Monday, August 9, 2010

Making the Sermon: Standing Up, Praising God

Yesterday I preached a sermon titled Standing Up, Praising God. The sermon text was Luke 13:10-17, the story of the bent woman who was healed by Jesus on the Sabbath. This text grabbed hold of me about four weeks ago. In fact, I thought I was going to preach it on the third Sunday in July, but the Spirit wouldn't let me. It wasn't ready and there was another word for the people. That is to say, I had done a close reading of the text in several translation and done a word study in the Greek several weeks ago.

Earlier this week I returned to the next. Even though I had worked through the text, new insight appeared. I wrote them down in my preaching journal and waited for the sermon to come.

Wednesday: read text, take notes, no sermon.

Thursday, read text, take notes, still no sermon.

Friday: read text, take notes, three sermons.

Saturday: read text, read commentaries, take notes, still three sermons.

Ok, how does one go from having no sermons to having three sermons? I literally had three different titles and three different ways to approach the text. The question was, God, in which direction would you have for me to go? I was preaching two services, so technically I could have preached two messages. Surely there didn't seem enough time to prepare two messages. Plus, for Sunday service, I like to have my message ready by Friday. Sure, I get fresh words on Saturday and will not hesitate to edit, but I am not one who likes to write a whole sermon the night before it is preached. For real God, I need to know something.

I decided to give God a break. I packed up my stuff, got in the car, and made my way to Panera Bread. Surely, surely my ten minute drive was enough time for God to speak. Plus, I needed to get out of the house. Although working at home is good for me, since sermons are written for people to hear, sometimes I need to be in a place where I can see and hear real live people when I am preparing my messages. It reminds me that these messages are not neutral words being flung in the air, but that peoples lives are in the balance and they need to hear "what thus saith the Lord."

So God, what's it gonna be?

(d) none of the above...

When I got in the car, my husbands car that I loooove to drive, Ron Kenoly's "Mourning into Dancing" was playing. Just as I heard the words, You turned my mourning into dancing again, you lifted my sorrow. I can't keep silent, I must sing for His joy has come, it hit me. These are the words of praise, based on Psalm 30:11, that the woman in the text may have uttered after being touched by Jesus. I knew then that I needed to tell her story. I needed to give her voice, as she is mostly silent in the text (with the exception of unquoted praise). I knew that someone in the congregation was bound and needed to know that just a touch from Jesus is enough to set them free.

And so, I arrived at Panera Bread and began to type. It was like the notes I had collected over the weeks poured out of me onto the page. I did something I had never done before. That is, I preached the sermon using first-person character development. I had heard it done before and thought it an effective method of preaching (people love a good story), but I was always afraid that I wouldn't be able to inhabit the character. It is hard to step into someone else's shoes, even our ancient foreparents in the faith. At times, writing the sermon was painful; Imagine living with a bound soul and a bent back for eighteen years. At times, writing the sermon was amazing; Imagine just how beautiful and authentic this woman's praise was. First person narrative preaching invites you to imagine the sights, sounds, emotions, and even perhaps the smells in the moment in which the text took place. It also invites you to think about the thoughts, words, and gestures of and between characters that were not included in the text. First person preaching requires Holy Ghost imagination. As Marvin Mickle writes of first-person preaching, "...[it] may be entertaining, is not designed primarily for entertainment purposes. It is meant to be inductive, to lead people deeper into a biblical scene or into a moment in the life of a biblical character when some significant encounter with God takes place."

Here is the text:

Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.

But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.”

The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.

Here is an except:

Have you ever had back pain? I am talking about back pain so severe that it hurts to walk, it hurts to sit, it hurts to lay down. I couldn’t even talk or sneeze or laugh without being in pain. Have you ever had back pain so severe that you cannot even stand straight? Well, for eighteen years, I was literally bent over.

Can I be honest? When you live with pain, bent over like I was, for so long, it’s like the pain becomes your friend. You learn to live with it. It is a normal way to be. I knew I was in pain, I knew I was bound, but I just thought that was my life and that it was always going to be that way. In some ways, I had forgotten the joy of being free. I could no longer remember what it felt like to be straight. But on that day, I learned that I did not have to live my life bound.

I have heard it said that “Back pain is not only painful, it's debilitating and inconvenient…” and I must say amen to that. But as inconvenient as it was, I never stopped going to the house of worship. At the synagogue, I was able to commune with God. At the synagogue, I was able to worship, albeit silently. At the synagogue, I was able to hear the word of God and be encouraged. Even though I was bent over, I never lost my love for God, my love for the teaching of the Word, and my hope that one day things would be different. In that time of worship, in the presence of Almighty God, it was like my pain momentarily ceased. So, I did what I always did on the Sabbath morning...I woke up, got dressed, and made my way to worship.

While most of the details are clear, I cannot seem to remember what I had on that morning. It couldn’t have been anything too fancy. I had not worked in years, being bent over and all. Most of what I owned was meager. No purple. No gold. No linen. A simple garment, I am sure. But it didn’t matter much anyway. No one ever noticed what I was wearing. To most people in this congregation, I did not exist. And if I did exist, I certainly did not have a name. Every Sabbath day I would go in and out without anyone every really noticing me. Well, they did notice that I was bent over, but beyond that I may as well have been invisible.

I sat in the same place week after week, next to the same people and no one ever said a word to me. No one asked about my family. They didn’t know if I had a husband. They didn’t know if I had any children. They didn’t know if I lived alone or if there was someone to take care of me and help me out with my needs. They didn’t know if I even had a job. No one ever invited me over for afternoon fellowship. No one even offered to pray with me. They made assumptions about who I was and how I came to be that way.

Some thought I’d been bent all of my life. What they didn’t know is that I was not born that way. There was a time when I stood straight and tall. Some thought that I sinned to cause my condition. What they didn’t know is that I didn’t bring this on myself. Eighteen years ago, the enemy bound me up. I tried everything that I could to raise myself up, but nothing worked. That thing was spiritual. I was under attack of the enemy. My soul was extremely burdened and my back told the story. Yet they didn’t care. The good people of God could care less. They had formed their opinion, and to them, I was nobody...just a woman bent over in two. But it was easy for me to be just that to them...because I was so crippled, I could not look up at them...which means they never had to look me in the eyes.

But I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the first time in a long time that anyone had ever looked at me, I mean gazed at me and saw who I was.

This day was like every other Sabbath day, so I thought. Unbeknownst to me, it was going to be a day that I would never forget, a day that my life would change forever.

When I arrived at the synagogue there was a man teaching. I could not see him, being hunched over and all, but I knew that I did not recognize his voice. He was not one of our resident teachers. I had not experienced his teaching before, but I had certainly heard about him. He was a traveling teacher from Nazareth and word on the street was that he preached and taught with an amazing authority. More than that the streets buzzed about the miraculous works that He had performed on his way here from Galilee. He healed a woman with fever, cast out evil spirits, made a paralyzed man to walk, raised dead little boy back to life, and audaciously healed a man with a deformed hand on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath! And here he was, in our midst, teaching. And I must say, the word on the street was right. This man was captivating. His teaching was powerful and fresh, and I soaked up every word of it.

But then something strange happened. He looked at me. I could not see him look at me, but I felt his gaze. His eyes did not linger long. It all happened so fast. But I do remember that I could feel his compassion overshadowing me. For eighteen years, people have gawked at me with disdain, confusion, and the worst of all, sympathy. They looked at me like I had two heads. They looked at me like I was an animal, like I was less than human. But this man, this man looked at bent over, broke down me and I felt loved. But like I said, it all happened so fast, and the next thing I know, he stopped teaching. I cannot remember if He was mid-sentence or if He finished his thought, but clearly the lesson was not over. He stopped teaching and it was silent. You could hear a pin drop in the congregation. All eyes were on him, but his eyes were on me.

Mickle, Marvin. The Star Book on Preaching. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2005.

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