Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Making the Sermon: Do You Believe?

This installment of Making the Sermon is different than the previous entries because it is an occasion sermon, rather than my usual Sunday morning word. It is also different because I will not be sharing a sermon snippet, but rather will be posting my (limited) personal evaluation of the sermon. Why? Well, because this was a eulogy/funeral sermon and I feel that it was for the hearing/experiencing of the family and friends present at the homegoing celebration. I am also sharing my personal evaluation because I have been inspired by the Thursday afternoon Introduction to Preaching Class at the Theological School at Drew University. Last Thursday I began my tenure as Teaching Assistant for Rev. Dr. Gary Simpson. The considerations I engage below are the ones that Doc asks his students to consider as they hear the sermons of their peers and evaluate their own sermons.

But before I go there, let me tell you how this sermon came to be...

On Sunday evening during my sacramental post-preaching nap, I received a text that the mother of my friend/cousin-in-law passed away earlier that day. On Monday, I received a call alerting me of her passing and asking if I would be available to help in some way. I take my ordination vows seriously, I take my call seriously, and I take the privilege of ministering to families in times of joy and crisis seriously, so I said yes. Little did I know then that I would be officiating the service and preaching the message. By Tuesday evening it was confirmed...

Although it was confirmed that I would be preaching, I struggled a bit. What do you say to a daughter who has lost her mother, and her rock, after a long bout with breast cancer? What word of hope did I have to share to this particular gathered community? I phrase the question in that way because the service was not held at a church, but at a funeral home, where the atmosphere and expectation is different. Place doesn't seem important to most, but it makes a huge difference in the perspective of the people. Even language makes a difference...using the term funeral carries with it a finality that is foreign to believers, whereas the term homegoing celebration suggests, as Christians believe, that, "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8).

On Thursday morning I didn't have a word. During coffee with a friend, as I recounted the events of the coming weekend, she said (as we always do when things are overwhelming, frustrating, or someone cuts you off in traffic), "Jesus wept." And then the Spirit spoke to me. Jesus did weep; He mourned the loss of his friend Lazarus. That was the text: John 11:32-44.

So, I went to work. I read, reread, and read again. (Instead of only reading the text at hand, I read John 11:1-44 so that I wouldn't lose the context.) I wrote furiously. The Lord was speaking and the words were coming. By the time Friday evening came around, I had eleven pages (about 45 minutes) written, but deep down, I knew it wasn't done. I was tired, and I had another homegoing at nine that morning at the church, and I was driving to NY from Jersey, so I read a commentary, prayed, and went to bed.

I woke up Saturday just before six, and still no change. The service was beginning in six hours and I didn't have a word. I had words, but no word. When I got in the shower, I realized that a grieving family is not interested in hearing me wax eloquent for 45 minutes. What I had was good stuff and my work was not in vain, but it wasn't the word for the day. I finished getting ready, hopped in the car, and began to pray, "God, just let me preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and a word of hope to this grieving family." I prayed that prayer over and over and over again. God heard my prayers, and after a few minutes of silence, the word came to me. All I kept hearing was Mary saying, "Lord if you had been here my brother wouldn't have died" and Jesus (eventually) responding, "I am the resurrection and the life...do you believe this?" By the time I arrived at the church for homegoing #1, I had the sermon outline in my head. By the time I arrived at the funeral home for homegoing #2, I had the sermon typed in my iPad. By the time the service was over, the gospel had been preached, Jesus had been lifted up, and the sermon that death preached had been rendered void. To God be the glory!!!

Text: John 11:17-28 NIV
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.”

Title: Do You Believe?

Personal Evaluation:

Did you hear the good news? If so, what was it?
There were two pieces of good news that I wanted to communicate: first, God desires that we be authentic, vulnerable, and honest before Him in prayer (as Martha did); and that when we receive Jesus as our Savior, that we can rest assured in His words that, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die."

What preparation helped or hindered the hearing of the sermon?
Before I preached, I read from James Weldon Johnson's "Go Down Death." It is a beautiful funeral sermon in poetic meter and was appropriate for this particular homegoing celebration. Here is the final verse:

Weep not—weep not,

She is not dead;

She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.

I wove in textual information and contextual information, without the word being too heavy or scholarly. I also made connections between the text and our contemporary practices. For example, the presence of the Jews who visited the Martha and Mary in the loss of their brother, and the way that we, as Black folk, will gather with, "a pot of greens, some fried chicken, and potato salad and eat and tell lies to help the grieving family in their time of loss." This helped people, those who may not engage the Bible often (or at all), to relate to the events and people int he text. In hindsight, the preparation--even the pages that ended up on the cutting room floor--helped the way that I told the story. Other issues that helped or hindered hearing, and I know there were others, would be better gleaned from someone present at the service....

What performance issues helped or hindered the hearing of the sermon?
This service was well attended--the deceased touched many, many lives.* I knew many of the people there. Some where family. Some were friends from the playground of Lincoln Elementary School. Some I know from my neighborhood growing up. Most don't know me as Rev. O. With that in mind, I wore my robe. It was important to me to function in my priestly/prophet role and in a suit I still would have been seen as Donna from the block. I think the presence of my robe helped people to hear me. The microphone wasn't booming, and I had a difficult time adjusting my voice, so literally there may have been some folks in the back who couldn't hear the word. Other issues, and I know there were others, I am not aware of because I was proclaimer, not hearing or seeing the sermon unfold...

*The decision to have the service at a funeral home, and not her home church, was one that the deceased made before her death so that her clients that she worked with at the United Cerebral Palsy organization could attend the service. It caused me to raise the question about the lack of accessibility to our churches when Jesus, himself, is fully accessible. That is another post for another day...

- Posted using BlogPress on the fiercest device ever...the iPad!!!

1 comment:

  1. Reverend O; Yes I believe, the sermon you preached on saturday was not too heavy or too scholary, i believe it was written and preached just right, it was broken down so the people got a true understanding of the word as always you did an outstanding job.