Let me tell you about the worstest sermon I have ever preached. I would venture to say it was possibly the worst sermon ANYone has ever preached, but …we know that’s not true. At least my rotten sermon didn’t do actual harm to people.
That said, it didn’t do any good either. It was about 3 years ago. I had just come back from maternity leave after having my second baby. Right around the time I went back to work—my husband and I both got this nasty upper respiratory infection that hung around for like, a month. Our family came out for Christmas, in fact, and we took the opportunity to leave the kids with my mom for an hour so we could go to the doctor together. It was a really hot post-baby date.
I had preached from a manuscript the whole last trimester of pregnancy—because I was losing brain cells by the minute, and I couldn’t walk, talk and breathe at the same time. And for the first few weeks back, I preached from a manuscript, because I was exhausted, and sick, and rusty. But for whatever reason, this one Sunday in January seemed like the perfect time to GO OFF BOOK. I mean, who ISN’T ready to jump back into dynamic preaching after giving birth, being very sick, and not sleeping for like, 4 months? It was a great plan I tell you. I got up there with my usual 5 notecards, and went to preaching.
Now, I can’t remember what I said, or even what it was SUPPOSED to be about. Trouble is—that’s exactly what it felt like in the moment, too. I got about two note cards in, and completely forgot what I was talking about. I think I might, possibly, have momentarily forgotten where I was.
God bless my church folks, they were rooting for me. I could see their faces and it wasn’t, we need to have a personnel meeting IMMEDIATELY and put her on a 3 month action plan. What I saw there was concern, support, and sympathy. Come on, you can do this. We are here with you. Afterward, one of my leaders—who could always find something nice to say about anything—patted me on the arm and said, “It wasn’t THAT bad…”
Bless her. Yes it was.
It was a painful but necessary moment in my pastoral development. First and foremost, it taught me to listen to my body, even when it isn’t convenient. Never once, in 7 years of serving that church, did I call someone on a Sunday and say, “I just can’t get up there this morning. Can you bring a good word for us?” Any number of folks would have gladly done so, and better served the people than I could have done in that moment. What was I afraid of? I don’t know, but I’m over it now.
It also reinforced what I already knew—which was that I had people in my corner– even when I was not right, was not ‘good,’ and was not quite myself. Every pastor needs this Amen Corner, though far too many never find it. Sometimes, we need to let those folks pastor to us. We need to let them be the church.
And, that really painful Sunday taught me that there is an important rhythm to preaching. Much like regular exercise, it is a difficult rhythm to pick back up when you’ve been off-beat for awhile. So I’ve learned to have some awareness about when those ‘off’ times might be—like, after an illness, after a sabbatical, following child birth, or after another staff person has given a several-weeks long sermon series. For any number of reasons, some weeks it’s hard to find a beginning.
And then there are those times—maybe just a few times in a pastor’s life–when you are preaching your first sermon in a new congregation.
That would be last week. Not only was I rusty from weeks (ok, months) of being off rhythm, but also, when in front of a new crowd, one must resist the urge to share every thought you’ve ever had about everything. Ever. Even though I was healthy, last week held all the elements of disaster potential for preaching.
I’m glad I learned to spot that before. Now I have a plan.
It goes like this: on weeks when I am a)sick, b) tired, and/or c)frightfully rusty and don’t know where to begin, here’s what I do. I read some scripture. I tell some stories. I connect them all with a very, very simple thread of biblical truth.
And then I trust that people are smart enough, and spiritual enough, to make their own connections.
Don’t get me wrong. Prepping this kind of narrative, conceptual sermon takes work, too. And sometimes, it leaves people wishing you’d said more. But when I don’t know where to start, that’s what I do. And always, someone comes up and tells me it was just exactly what they needed to hear that day. Often, a lot of someones.
Because when you get right down to it, people want to make their own connections. Heck, they make their own connections anyway, whether we like it or not. People are deeply spiritual, and don’t need a great flashing neon sign to point them to the holy. People are smart; and they don’t always need the spelled out answer so much as they need the tools for living with the questions.
In other words—when preaching the word, it is better to say too little than to say far too much.
I’ve been to enormous churches where they hand folks a piece of paper at the beginning of worship. It will contain word-for-word quotes from the pastor’s sermon (which has been planned out, word for word) but with some fill in the blank portions. You have to listen to the sermon—like a fun game!—to hear the answer. And there always is an answer.
God wants us to ____________ [pray! Love our neighbor! Vote for __________]
Jesus____________ [died for my sins. Loves me. Wants me to vote for _________ ]
For my money, this is a cheap engagement tool. The real challenge is to be truly engaging, without the first grade worksheet, and without the easy, one word answers. (Note: i do not mean to insult the intelligence or spiritual depth of actual first-graders. These things are ok in school for reading comprehension. They are not ok for cultivating the divine encounter).
Maybe it just happens that, as churches grow, pastors stop trusting that their people are smart and, you know, grown ups…and get into the business of prescribing simple, digestible truths in a way that keeps up the flow of people and dollars. The larger the church, the more insulting the worksheet?
I serve a larger congregation now. And it has the potential to become much larger. As I prepared the first sermon for my new folks last week, I was thankful, all over again, for that rotten sermon I preached a few years ago; for all that it taught me about finding my voice; for the folks who had the grace to sit through it and love me anyway; and for this new call to a thoughtful, reflective, and imaginative congregation of folks who don’t show up on Sunday for easy answers. God’s people come hungry for a challenge, for a call to come up higher, and for an invitation to the life of faith that keeps us moving, thinking, and growing together.
This is my commitment to them: no matter how large or small the crowd, no matter how sick or tired or rusty I may be, I will never be a _____________ preacher.