I did in the first.
One such conversation with a faithful friend in the pew has stayed with me, and it still informs my preparation to step up to the pulpit. “Each week when I enter the sanctuary for worship,” he said, “I am listening for something that will save me. It’s as simple as that.” Simple, perhaps. But not always easy for the preacher.
His words took me back to the church of my childhood, from the believer’s baptism tradition. My childhood preacher would have understood the request for “saving someone” in a different way than I do today. I was fairly sure that my friend was not referring to his need for a dramatic conversion experience every weekend. Still, I was intrigued by the self-awareness required to articulate his regular need for a message of God’s saving grace. And I began to imagine that same longing from others.
What is it that the people in our pews want to be saved from? What is it that scripture reveals that we need to be saved for? What is one message found in the text this week that will save someone (or some group) who is struggling?
In the art and science of preaching, there is no limit to the ways these questions can be addressed. As we open our hearts and minds to the movement and inspiration of the Spirit, all kinds of possibilities arise. However, in every sermon, we do best by our congregations to focus the thesis on one primary salvation message.
As I read the text and prepare for each sermon, I’m remembering daily conversations with church members — in hospital rooms, in Sunday School classes, and in the hallway outside the pastor’s study. What does the text say this week that will save them?
- Jean is a single mother raising two teenagers.
- Charlie is fighting cancer.
- Amy and Braden are new parents.
- Marilyn just made partner at her law firm.
Some of our congregants need a clear message of grace, in their world of constant judgment and criticism. Some need to be released from the myth of total self-sufficiency. Some need to know that expressing anger at God is biblical. Some need a model for pure praise.
A preaching mentor taught me to always assume that someone in the congregation is hurting, and to find something in the text that gives them comfort and hope. That is wise advice that continues to inform my interpretation of each preaching text. However, as I gained experience in the pulpit and engaged more deeply with those in my congregations, I found that the good news in the text sometimes takes the form of a challenge, rather than comfort. And in my preaching contexts, I have often found worshippers who need the salvation that we experience in following the difficult teachings of scripture about necessary suffering, connecting in community, and releasing control.
In preparation for each sermon, I open my Bible to read and reread the text for the week. I pray for the Spirit to open my heart to the truth found in those words. And I open my laptop computer to record initial impressions. At the top of the document, in all capital letters, I type: WHAT IS THE MESSAGE THAT WILL SAVE ME? It is a reminder of our deep need for the hope and challenge that we find in scripture. And it is a reminder of my own need for constant salvation.
Rev. Ann Willet is Executive Minister at First United Methodist Church, Dallas, Texas. She has served as associate pastor for five years and senior pastor for eight years in the North Texas Annual Conference. Ann is a second career pastor, who came to ministry from a career in financial management. Before her first preaching experience, she estimates that she had been in the congregation for approximately 3,000 sermons. She has a keen interest in connecting the gospel to the joys and struggles of daily life.