Over the past few years, I’ve preached an awful lot of sermons. Although I initially went into full-time ministry as a music pastor, my role has changed as I’ve found my voice, my gifting, and my calling. Teaching and communication are among my strengths and I’ve been trying to live into them more each day.
I could probably write a blog series about the process of sermon preparation. For me, it’s never been quite as simple as opening up my Bible and a commentary and hitting the computer. Like any other creative process, if I want it to be worth anything, I need to give it room to live and breathe, to take shape. Part of the beauty of sermon preparation is that in dealing with God’s word, you aren’t dealing with something stagnant and empty, but vibrant and full of life. I do my best to lean into the Holy Spirit as I prepare.
I’ve known that I was going to be preaching on Palm Sunday for a while. I even knew the text and the subject matter. I had been reading through Mark 14 when Jesus goes to the garden with his disciples for the weeks leading up to Palm Sunday. I would jump into the passage for a while and let myself marinate in it, letting it sink deep into me, shaping and forming me as I read it.
At the same time, me and sermon introductions have a love/hate relationship with one another. When I was in seminary, I would rarely write paper introductions last. I would usually let the introduction set the trajectory of the paper for me, guiding my writing and guiding the direction of the paper. With sermons, that’s not quite as simple, at least, not for me.
Going into Palm Sunday, I had a lot of things going on. It was one of those weekends that we all have from time to time, the ones where everything is scheduled and where you expect you will barely have time to catch your breath between events and happenings. I did my best to gear up for it, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. Sometimes, no matter how much preparation, you still feel ill-prepared, it just happens.
As much prayer and study that I had put into the sermon, it still just felt incomplete to me. The main place that I saw it was in the introduction. Like the opening moments of a film or the first few pages of a book, the opening minutes of a sermon, in my opinion, are the place where you either grab people’s attention or you give them permission to check out for the next 30 minutes. Sermon intros can make or break a sermon and will define how people respond and zone in on everything that will follow.
Maybe I’m making more of them than I should, but that’s what I’ve been taught through others and through my own experience. So, I do my best to make sure that I take the introduction seriously. It’s not just a throwaway element that means nothing, at least, not to me.
As the sermon crept closer and closer, my discomfort with what I had grew larger and larger. I was leaning towards yet another story about my mom, who died of cancer nearly four years ago. I was apprehensive as I had told countless stories about her to my congregation. I was fearful that one more story might lead to people checking out and feeling as if I were a clanging gong or banging cymbal. I knew how important that it would be that if I shared something to make it different, to make it something that people would feel was worthwhile.
Friday night came and went, Saturday came and went, and in the wee hours of Sunday morning, I woke up with a dread that something was incomplete, not right. I knew what I had to do, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it.
As the sermon had been taking shape all week long, I was focusing on Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. It was honest and real, it was short and to the point, it was an abandonment of self and an embracing of the Father’s will and glory. There was nothing selfish about it, it was Jesus passing one of his final temptations to embrace the plan that the Father had from eternity past. It was Jesus taking the cup that had been given to him and drinking it although he would have liked nothing more than for the Father to have taken it from him.
I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Jesus’ arrival at that place and my mom’s arrival at the place where she knew that she wouldn’t live more than a few months. In fact, in wrestling through it all, I realized that my mom was probably the first one of us in the family to have realized and embraced the future. Like I said, I wasn’t sure how much to share as I felt as if I had already shared a lot before. This story was personal and the challenge of anyone who ever tells a story that is personal, who shares a poem that is personal, who sings a song that is personal, is that there is always a fear that the same level of personal connection that is felt by you may not be achieved by everyone who hears.
There is a risk there, a potential for failure and rejection. Any musician or artist knows exactly what I am talking about, anyone who has ever poured their heart out making themselves feel emotionally vulnerable and naked knows exactly what I am talking about. That was the place to which I came at 4:30 in the morning on Sunday, just hours before I was to preach the sermon for which I had prepared all week long.
I ran to my computer and opened up some folders to find the file that I knew was there somewhere. I found the exact file that I was looking for and I opened up our PowerPoint file for that morning, inserting the desired documents into the slides. I had found the missing piece. I needed to share these very personal items to fully convey just how my mom had embraced the “cup” that had been set before her.
The first thing that I had found was what I have come to call “Mom’s Gameplan.” As her health continued to fail, I went to the place where she had gone to find comfort over and over again: her Bible. As I thumbed through the pages, I found two pieces of paper. On the one paper, I found the following in my mom’s handwritten:
- Do I really believe God works all things for my good, what does he want to teach me?
- Psalm 103:19 – God is in control of all things
- Isaiah 55 – have to accept the truth. Won’t always understand all things – don’t lose heart!
- Don’t make quick judgments when a crisis comes. Focus on God instead of crisis. Get into Word of God. Avoid focusing on the pain. Recall the past crises and opportunities that followed them. Don’t continue to be angry about crisis. Ask forgiveness. Submit yourself to will of God in my life.
- Demonstrate gratitude in the crisis.
- Determine in your heart that this is an opportunity for God to work in my life (to get me where he wants me to be).
- Refuse to listen to unscriptural interpretations about what God is doing in your life.
- Remain in constant prayer listening for God’s instructions.
- Refuse to give way to your changing emotions (feelings, etc.)
- Obey God and leave all the consequences to him.
Between these words and the prayer in the picture below, it seemed to be the missing piece, the piece that would emphasize just how much my mom had pointed me to Jesus and how much she had come to embrace the will of the Father. In these simple words, she modeled to me that she had learned to pray, “not my will but yours be done.”
The sermon came and I was exhausted. My weekend up to that point had been physically and mentally exhausting. And you know what? When I find myself coming to the end of everything that is in me, it’s usually then that I realize just how much I need to rely less on myself and more on God’s strength. I managed to hold myself together, with God’s help, through the preaching of the sermon. My voice cracked here and there, but I didn’t fall to pieces.
The next day, I was heartbroken to find out that the recording of the sermon had been lost due to a technical failure that had occurred right after I was done preaching. My heart sank as I thought back to how much of my heart I had put into the sermon, but God had some more work to do in me.
As I wrestled through the news that the sermon recording had been lost, I realized that part of my continuing healing process and acceptance of God’s will was connected to all of this. I realized that there just might be something therapeutic and healing about having to preach the sermon again and by writing about the process.
So, here it is; one part of the healing, one part of my own growth. I can’t preach things that I am not willing to follow myself and God rarely lets me forget that important fact.
In the midst of it all, I realized again that there are times when you navigate the waters of a struggle in order that you can be a help to other people. I’m grateful that God has used some of my struggles to help others realize that they are not alone in the midst of their struggles. I’m grateful that God has prompted me to tell my story. I’m not sure who said it, but I once read that God doesn’t waste our pain. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”