The 4:00 pm Christmas Eve service at my congregation is just this side of chaos.
The majority of attendees are children under the age of ten, so a children’s sermon is the focus of this service. In addition to the children, however, we also have exhausted parents with strained smiles and heavy tote bags, beaming grandparents visiting from Florida, young adults home from school, their newly-introduced boyfriends and girlfriends, and their preoccupied parents.
Although I know these adults ought to be able to glean something from the children’s sermon, I also recognize just how distracted most of these people are. How can they possibly hear the Good News in the midst of so much noise? So, this year, I decided to try something new. I wrote a five-word Christmas Eve sermon. Actually, I set out to write a six-word Christmas Eve sermon and needed only five.
I got the idea from a journaling workshop I attended earlier in the fall. In an effort to inspire and equip us to take up journaling, the presenter reminded us that great writing does not have to be long. She cited the success of the six-word memoir books, in which famous and obscure writers have made sense of events or emotions using only six words. Because this was a church event, someone immediately made a joke about the urgent need for a six-word sermon series. As I laughed along with the others, however, my interest was piqued. Could it work?
I set out to write my six-word Christmas Eve sermon. I preached it at the 4:00 chaos service, and two things happened. One was I preached a far better Christmas Eve sermon than last year. The other was I received more feedback from the hearers about my Christmas Eve sermon than the last four years. The effort and focus required to write and to hear such a short message clarified both my thinking and theirs. Brevity allowed the Good News to pierce the noise and the darkness, the worry and the distraction, and it invited the listener to take the sermon home as a gift to be unwrapped when it was finally quiet.
We live in a time when succinctness is popular. Twitter and Facebook ask us to distill our lives into small fragments. Admittedly, at its worst, such means of communication is distant and shallow. However, at its best, it is powerful and inviting, and in my experience, a worthy challenge. At any rate, I do not often encounter clergy who are accused of using too few words.
Therefore, as a Lenten discipline, I have decided to adopt the six-word sermon as a preparation tool. There are so many significant things to say during those days. In an attempt to capture them all, I worry that I end up saying nothing distinctly. But what if I only get six words? How can I tell the story of Jesus’s crucifixion? The Last Supper? The empty tomb? Even if I do not preach them, I know the exercise of writing these sermons will require me to give the texts my full attention and energy. The Gospel deserves at least that much.