On Sermonizing and Preaching

The Dallas shootings and Baghdad bombings made their way into the pastoral prayer this morning.

On Sunday, July 10, I preached my first sermon in the Philippines.  I had almost 3 weeks of lead-up time to write this sermon.  The earliest drafts included comments and observations about the PCUSA after General Assembly, with the Confession of 1967 and the Belhar Confession, our origins—as well as our divisions— as a church over the issue of slavery, and the ongoing legacy of racism.

Still I cut all of that material, about a week before the actual sermon.  This would no longer be a 10 to 15-minute sermon, this would be a seminary lecture on the PCUSA, I rationalized.  Then in the week leading up to July 10, in the days leading up to the end of Ramadan, the world seemed to light up on fire, through the numerous bombings in different parts of the world:  Turkey, Bangladesh, Baghdad,  and then more shootings of black men by police officers, in the United States.

Should I preach about these events?  How would I preach about these events?  Would it be appropriate for this Philippine congregational context?  In an attempt to shore up some courage from colleagues, I read some guest post from Rev. Wil Gafney on RevGalsBlogPals and some insight from Russell Moore.   I read and re-read the letters from our new stated clerk as well as from our new co-moderators.  I drew enough courage to reach out to a clergy colleague in Michigan who would preach on Sunday, and unsure of where to begin.  What about us being made in the image of God, I wrote on a Facebook reply.  I also reached out a clergy colleague in Dallas, private messaging that I would pray for her and the family, the community and the congregation.

All of these possibilities and all of these questions:  these recent events seemed to fit into my sermon theme “The Reconciling Power of the Holy Spirit,” and the Scripture passages from Genesis 33 and Philemon seemed to push me in the direction of putting back some of my original reflections.

So here’s what I added, at the very end of my sermon:

“Please indulge me for a moment:  While striving towards good works that demonstrate the new humanity in Christ, I join with my fellow humans in mourning the loss of lives and the violence from recent terrorist attacks in an ever-growing list of countries in the last days of Ramadan, and now the recurring police killings of black men and women in the United States.  Far from us in geography, I challenge myself and all of us in the nearness of these events, for everyone who believes in the reconciling power of the Holy Spirit to overcome terrorism and racism and other evils.  Lord, in your mercy and grace!”

Had I stayed to serve my congregation in Michigan, I know that these topics would be included in my pastoral prayers—for that seemed to be the extent of my involvement.  If I were preaching in Michigan, I’m not sure what I would say—just as I was thinking about the same thing in the Philippines.   Caught between these two different contexts, I still didn’t know if what I wanted to say reflected the words that were written on the paper.

On the Saturday evening before the sermon,  I typed brackets around that paragraph.  When it came to the final printout of the sermon, a big X went through this paragraph.  If there was time in my sermon, I would include it.  If the Holy Spirit seemed to move me in that direction on Sunday morning, I would include it.

In the end, when it came to go-time on Sunday morning at both 7:30 and 10:30 worship services, I did not include that paragraph.  I did listen well and noticed that my clergy colleague, during the Sharing of Joys and Concerns, included both the Dallas shootings and Baghdad bombings.

As we were leaving church after that full morning, my husband said, “27.”  That’s how long the sermon was since he timed it.  Our daughter in her usually talkative way had something else to share:  she showed me the two red hearts, now stuffed in my husband’s shirt pocket, that she made in Sunday School.  She learned about Joseph and his jealous brothers who threw him into a pit.  They were upset because their father loved Joseph more.

Maybe I couldn’t include a paragraph or even more reflections in a sermon.  All that I didn’t say and still wanted to say, was swallowed up by the preacher’s daughter who was telling me about what she learned in Sunday School.  Joseph forgave his brothers.  Momma, remember you forgave me when I said that I loved my Marie (stuffed animal) more than you.  Momma preacher, can you forgive yourself for what you didn’t say in the sermon?

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