The Worst Sermon Of My Life
Here I am innocently leading the congregation in O Come O Come Emmanuel, blissfully unaware of the homiletical debacle about to unfold...
Barring a number of early sermons where I wouldn't have known what a good sermon was (and would be forgiven for not knowing), I preached the worst sermon of my life yesterday. The theme was all about taking things more slowly, not getting overbooked, and being mindful of where we are in the moment. So, naturally, the wheels came off...
In its original form it was OK. This is a well-worn theme for Advent and it was meant to serve as a brief reflection between the "Sanctuary Lighting" ritual and our monthly communion service. For the first two thirds of the sermon, that is exactly what it was. However, as I turned from page 6 expecting page 7...I found...yup...page 9.
In that moment I had the sort of brief, out of body experience that happens during times of stress. I flashed to a post-game press conference where I was saying things like "well I guess my head just wasn't in the game". Commentators were doubting my future prospects in a career that once held so much promise. I envisioned the "spinning newspaper effect" popular in old black and white movies. Each paper carried the headline "Clerical Catastrophe! What Went Wrong!" I did, of course, put my head back in the game, but I took a long pause in my addled state and questioned my life choices.
When this happens one has a number of decisions to make. Some folks just barrel ahead with page 9 like nothing happened. Some start riffing in hopes that things will come around. Others freeze. The option I initially chose was to get my spare copy with a perfectly good page 7. However, I quickly discovered that it was lacking...page 8.
By this time I had told the congregation what was happening. I switched to the freestyle riffing option and wrapped with the closing reading from page 10, which was the end of my notes. Thankfully we had a brilliant violinist who played right after my "reflection" and--as so often happens--the music saved the service.
First, in case there are preachers reading this. Yes, I am a manuscript preacher and have been for 20 years. Before assuming that this is something that doesn't happen to outline or noteless preachers, think again. Each form has its challenges. We just just choose the risk that works for us. The key, of course, is to avoid what an old driving video called "The Final Factor." That is, the thing that ultimately makes you take your eye off the road.
However, I really don't want to get bogged down in the shop talk anyway. I want to talk about the response. This isn't about preachers. It is about the people we preach to and with each and every Sunday. Besides, there is grace in this story and a counter narrative for anyone concerned by the fact you can fall flat on your face in mid-career. It turns out, the sermon, thank God, isn't really about us after all.
I have been at the Eliot Church for over 16 years and am the longest serving minister in it's 191 year history, We are friends in many respects and have shared much of our post-childhood "growing up" together, so mostly I expected some light joshing and sympathy, That is what I got. It was funny if you weren't the one stumbling around. Besides, teasing me about it made it clear that the disaster they had witnessed is not a weekly occurrence for them. I will still be starting the game next week.
However, I was also amazed by how hard people worked to get the sermon--truly a hot mess by the end--to still make sense! Pretty much everyone pointed out that I demonstrated the perils of the frantic season and the frustration that it can bring. Others felt--in the words of a note from my intern when I sat down to listen to the violinist--I had "embodied imperfection beautifully." The church, it seems, found meaning in my epic fail.
That isn't what I got out of it at all...except the imperfection part. What I got from it was a desperate attempt to make sense of my own argument in real time while hoping whatever word salad came out of my mouth would make sense to somebody. The great thing is, they did get something out of it. Even though I didn't help them much at all.
This is the great thing about people who come to worship. They bring their own sermons with them and when "the show" goes south, their hearts preach the sermon instead, with whatever they can disentangle from the chaotic resources they have been given. They know what they want to hear and accept that the obviously flawed worship leader will do their best to help and not hinder. Yes, there is the occasional curmudgeon who is hoping that the sermon will contain something they can get offended about, but for the vast majority, this is not the case, Everyone at worship is there in part to find meaning in their lives and they trust the community, the service, and its leaders enough that they are frequently able to find that meaning even when things aren't hanging together the way they should.
When we preachers fumble, the message gets through in spite of us, and I am grateful for my hard working church. I am grateful, too, for the Divine Spirit that connects us all together to form a loving, supportive community of seekers In a world that needs many more such communities than it currently has.
Now, I am not quite ready to post the whole sermon. I am not sure that the internet needs a permanent record of my failure. However, I thought I would share this clip--mostly of my cameraman--from the moment when it appeared to be on its way to fiasco.
12/2/2019 12:05:01 pm
I think you embodied the season of Advent perfectly. There is an obscure darkness, a muddling, at its start. You also give better sermons than I have ever been exposed to. You may say something snarky here such as, “Well, Catholic priests aren’t taught the art of public oratory.” Granted, but I’ve attended way more sermons than just theirs.
12/3/2019 06:29:31 am
Aw thanks. :-)
12/5/2019 05:36:49 pm
-I had "embodied imperfection beautifully." Thank you so much for this. Your vulnerability is affirming of you ministry and an inspiration to the rest of us.
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