Chapter 191

My Worst and Best Sermons Ever

How I was set free from the need to judge my preaching

The worst sermon I ever preached was in Canajoharie, New York, the chewing-gum capital of the world, where I was invited to address what was described to me as an ailing congregation.

The Gospel lesson for that Trinity Sunday was John's story about Nicodemus's search for new birth. It was a promising sign, I thought, and proceeded to construct an eight-page masterpiece on faith and doubt. Sunday morning arrived, the processional hymn began, and I marched into a church with three people in it—five, including me and my host.

Two were elderly women, still weepy over the loss of a friend the day before. The third was a heavy, angry-looking man who occupied the other side of the church all by himself. When the time came for the sermon, I crept into the pulpit, wondering what to do. I tried the first page of my manuscript and abandoned it; it was like reciting poetry to a wall. With a fast prayer to the Holy Spirit, I put my notes away and tried to summarize what I had planned to say. The result was five minutes of pure gibberish. The Holy Spirit never showed up, and as my congregation stared blankly at me, I rapidly confirmed all their worst fears about women preachers.

Out of thin air

One of the best sermons I ever preached was at the funeral of a baby girl. Her death, which came just three months after her complicated birth, tried the faith of everyone who knew her and her parents, including me. I worked and worked at something to say, but everywhere I turned I ran into the dead-end of my grief. When it came time for the service, I walked into a full church with nothing but a half page of notes. I stood plucking the words out of thin air as they appeared before my eyes. Somehow, they worked. God consented to be present in them.

When I received a transcript of the sermon later, it was as if it had been written in disappearing ink. Nothing was there but a jumble of phrases and images, trailing off at the end into awkward silence. While the Holy Spirit was in them, they lived. Afterward, they were no more than empty boxes, lying where the wind had left them.

Tin into gold

These two experiences remind me not to take myself too seriously. They also make me reluctant to talk about "best" and "worst" sermons. Something happens between the preacher's lips and congregations' ears that is beyond prediction or explanation. The same sermon sounds entirely different at 9 and 11:15 a.m. Sermons that make me weep leave my listeners baffled, and sermons that seem cold to me find warm responses. Later in the week, someone quotes part of my sermon back to me, something she found extremely meaningful—only I never said it.

More is going on here than anyone can say. Preaching is, finally, more than art or science. It is alchemy, in which tin becomes gold and yard rocks become diamonds under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It is a process of transformation for both preacher and congregation alike, as the ordinary details of their everyday lives are translated into the extraordinary elements of God's ongoing creation. When the drum roll begins and the preacher steps into place, we can count on that. Wherever God's word is, God is—loosening our tongues, tuning our ears, thawing our hearts—making us a people who may speak and hear the Word of Life.