Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Best Sermon I Ever Heard

"The preacher" looked to be in his late 60's but he could have been much younger - age and hard living had clearly blurred the normal telltales of age. A work shirt of blue denim, blackened at the cuffs, his name stitched on the pocket -- not normal clerical attire. His weathered face, warn and creased with lines that hinted at a myriad of untold and difficult roads traveled.

"The preacher's" pulpit was no pulpit. Rather he sat hunched over a table, sitting on a folding chair no different than those that supported the frames of his congregants. His congregation uncommonly diverse - young and old, rich and poor, male and female, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian and Native American - sat at tables just like the one that served as "the preacher's" pulpit. Bathed in the antiseptic glow cast by a dozen rows of fluorescent lights, "the preacher" preached his message; 10 minutes and he was done. It was the best sermon I ever have ever heard.

Good speakers often use repetition as a stylistic medium, speaking the same phrase at various points during their talk. "The preacher" too used repetition, not for style or effect but because the repeated phrase was his learned truth, the truth that had literally set him free. The truth, repeated numerous times during his message was as simple as it was jarring, "I'm a 'rotten' liar." Only he didn't say "rotten" (Use your imagination here - if you like -- in order to get the full, jarring effect of the nature of his truth). "I'm a 'rotten' liar."

The best sermon I ever heard wasn't preached on a Sunday, it wasn't preached at a church, per se. The best sermon I ever heard was preached on a Monday afternoon at an Alcoholics Anonymous [AA] meeting in Bellevue, WA. "The preacher," just a guy who needed community to share his burden, a place where he could be known, a people to whom he could confess his addiction, and by whom he could be welcomed by name. I did not know what to expect. I had never been to an AA meeting. I was there for a class. My prepared response if asked why I was there, "I am here to learn about the process of addiction." I did not have to speak the line; nobody challenged my presence. 45 minutes after walking in, I walked out inspired by the simplicity, realness, honesty and truth of this one man's message.

There are 12 steps in AA. Members are said to "work the steps." "The preacher" spoke of that day's assigned step, 11: "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out."

Sobriety or death, "the preacher" had chosen the former nearly a decade ago, and began working the steps - all but step 11. "Step 11 - God, step 11 - a higher power, step 11 - God's power; foolishness." "I don't need God to make it, I got this."

"Maybe I can have just one drink." "Maybe it was not as bad as I thought it was." "I'm not like these drunks."

"No!" I'm worse; I'm a 'rotten' liar.

"If my voice is the only one to lead me, the only voice of truth, if my voice is my only mirror, then I am a dead man."

"I'm a 'crummy liar.'"

"Could there really be a voice greater than mine, a voice from all eternity, a voice of truth instead of lies?"

"I've been ten years alive," the preacher shared, "all because of the one step I said I didn't need; the one I needed most, the one I now listen to instead of me - because, I am a 'rotten liar.'"

Ten minutes. The best sermon I ever heard.