Sermon slips

February 26th, 2020

A deep, irrational fear grips every preacher — the fear of inadvertently saying something inappropriate, tasteless, suggestive or just plain stupid while preaching. Preachers have been known to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, haunted by nightmares of saying something that doesn’t come out the way they intend, in front of five hundred people. A slip of the tongue in the middle of a sermon is called “Freudian” by some, evidence of the humility-producing power of the Holy Spirit by others.

Once you’ve said it, there is no way to get out of a sermonic slip, no matter how hard you try. You can’t go back and explain. It is best to have the congregation immediately stand for the benediction.

I was preaching in a large auditorium in the West. Jet lag had taken its toll — at least that’s the best excuse I can find. The person who introduced me had told the crowd of students that I was a great preacher, much in demand, interesting, controversial and expensive.

The pressure was on.

I launched into my sermon, a simple piece unworthy of such an extravagant introduction. “When the sermon is weak, say it louder,” somebody once told me. So, I was loud, emotional, passionate.

“And what is the most significant event our faith has to offer?” I asked. “The erection!” I bellowed.

Someone in the front row screamed.

“I mean the resurrection!” I said the correct word at least twelve more times. It didn’t seem to do any good. Church was out.

“I’m sure I shall remember your sermon for the rest of my life,” a young woman told me after the service. I could hear her laughing as she walked out of the building and down the street.

On another occasion, I was speaking in the Midwest. I spoke mightily, and at length, perhaps being too attentive to how I was speaking rather than to what I was saying. Afterward, as we left the auditorium, I hesitantly asked my host — who could be intimidating — “Well, how do you think it went?”

“Rather well,” he said. I sighed in relief. “Except for a couple of small matters,” he continued. “Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. Matthew was a tax collector, not a Pharisee. And the capital of Iowa is Des Moines, not Cedar Rapids.”

Picky, picky, picky.

A distinguished yet insufferably pompous evangelist was preaching before a gathering of Presbyterian ministers. He was attacking moral decadence, particularly sexual sin in contemporary society, which is risky business for a preacher prone to sermonic slips.

“I remember,” he shouted, “when we looked up to women, expected them to set the moral tone for society. We placed them on a pedestal of honor. But not anymore. Have you seen the scandalous way women dress today?”

To illustrate his dubious point, he offered his former organist as an example. “Our organist, a precious young woman, came to practice for the service, dressed in a pair of short, tight, hiked-up running shorts. It was disgraceful! Walking into the Lord’s house in those skimpy tight shorts. I determined to intervene. It was my duty as a pastor. I confronted her and asked her to come down to my study and talk about it. I shared Scripture with her and told her how those shorts looked. And I’ll tell you, in fifteen minutes I had those shorts off of her!”

He tried to retrieve the hysterically laughing congregation, but his efforts were in vain. Each time he attempted to resume his sermon, some comer of the congregation would erupt into renewed laughter.

So, he asked them to stand for the execution, er, uh, I mean benediction.

This is an excerpt from Will Willimon's new book Stories by Willimon, published by Abingdon Press.

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