Last December, while unpacking some boxes after our recent move, I discovered a manuscript of my very first sermon. If I recall correctly, it was Youth Day at Mountain View United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee, and various members of the Methodist Youth Fellowship shared in the duties of the Sunday service. My part was the sermon.
I had never prepared a sermon before, although I had taken speech in high school. How hard could it be?
It turns out that it was much more difficult than I had imagined. First of all, it helps to have some knowledge of the Bible. I had only been going to church for a little over three years by that time and my knowledge of the Bible was … limited.
It also helps to have some theological foundation. I was a member of a Sunday School class and we had programs at the youth group but my theological foundation was mostly The Apostles’ Creed.
It also helps to have a decent prayer life. The two prayers I regularly prayed were the Lord’s Prayer and the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer.
It also is beneficial to have some life experience. In December of 1969, I was all of 18 years old, turning 19 in January. My life experience was about that of any high school student in the nation. And yet I was tasked with preparing a twenty-minute sermon and delivering it from the pulpit of a historic church to a couple of hundred people. Daunting.
I bet I spent about twenty hours preparing that message. Somewhere I had read that for each minute of sermon, the preacher should spend one hour in preparation. I invested much more time in that sermon than I did in the majority of my high school studies.
On the day appointed, I put everything I knew into the delivery of that sermon. It turned out to be eleven minutes long. When it was over I was more relieved than pleased.
A youth group friend had recorded the sermon on a reel-to-reel tape player and, when I heard it, I was horrified. I sounded like just what I was … a Tennessee redneck with a hillbilly twang. Apparently I was nervous because my voice was at a higher pitch than normal. No speaker ever sounded less like Billy Graham than I did that day. I decided I probably should never preach again.
Fifty years later. I discovered the sermon from that Sunday in those storage boxes. It was worse than I remembered. It was really a lecture of a know-it-all 18-year-old to a congregation about how things ought to be.
I was really offended that the church was locked when no one was there. I was absolutely certain that God would want the church building open all the time in case a passerby wanted to come in and pray. It was about as arrogant a document as one could imagine. It’s only saving virtue was that it was short.
Looking back on it, that’s probably the first time that I realized that church members can lie to your face. One after the other, the adults congratulated me on a job well done.
They were being kind, of course, because there wasn’t a word of actual truth in those congratulatory comments. As I re-read the sermon several times, my level of embarrassment and humility only increased.
I actually thought about re-preaching that sermon at my church last December. It would have been the 50th anniversary of my first sermon and, surely, it would demonstrate that I had greatly improved over the years. For a short while, it seemed like a grand idea. And then I read it yet again.
I decided that once was enough for that sermon to be preached. Actually, once was really too much. What I finally decided was that some things are better left in storage.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]