In a small, beat-up old box I have notes, cards, and other important keepsakes. Among these is a copy of the first sermon I preached: “All Things Work Together,” based on Romans 8. It is from the Youth Sunday of my sophomore year of high school, and I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach. The word BREATHE, written in at the top of each page by Ruth Perkins Lee, my youth minister, reminds me of the awkward pace at which I preached it: speeding up rapidly and then . . . suddenly . . . a big gulp of air. Slow down. BREATHE. Repeat.
It was not only the pace that was awkward. In my sermon, I shared a detailed account of my journey to seventh place in the Leaf and Tree Finder event for elementary school Science Olympiad, I quoted from the Merriam-Webster dictionary a grand total of three times, and my reference to “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22) sounded a lot more like teenage angst (but perhaps that is indeed what it sounds like sometimes).
Honestly, I used to feel a bit embarrassed when reading back over that sermon, cringing at the forced metaphors and less-than-nuanced theology. Now, however, I am anything but embarrassed. Awkward or not, when I read over those words I spent so much time preparing, I am proud of my fourteen-year-old self and the journey she has taken to get from there to here. Those words remind me of all I learned in the process: of what I learned about preaching, like it helps to tell stories and perhaps is best not to so blatantly articulate that “my first point will be…” But even more importantly, I am reminded of the lessons that I did not even realize that I was learning at the time. I learned that I can occupy space in the pulpit and that young people, women people, ALL people, should be valued as full participants in worship.
I read over that sermon, and I am overwhelming grateful for the people who taught me those lessons; for the faces that looked back at me as I nervously gripped the pulpit: my family, who has always supported my calling; the community who told me I could do it; and the women, the preachers, who showed me that I could. In that awkward sermon, I see fourteen-year-old me who wanted, more than anything else, to be a minister. I see the teenage girl who knew that not everyone thought women could preach but who hadn’t yet felt the sting of that reality.
So now, on the days when I do feel that sting or impostor syndrome threatens my confidence or I feel overwhelmingly cynical, I remember that fourteen-year-old me. I read over “All Things Work Together,” and I remember the eagerness and tenacity with which I approached my call to ministry. I close my eyes and see those faces looking back me, and I remember the people I had then and I think of the people I have now . . . those who have supported me, loved me, and challenged me. I picture the other youth who preached and sang and read alongside me that Sunday, and I remember that I have a responsibility to empower the fourteen-year olds of today to proclaim themselves as full participants in our worship and in our world.
So for an experience that emboldened me then and, now, helps me remember, I give all the thanks.
Meagan Smith is project manager for Baptist Women in Ministry and Director of Youth Programming at Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries in New York City, New York.