Sunday Sermon: Standing Up, Praising God / by Donna Olivia Owusu-Ansah

Instead of a sermon excerpt, this week I want to talk about the sermonic process. On my former blog I had a feature called “Making the Sermon” where I would talk about the mechanics of preaching and how I arrived at the sermon. For today, I want to revive that feature. You can read an excerpt of the sermon here.

Today I had the good pleasure of preaching at the Wanaque Community Church. I’ve been there every month since June, sometimes several times a month. They are a lovely people without a pastor and they have a few clergy that rotate in pulpit supply. I always look forward to going there. Always except this morning..

Let me say this. I was looking forward to going there until yesterday. The week was pretty normal as far as sermon preparation goes. On Sunday I selected the text from the Revised Common Lectionary. Since I’ve been preaching more regularly, I don’t leave the Scripture selection to chance/whim, trusting that the Holy Spirit can work through lectionary text as effectively as if I had selected the text myself. After selecting the text, I prayed and I read and reread the text during the week, jotting down ideas as they came throughout the days. By Wednesday I had a title and points. I had my introduction. I was planning to preach “I Want You Back” from Isaiah 43:1-7, riffing on the Jackson Five song of the same title. The sermon was all about God’s redemptive, rescuing, restoring love for humanity. I was excited! I mean, how could I not be excited about the privilege of telling the story of God’s great love?!?!?!

So Thursday I did my exegetical work and consulted commentaries. Everything was going as it usually does. And then Friday morning came and I was stuck. So instead of forcing it, I did other things: I folded laundry, went to lunch with my mentor and friend Lynne Westfield, and planned to run some miles which didn’t happen. By evening I sat down and still nothing. So I adjusted my schedule so I could put some sermonic meat on the outline that I had on Saturday afternoon.

On Saturday afternoon I went to Panera Bread which has been my pastoral study for over eight years. My favorite table was open. I just knew God and I were going to flow and in a few hours my portion of the sermon would be complete. I was wrong. I wrote and wrote, toiling over words, but nothing connected. It was all very disjointed and forced and when I realized it hours later, I stopped. I decided I would rest and try again in the morning before service. When I got home though, I went looking for the sermon I preached on this text during my first year of ordained ministry. I couldn’t find it, but in my digging in the sermonic crates I did find another message that leaped out at me. I put the papers into my black folio and resigned myself to it.

I went to bed early hoping to at least get a good night’s rest. Instead I slept horribly, had a terrible dream, and woke up super late. Long story short, I made it to the church with several reminders of God’s abiding presence bolstering me before the preaching moment—including the hymn before the sermon, “Rise Up, O Church” . As I preached, I could feel God moving. I knew then that the message was what God planned for me to preach all along. The congregation was engaged and their body language was evidence that they were listening and hearing. It was a beautiful dance between God, preacher, and people.

Here’s the interesting thing. I was disturbed and discouraged during this process, but when I went back to find the original “Making of the Sermon: Standing Up, Praising God” it turns out this process, while unsettling and unusual, is not new to me. And in hindsight, I believe that God was using this process to remind me that God is always on time and that the preaching moment is about God, not me. That’s not license to slack in preparation, but an invitation to know who is doing the work. Because although I went into the preaching moment feeling uneasy, members of the congregation remarked about how touching and timely the message was in their own situations.

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