Wednesday, April 14, 2010

One-Word Sermon

I think it was better live. But there's apparently not podcast.

To keep you from cheating, I'm leaving part out.

The sermon is going to be two words. I had it down to one last week, but didn’t like it and had to go back up to two. The introduction to the sermon, however, should go on for quite awhile.

I first read about the one-word sermon 30-40 years ago. I believe it was in that fine theological journal of the age, Reader’s Digest. A pastor somewhere had an annual tradition of preaching a one-word sermon. He said it was the hardest sermon of the year to write, but it was worth it, because attendance was always 100% that week.

Hardest sermon to write. Yeah, right, I thought. I was a liberal arts major, and a coffee house folksinger. Piece o’ cake. You just come up with a really cool word like mystery, and gain a reputation for being very deep and wise. I thought inventing a word would be especially cool. Instead of doubt-less, I would use Undoubt, or something like that. Hardest sermon. Give me a break.

A few years later we were going to a Lutheran church, under a pastor with a very narrow cycle of sermons. You know how in the Screwtape Letters the senior demon talked about a priest who preached the same twenty sermons over and over? Well, Hal had it down to about twelve, and looked like he was dropping down to eight if somebody didn’t stop him. So I told him about the one-word sermons this other guy preached. Just as a funny story, hoping he’d try it.

Did you ever have one of those moments where someone destroys your entire brilliant idea with just one sentence? Well, that happened here. Hal smiled and instantly said “I know what my word would be. Praise!” I immediately saw the weakness of my think-of-as-cool-word-and-go-home theory. It could get ugly fast. So I abandoned the idea as stupid, and didn’t bring it up again. That’s one part of the introduction. Put that in a box and set that aside for now.

You wouldn’t think that a person running onstage, spitting a mouthful of water at a girl in a wig, she dies, he dies, would be much of a play, would you?

Tom Stoppard wrote a play called 15-minute Hamlet. It is actually 13-minute Hamlet, followed by 2-minute Hamlet. Recommended. Especially to Linda, and to Anne. But another group, that started at the Renaissance Faires in California, went that one better. If you ever go to London, I recommend you go to The Reduced Shakespeare Company. All 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in 97 minutes. Very funny. I don’t recommend the reduced History of America, BTW. Not so funny. But the former ends with several versions of Hamlet. One-minute Hamlet. Ghost, To Be or Not to Be, Ophelia drowns, everyone dies. Backwards Hamlet. Two second Hamlet. Which is the mouthful of water, Ophelia dies, Hamlet dies.

I will note parenthetically that we bought front-row tickets at half-price. They brought Tracy up on the stage to play Ophelia for one line. The guy in the blonde pigtailed wig who had been Ophelia pouted and sat next to Jonathan, and brought him into the play. It was one of the great moments in Wyman family history.

I thought how much fun it would be if someone did a one-minute Bible. Like Stoppard, you would have to lead into it with a 13-minute Bible, so that people would get the jokes. But in the end, if you had the talent, you could do it. Let me set it up for you. There’s a boat onstage. And a stand-up picture of a Temple, like about 8 feet by 5 feet, lying face down. A throne. A cross. Pyramids on one side, a cave on the other. And zip lines, so that people can come in and out quickly. You ready?

The stage is dark. A light comes on. A guy bites an apple. People run onstage, and everyone stands in the boat. Sound of rain and thunder. Everyone gets out of the boat and runs down to Egypt. Then everyone runs back out of Egypt, and the 10 Commandments come in on a zip line. One guy shoots a sling and another guy falls over. The picture of the Temple goes up. Everyone gets dragged offstage, the Temple goes down. Then they come back and the Temple goes up again. A woman rocks a baby in front of the cave, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings “Hallelujah!” Everyone gets in the boat and Jesus walks past it. One guys gets out and nervously walks across the water to Jesus. People put Jesus up on a cross. He dies. They put him in the cave. He comes out the back of the cave, everyone hugs him and he gives them all miner’s lamps on their heads. He goes out on a zip line. They turn their miner’s lamps on and scatter over the stage. The Temple goes down again. Pause. Pause. Jesus comes back in on a zip line with a crown and sits on the throne. Curtain.

Okay, that was the second part of the introduction. Put that in a little box and leave it aside. Time for the third and last part of the intro.

For the last five years, I’ve been writing online a lot. I’ve learned something about lengthening things and condensing things that I wish I had known when I was writing papers for school. So those of you who are in school, listen up. It is easy to lengthen whatever you’ve got by 10% or shorten it by 10%. If you’ve got a 4.5 page paper and it’s supposed to be 5-7 pages long, no problem. Easy to stretch that sucker out onto another page. If you’re supposed to do a 4-5 minute persuasive speech and you’re running about 5’15”, no problem. More than 10% either way, it starts to get difficult. If you find you need to increase by 25%, it’s going to start sounding awfully thin. Here’s what you do: make it twice as long, and then cut it back naturally. Because to make it twice as long, you’re going to have to find another point to make. Then the whole thing’s easy. If your speech is running a minute over, no matter how fast you talk? Cut it by 50% and let it expand. Because if you cut 50%, you’ll have to identify what wasn’t really that important. Then you can explain the important stuff without rushing. And if it’s still too long, cut it by 50% again. Be ruthless.

I enormously admire people who can sum up a profound thought in one sentence. I can’t do it myself, but I admire it.

The idea of the one-word sermon came back to me about a year ago. I wondered if I should give it a try. But instead of just trying to find a cool word for you to meditate on, I approached it differently this time. A young friend asked for advice on reading the Bible a different way. I told him to pick out one story from Genesis, adopt it as his own, and think about it for a year. I don’t know if he did that, but I still think that’s a good idea. Pick a story. Pick one story. Think about it over and over. Two of the stories I focused on are the scripture lessons for today. Abraham and Isaac, and Hannah and Samuel. Both are very uncomfortable stories, worth immersing yourself in. Then I tried to get down to one verse. About half a dozen nominated themselves over the last year, from all over the Bible. I settled on one. Then I tried to get down to phrase. And here there were all sorts of possibilities. Every phrase that struck me as interesting, I wondered if it should be the next step. When it became clear that our church was going to scatter and sow, and I would get to share from my heart to this congregation just one more time, I ramped it up. I cut phrases, I added phrases. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get down to one word, but I figured I would at least get close. A phrase. I decided on a two word phrase about a month ago.

Last week it all fell apart in both directions. Just before church, standing out in the parking lot, I figured out how to get it down to one. I was happy. Just tickled. Then Dave read the scripture lessons, and the one verse that I had previously chosen was in one of the lessons. I got nervous. I am not a mystical person, and I get very bothered by ideas of little signs from God. Some people love ‘em, and I’ll bet they’re happier than I am. But there was the verse, and I wondered if God was telling me that I’d gone too far and should back up. From 1 Corinthians 15: For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. My verse from a few months ago. And neither my word nor my phrase was anywhere in it. Hmm. Problem. I have never gotten an answer to the question God, was that You? any time in my life. I compromised. This week I went back up to two words.

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