You do not have to do it all. Did you hear that, Working Preachers? On this Palm/Passion Sunday that sets in motion Holy Week, these are the words you need to hear, you need to trust, you need to believe — you do not have to do it all.
Will it be exhausting? Yes. Will you crash after Easter brunch/dinner? Yes. Will you wish you could take a vacation to Fiji, Bali, Tahiti? Ok, maybe you have other restful destinations in mind. But, you do not have to do it all.
One of my sessions in my introductory preaching course is on preaching and its liturgical context, or, “It’s Not All About the Sermon.” This is good news, Working Preachers. It isn’t all about the sermon, especially this week. The words, the stories, the liturgies, the rituals, the pathos, the music, the traditions, the hymns all will preach what you cannot and need not.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “While it is helpful to select hymns that reinforce the theme of the sermon, I do not find it necessary. Sometimes it is better to let the hymns preach their own sermons, filling in gaps left by mine. For instance, on a Sunday when the sermon concerns the requirements of the law, I might shop for some hymns that celebrate God’s grace.”
While this particular quote from Taylor focuses on hymns, we might paraphrase and say, “I will trust that the whole of each and every worship service this week will preach what I can’t or what I don’t need to, what I overlook, what the text doesn’t say, or what is not possible to proclaim in one sermon.” You have to trust this. This is the grace of Holy Week. Your words are accompanied by so very much. You do not have to preach every point, every meaning, every aspect of what each of the days of Holy Week means. Let what surrounds your sermon preach what you can’t and shouldn’t. Consider another quote from my colleague at Luther Seminary, Dirk Lange, “Worship is not just the preaching — the entire liturgical event is proclamation.”
I don’t just say this for the sake of you, but for the sake of those who may need more than a sermon. Yes, the sermon matters. Yes, what you say makes a difference. Always. But, this is the week to trust that the integrated whole gives meaning to each part. What you preach will be heard differently, in a new way, because of a hymn, a prayer, an anthem — anything and possibly everything in the worship service. Likewise, a ritual, a creed, a confession will be experienced differently because of what your sermons says.
This week is not the week to think that you can preach your way into people’s hearts or to imagine that you can turn people’s hearts around. You have to trust that the whole of the experience just might do that. That the suffering, love-giving, and crucified Christ might very well preach what you cannot.
So then, what do you preach? Palm/Passion Sunday; Maundy Thursday; Good Friday; Easter Vigil — preach one detail from one of the texts that might very well be remembered. Preach one point, one phrase, one element that people might take with them along with the sentiment and the songs. Preach one refrain that people might imagine singing in the dark places of their own lives — where the betrayal, the destruction of empire, politics, abandonment, and death they know all too well might be seen and now known from a Holy Week perspective. Preach one truth that might resonate with the moment in such a way that belief and ritual find a truthful convergence.
I can’t tell you what this truth is. Why? Because it depends on to whom you are preaching, where you are preaching, and the many contexts that shape your proclamation week after week. But, for this week? This is the truth I can tell you — that what you preach has to come from someplace that is your truth. That the act of preaching this week is an act of witness — a testimony to what you have seen and what you know. People do not need justification or explanation for the events of this week. People don’t want sermons that only repeat expected churchy platitudes that try to convince them that this all makes a difference. They want to hear from someone who tells the truth and who can tell the truth because she knows God’s truth.
Tell God’s truth — and let the grace of this week be yours.