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Last week I wrote something about Pentecost for the Reformed Journal, my first-ever Sunday contribution, and I thought it was touching and clever. Just now I threw it out.
I’m still thinking about how I could use it somewhere — because it was that good — but the truth is, it wouldn’t be fitting right now, or maybe ever, especially after all that’s happened (and with all that’s about to happen in the coming weeks in the Reformed family of denominations).
Reformed Journal bloggers, I’ve noticed, have been doing some of this lately, tossing a perfectly good essay because something in the world happened, leaving what had been written now sounding a bit off, no longer what would be of interest to readers.
I suspect preachers are doing a bit of this too. That satisfying weekly ritual of study and reflection, followed by writing a sermon masterpiece, is interrupted late in the week by something — these days a shooting, or maybe a war, but often a death, perhaps a death in the congregation. And then, one hopes, the thoughtful preacher starts over, a week’s worth of sermon reflection narrowed to a couple of hours.
Sometimes those last-minute sermons turn out to be our best efforts. I wouldn’t wish this last-minute change of plans on anyone, of course, but I’ve heard a few sermons that were clearly written like that. And I can report that in those moments I have never listened so intently, so eagerly. Often I’m in tears. I heard one of those sermons on Sunday.
On the other hand, to take the pressure off preachers just a bit, maybe the words we speak aren’t as important, in these situations, as coming together with people we know in a familiar space. Often singing familiar words is important too. One of the hymns we sang last Sunday nearly did me in. Everything I needed to hear that day was in those words. (I even read the names in small print at the bottom of the page in the hymnbook, so I could silently give thanks for their gifts.)
The first time I remember tossing a sermon and starting over was during the week of 9/11, the day four airliners were hijacked and three were crashed into well-known buildings on the east coast. The day was a Tuesday, as I recall, so there should have been plenty of time to adjust. But the congregation came to church that Tuesday night, filling the place, just like Easter morning, and I remember standing up to speak as always, using words I didn’t have a lot of time to think about.
I don’t remember anymore what I said, and I’m guessing that no one else does either. I do remember using then-president George W. Bush’s reference to “evil doers,” but I forget now exactly what I did with that. I’m sure a few members were worried that I might politicize the occasion. But mostly I said what everyone already knew — namely, that what had happened was awful, unspeakably awful, but that we would be okay because God would not forget us. Something like that. I repeat those words, or words like them, quite often these days.
A surprising number of 9/11 sermons have been collected and published in various places, which is what leads me to think that preachers sometimes do their best work when they are forced out of their weekly routine and find themselves having to name some ancient but comforting truth. What happens is that we look death in the face and then find ourselves declaring exactly what we believe, with no need for a clever story or illustration.
What I have always liked about the Pentecost story was Peter’s unlikely sermon that day, the very idea that a Galilean with little or no formal education would speak to a large crowd (drawn not by a good marketing team, but by fire and wind) and preach the sermon of his life. I have always been a Galilean, the kind like Peter who speaks first and thinks later.
I wish I could say that my first attempts at preaching were like Peter’s — with thousands feeling convicted by my words and asking, “Brothers, what should we do?” Maybe one or two felt convicted by an early sermon. I don’t remember. But what I do remember is the miracle of finding the words to speak on most occasions. The only explanation I can think of is that there was an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
I’m praying for a little more of that same Spirit for the friends and colleagues who have difficult work to do this week and every week.