26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
The worship service that I lead at Moore 1st UMC has Facebook and Instagram pages with a weekly posting called “Moment Mondays.” These postings include a weekly note from me about worship and events, but they also include an image with the sermon series logo and a quote from the previous day’s sermon. These snippets are usually between 30-75 words, and are a key passage or takeaway to be thinking about during the week. It is also a good way for people in our church to share our message with their friends through social media. Here are some examples:
Usually, it is really easy to pick out the takeaway and for the people who do our print and digital media to create and post these “Moment Monday” images. This last Sunday, however, was an exception.
My sermon was … well … bad.
It is difficult for me to admit. I love preaching. I love the research. I love the exegesis. I love the role of wordsmith. I love the invitation and conviction of the Holy Spirit. I love the practice. I love comparing the context and culture of the text to the context and culture of the congregation. I love the final package, the event – the preached Word. However, as I ended my sermon on Sunday and approached the altar for our Response to the Word (offering, communion, baptisms/professions) I felt terrible. I certainly did not love the event into which I had just dragged my congregation.
I remember listening to sermons and being in worship as a child. I know that preachers experience Sundays of sub-par performance. The thesis is too big, or non-existent. That tantalizing illustration that just had to make it into the manuscript is forced like a square peg into a round hole. The Scripture gets lost in the story-telling. The story-telling and inviting narrative gets lost in the dissection of the text. It is too short. It is too long. There are too many points. It is devoid of any point. It happens. I remember as a child hearing poorly prepared and/or delivered sermons and thinking “Is this it? Is this putting our best foot forward? Where have all the good preachers gone?”
All of this came flooding back to me on Sunday. I am in no way suggesting I have never delivered a sermon that was less than it could have or should have been. What I am saying is that this was the chiefest and greatest of homiletical calamities. The batteries for my ear mic died and I had to go for another microphone on stage. On my way back I tripped over one of the feet of my pulpit. I lost my place in my notes, which were poorly copied and pasted together from my tablet that I carry around and my laptop I use at my desk. There were loose ends and unfinished thoughts at the conclusion, and not the “Let’s keep this conversation going during the week” unfinished thoughts. They were the “Hey, the preacher didn’t ever get back to his original points” unfinished thoughts. This was, quite simply, a bad sermon.
Clergy ride emotional roller coasters. We can’t help it. One Sunday we leave feeling that the kingdom of God is breaking out of the church and into the community. The next Sunday shortfalls in worship implementation or presence are taken more personally than they ever really should. I went home Sunday so disappointed in myself.
As is regularly the case, a Monday followed that Sunday. I had to go into the office and get my information out for our Moment Monday materials. I had to re-live that jumbled mess of preached Word and decide which scrap I felt could pass its way into a promotional image. I talked about the Sermon on the Mount. I talked about Jesus’ words about caring for the poor and almsgiving. I talked about engaging giving in secret and not for personal glory. I talked about budgeting in relationships. I talked about the warnings of the Minor Prophets to care for the needy in the kingdoms. I talked about the implications of Matthew 25 and that in serving the poor and needy through our giving and our actions we are indeed serving Christ himself. I talked about budgeting in the church. It was too much heading in too many different directions.
In her book Novel Preaching, Alyce McKenzie interviews fiction writers to glean some of their best practices that sermon writers can and should implement to enhance the preparation and delivery of a sermon. My favorite image was that of a house of cards. Think of a sermon as a house of cards, and each piece of exegesis, each story or illustration, as a card in the house. If any card can be pulled out without bringing the whole house down, then it has no business being there. I love that, and think of it often. As I worked my way back through the sermon to select the quote I wanted in the image, I discovered a house with too many unnecessary cards. How was I to boil down a sermon that was the metaphorical equivalent of herding feral cats to a single, effective takeaway?
Then I saw these Facebook posts on my wall:
“When I used to hear Andrew Tevington preach, he would always pray. May the words from these lips be Your word and if they are not may the words that fall on the ears of the listeners be Your word. I loved that idea and this may not be a direct quote but the meaning is the same. Not to worry, God knows what He is doing. Blessings.”
“I left today with a clear message and a nice challenge, to view all our financials through the eyes of Christ.”
How relieved I felt that the Holy Spirit had interceded on my behalf and, in spite of my shortcomings, expelled a bit of light and love into the darkness. Those kind words narrowed my focused enough that I settled on the quote you saw at the beginning of the blog. This posting is as much a re-affirmation for me that the sun keeps rising and Sundays keep coming and sermons keep being preached as it is a word of comfort for colleagues in ministry who have similarly floundered.
Trappist monk and ecumenical giant Thomas Merton once said:
“The things we really need come to us only as gifts, and in order to receive them as gifts we have to be open. In order to be open we have to renounce ourselves, in a sense we have to die to our image of ourselves, our autonomy, our fixation upon our self-willed identity.”
It has been a freeing and humbling experience these last few days to consider all the wonderful ways we give ourselves sacrificially to God in worship, and all the wonderful ways that the Holy Spirit comes and dwells among us in corporate worship and sacraments – even if the preacher lays a goose egg. I had to renounce – despite my Protestant proclivities – that the sermon has to be the main event. I had to die to my image of myself in order to find peace.