Five years ago, I was a student at the University of Georgia and worked as a summer intern at Lake Oconee Community Church in Greensboro, GA. Since then, I have served in two different churches, begun seminary, and successfully evaded the intimidating task of preaching. When Becky Matheny asked me to return as guest preacher at LOCC for All Saint’s Day this year, I figured it was time to say “yes”.
She didn’t ask and I didn’t tell that it would be my first time preaching. Although probably unintentional, in not assuming it was a first, she gave me the blessing of her confidence. I hoped the whole thing would go completely unnoticed and I could quietly check the experience off my ministry bucket list without making a fuss. I figured if no one at LOCC asked if it was a first for me, I’d have done my job.
Almost as immediately as I said yes to Becky, I was writing Pam Durso asking for help. Word to the wise, if you want your first time preaching to go unnoticed, don’t ask the Executive Director of BWIM for advice. Inevitably, she will ask you to take a picture and write a blog post about the experience. Nevertheless, no regrets, because she graciously gave me a crash course in preaching and chocolate from last Easter, both of which I desperately needed.
Pam told me to read and re-read the selected passage before writing. Well, I read and re-read right up until 10 days before preaching. Finally, the pressure of the clock forced me into a coffee shop and I sat for hours writing. When I was finished, I read the sermon over the phone to my mom. After a long, terrifying pause, she said, “that doesn’t sound like you” and I was miffed. After reading it again, I realized she was right (of course). What I had written reflected more of what I thought I was supposed to say and less of Emily Harbin, so I scrapped the whole thing.
Over the next few days I externally processed every new idea that came to me about how to approach the John 11 text for All Saint’s Day (a huge thank you to Kristen Pope and McAfee friends for the gift of your ears). Finally, around 4:00am one morning I closed my laptop on an entirely new sermon. This time I heard my voice in it, thank God.
On Sunday morning, I made the familiar drive to Greensboro, GA. I spent the car time reflecting on those experiences and people who helped me get to the point of saying “yes” to preaching. When I arrived for the first service, I was filled with a sense of peaceful confidence.
As I stood preaching my sermon titled, “Good Grief”, I looked out at the congregation and my eyes locked on an older woman. Sitting there in her seat looking up at me, I realized she was silently weeping. In the John 11 passage, Jesus silently weeps and in that brief moment the Biblical text came to life for me in an unexpected way.
It was a reminder that though this day was a milestone for me, there was something far greater and more holy at work. It was a big deal, but it wasn’t. After the service, not a single person asked if it was my first time preaching. My job was done and I was thrilled. I had my picture taken for Pam and walked out the same way I walked in, with peaceful confidence.
Emily Harbin is Minister to College Students at First Baptist Church of Athens, Georgia.