When sermons go awry, revisited

When sermons go awry, revisited

As I shared Blake Bergstrom’s “pitch his tents” experience with coworkers at Christianity Today (especially Preaching Today, where they got a big vicarious and empathetic kick out of it) I jokingly bemoaned the lack of well-known and well-salted preachers who had the grace to let their verbal gaffes get out there in wider distribution. “Wouldn’t it be great,” I fancied, “If we could collect a range of gaffes and Freudian slips like this from preachers we all know and love? I would buy that CD faster than Lot could pitch his tents!”

Well, we’re no closer to that pipe-dream today, but I did stumble across a verbal slips you might like.

The first made by one of America’s foremost preachers, John Ortberg (teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church). And he personally recounts the tale in his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them. Here’s the story:

The church where I work videotapes pretty much all of our services, so I have hundreds of messages on tape.  Only one of them gets shown repeatedly.

It’s a clip from the beginning of one of our services.  A high school worship dance team had just brought the house down to get things started, and I was supposed to transition into some high-energy worship by reading Psalm 150.  This was a last-second decision, so I had to read it cold, but with great passion:  “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary! Praise him in his mighty firmament!” The psalm consists of one command after another to praise, working its way through each instrument of the orchestra. My voice is building in a steady crescendo; by the end of the psalm I practically shout the final line, only mispronouncing one word slightly: “Let everything that has breasts, praise the Lord.

A moment of silence. The same thought passes through 4,000 brains—did he just say what I think he did? In church? Is this some exciting new translation I can get at the bookstore? 

Then everybody in the place just lost it. They laughed so hard for so long I couldn’t say a thing. I finally just walked off the stage, and we went on with the next part of the service.

Eight years I’ve been teaching at that church: of all the passages I’ve exegeted and messages I’ve taught that’s the one moment that gets replayed before conferences and workshops. Over and over. 

It’s an amazing truth: being fully right barely brings as much life to other people as simply being human.

Sermons hath music that soothes the savage breast. Meanwhile, we’ve got pains in our ribs! I’ve scoured the Web looking for a clip of that sermon, to no avail. If it’s as well-referenced as Ortberg makes it sound, I’m sure it’s out there. Somewhere.

On another front, pastor Mark Doerkson cites a vivid anecdote in his sermon earlier this year:

William Willimon is pastor and a professor at Duke University, which is in North Carolina. He preaches and ministers within the United Methodist denomination. He used to write the closing page for the monthly publication that they put out. Now I have to say that Willimon has quite a sharp mind, and quite a sharp sense of humor too. And in one of his books, he compiled all the closing articles he had produced for his denomination’s monthly publication. One of the articles that he wrote for his publication was entitled “Sermon Slips.” [1] It’s an article that deals with preachers publicly putting their feet in their mouths, and in this particular article he is attempting to say that sometimes, preachers get themselves into trouble by what they say, and recovery from such errors is quite difficult.

And so Willimon cites the story of a distinguished yet unbearably self-important evangelist who was preaching to a crowd of ministers. He was attacking moral decay, particularly sexual sin in contemporary society. And so he got going on his soap-box, and this is how it went.

“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 do something about it. 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!”

Well, the whole place erupted in laughter, and try as he might, that poor pastor was never able to win them back. His meaning was lost in his poor choice of delivery.

[1] William H. Willimon, The Last Word: Insights about the Church and Ministry, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), pp. 23-24.

I have to wonder what kind of Google hits this post’s going to generate.

[tags]BlogRodent, Blake-Bergstrom, Freudian-Slip, gaffe, John-Ortberg, Menlo-Park-Presbyterian-Church, Psalm-150, preaching, sermon-illustration, sermons, William-Willimon, William-H.-Willimon[/tags]

6 thoughts on “When sermons go awry, revisited

  1. Pingback: BlogRodent » When sermons go awry…

  2. Jim

    33 years into this, no seminary degrees, I’m afraid I can give you all kinds of Biblical verses to back my disagreement with you on the “hell” issue. Can we agree to disagree?…

    On your last note: My old pastor once got to “hanging one of those clotheslines during morning service” and spoke of all the women he knew who used to come to church, but now stayed home every Sunday! He passed their homes every week as he drove to church, himself, and he just knew they were still in there lying in bed. It made him so mad, he continued, that one of these mornings he would like to “just stop, go in the house, and get in bed with them!”

    End of sermon, of course, and but one of many such blurbs heard in my three decades of “being there”…

  3. Rich Post author

    Aw, that’s a good one–even worse than tent pitching! And far, far, more embarassing. There’s just no passing that one off as a slip of the tongue, people will still wonder, “What was he thinking?”

    Ha ha.

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