The greatest sermon they ever heard: Top preachers recall the moment they were inspired

Top preachers recall the moment they were inspired

By JOHN BLAKE, CNN
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Rev. Billy Graham delivers a sermon during a national day of prayer and rememberance service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 14, 2001.

(CNN) - Athletes call it being "in the zone." Psychologists describe it as a state of "flow." Musicians say it's like being "in the pocket."

It's that transcendent moment when time seems to slow down for an artist or performer. The ego evaporates and everything clicks. Pastors say it's that magical preaching moment when the "spirit is moving" and their words sync with souls.

"It's like being on the sideline watching you play your best game, where you're saying, 'I know that's not me doing that.'" That's how the Rev. Ralph Douglas West, founder and senior pastor of The Church Without Walls in Houston, Texas, describes the sensation.

This is the time of the year when people are looking for such inspiration. Millions of people will flock to church this holiday weekend, hoping their pastor will say something to provide comfort and meaning.

But pastors need inspiration, too. Just as musicians have their favorite songs, most preachers have an internal playlist of the most unforgettable sermons they've heard. And at the top of the playlist is a sermon that stays No. 1 -- it still speaks to them year after year. These are the pulpit gems that go beyond eloquence; they leave a mark on the soul.

I asked some of the nation's best preachers to talk about the best sermon they ever heard. The pastors who responded know something about the power of the spoken word. All three are homiletic heavyweights. Each was selected as one of the 12 "most effective" preachers in the English-speaking world in a prestigious list released this year by Baylor University in Texas.

Each of their handpicked sermons comes with a story. One helped a pastor cope with a lingering sense of failure. Another taught a preacher to take pride in old-time religion. And a third caused a son to see his father in a new way.

The Last Judgment at Macy's

If someone could engineer the perfect preaching voice, it would sound like the Rev. Joel Gregory's. An admirer once said Gregory "has a voice like God's, only deeper."

But Gregory once experienced a series of humiliations that were all too human. And much of it played out in public view.

The sermon he cites helped him deal with the doubts that crept into his life after his marriage and ministry imploded.

"It was a stunning sermon that had a profound impression on me, my life and ministry," says Gregory, who holds an endowed chair in preaching and evangelism at Baylor University.

The sermon was aptly named, "Surprise!" and it came from another celebrated pastor, the late Rev. Haddon Robinson. In September of 2009, Robinson had accepted an invitation to preach at a preaching workshop in Baylor's chapel. Gregory was in the audience.

The sermon was built around one of the most famous parables of Jesus, a story about the Last Judgment in Matthew 25: 31-46. Jesus depicts God separating the righteous from the unrighteous like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats.

I've heard preachers cite that parable in many sermons. They usually talk about the goats -- sinful people who thought they were righteous but overlooked "the least of these." The goats were surprised to learn they would be cast into eternal fire because they didn't recognize God when he came to them in the guise of helpless people.

Yet Robinson chose instead to focus on the sheep -- the surprise of the righteous.

"The sheep are as confused as the goats," Robinson said in his raspy, New York accent. Their judgment "is going to depend on the little unknown, unremembered acts of kindness and love that we hardly think about but are important to the king."

You have to hear the sermon to appreciate the way Robinson delivered it. He compared the Last Judgment to "jostling crowds at Macy's department store before Christmas," recounted a funny conversation with an actual farmer who owned sheep, and talked about the compassion that people who had been haunted by failure in their lives often have for others.

He ended by saying they were like the sheep; they were going to be surprised in the end as well.

"There will be ... people who have been broken by their sinfulness, ashamed of things in their lives, who will wonder if there's even a ghost of a chance that they'll get into that kingdom," Robinson says.

"They'll conclude that the only possibility is for them to rely on the grace and the favor and the kindness of God in providing some way for them to come. ... They'll look at themselves and wonder if they're going to make it in. And they will make it ..."

Gregory saw some of himself in that sermon. He knew something about shame and failure. He flirted with a sense of despair.

In his youth, he rose quickly in Baptist circles, assuming a pastorate in one of the most prominent megachurches in America. But he got caught up in an internal feud within the Southern Baptist Convention and clashed with a prominent pastor. He resigned two years later, got divorced and ended up becoming a door-to-door salesman selling funeral plans.

Robinson's sermon convinced him to look at his misfortune in a different way, he says.

"It was some encouragement to me that maybe I have done some good that I don't know about. That was the thesis of the sermon: I've done some good that even now I don't know about because the sheep didn't."

Gregory also mentions "A Wide Vision From a Narrow Window," a sermon by the late Rev. Gardner C. Taylor on Job, as a memorable message.

The impact of Robinson's sermon, though, spread to all areas of his life.

Gregory is now one of the most sought-after preachers in the nation. He has since remarried and is also a celebrated teacher of preachers. Yet the insecurity of stepping into the pulpit remains.

"One of the strangest things in ministry is that the best part of what you do is not measurable and it's not obvious," he says. "I think many of us live with the hope that we've done some good in ways we're not aware of. You often leave the pulpit with the sense that, 'Man, I just didn't do anything today.'"

And yet there are times when he preaches a message that he thinks is a turkey, only for someone to tell him years later that it changed his or her life.

That's another surprise that comforts him: Preachers can touch people even when they feel like they're flailing.

"All of us have had moments when we've studied ourselves tired and thought we were so prepared and nothing happens," he says. "Other moments, when we felt we were ill-prepared, it's like the day of Pentecost."

Jesus gets pushed in a ditch

He was a 15-year-old boy sitting in the choir loft of his church on a Sunday morning. He didn't quite know what he was hearing from the pastor, but he could feel his emotions surging.

"I didn't know how to technically describe it," the Rev. Ralph Douglas West says. "I didn't understand half of what he was talking about. I knew what he was saying was real and it was important."

The Rev. Joel Gregory's most memorable sermon was delivered by a venerated pastor at a celebrated seminary. But West's experience shows that a pastor doesn't need an advanced degree to preach something memorable. The sermon he cited came from a man with no seminary training.

It was the pastor at his boyhood church, the Rev. O.C. Johnson Sr., and the title of his sermon was "Poor Jesus."

Many of the members at Lyons Unity Missionary Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, which West attended, knew something about poverty. The church was located in a tough area called "The Bloody Nickel." But church wasn't just a place for refuge; it was a place of release.

"It was not a highbrow church," West says. "It would be filled with a lot of verbal excitement, a lot of emotion, joy, laughter. When the pastor stood in the pulpit to preach, people anticipated that something was going to happen, that God was really going to move on that congregation. This was a time when people still shouted and fell out."

There was an unspoken theological tension that hovered in the background of many black churches like Lyons, though. It was a tension I felt growing up in a black Baptist church. How could people of color embrace a religion that had enslaved their ancestors? Christianity was a white man's religion, a tool used to enslave and colonize, some argued; missionaries gave Africans the Bible, then took their land.

West heard another version of Christianity that morning from the Rev. Johnson.

"He preached in the context that our church was in," West says. "It was in the ghetto. It resonated with the people in my community that Jesus identifies with you, he lived in a place like this; he walked down a street like this and saw people like us. He would see prostitutes and those who were -- in those days -- they called them winos. He sat with them and ate with them and befriended them. That's arresting language to hear as a boy."

Johnson did something else that day -- he introduced West to a black author and mystic who would loom large in his development, Howard Thurman, author of "Jesus and the Disinherited." Johnson cited Thurman and referred to his book throughout the sermon.

Thurman gave West the theological tools to reconcile his race with his faith. Thurman argued in his book that Christianity wasn't originally a religion of oppressors. It was created as a "technique of survival for the oppressed." Jesus was a member of an ethnic minority, the Jews, whose people were humiliated by another dominant group, the Romans. His social position was similar to that of blacks living under segregation, Thurman said.

"If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in the ditch," Thurman wrote in "Jesus and the Disinherited."

"That was my first time ever hearing of Howard Thurman and 'Jesus and the Disinherited,'" West says of Johnson's sermon. "It really affected me."

That sermon had such an impact on West that, later that year, he did something he'd never thought about before: He made his profession of faith and started preaching.

West eventually became a scholar like Thurman. He went on to earn seminary degrees in biblical language and ministry. In addition to his Houston church, he is an adjunct professor of preaching at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University.

But he still sees the need for a little old-time religion.

West says some black churchgoers in particular experience "cultural embarrassment" when they attend a church like his boyhood congregation and see people "falling out" -- shouting and fainting in the aisles.

He doesn't.

"I want to feel church. I don't want to just go to church," he says. "I want to feel like something is happening in church. I want to love God with my mind, but I also want to love him with my heart and soul."

There are some things an eagle cannot do

The Rev. Otis Moss III likes to joke that if it hadn't been for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he literally wouldn't be here. King officiated at his parents' wedding.

Moss comes from black preaching royalty. His father, the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., is a civil rights activist who was a confidant of King. His mother, Edwina, was also an activist; she worked at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the famous civil rights organization that King co-founded.

Moss says he grew up hearing his father tell one powerful story after another.

"Story was ingrained in my DNA," he says.

But there was one story his father told from the pulpit that rose above all others. It was about an eagle, a goose and a sparrow, Moss says.

"It was absolutely brilliant, the way he used imagery to talk about God's care from eagles to sparrows," says Moss, who is senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which former President Barack Obama used to attend.

Moss was just a teenager, sitting in the front row of his father's church, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, when he heard the sermon. Moss had no plans to become a preacher at the time. He wanted to be a filmmaker and an Olympic sprinter.

Yet when his father started preaching, Moss was mesmerized.

He was sitting at the front of the church, recording the sermon from a church soundboard, as he heard his father talk about the majesty of the solitary eagle. But he said an eagle couldn't fly as far as a goose because geese worked as a team.

"He said they fly aerodynamically together in a V formation, creating a slipstream that allows the goose in back to literally rest on the flapping of wings of those in front," Moss says. "When the one in front gets tired, he can then just move to the back and literally glide off the goose in front."

Moss' father used the analogy to talk about the civil rights movement. When an activist got jailed or hurt, another picked up the slack. He then talked about a much smaller bird, one that didn't have the majesty of the eagle or the stamina of a goose.

That's when his sermon took off.

"He said there are some things geese cannot do," Moss says. "When you want to be serenaded, there is a bird that cannot fly high and there is a bird that will not fly far. But when you want to hear God's song, you gotta find the sparrow. And he closes out with (the gospel hymn) 'His Eye Is On the Sparrow,' and the entire church just exploded."

Moss says his father's sermon was so memorable not just because of his skill. It was backed up by the way his father lived.

He tells a family story.

Moss' father was born in Troup County, Georgia, during the Jim Crow era. Orphaned at 16, he eventually went to Morehouse College in Atlanta but ran out of money while he was in school.

His situation grew so desperate that he began dodging the registrar and sleeping on friends' couches, Moss says.

One day he received a letter from a church in Michigan where he had worked one summer. It thanked Moss for his "fine work" at the church and told him the congregation had taken up a collection to further his education. The money in the envelope was the "exact amount" his father needed to finish Morehouse, Moss says.

"My father uses that story to talk about our faith tradition as a community tradition," Moss says. "We are in this together. There were elders in Michigan, in Troup County who were praying for him, and sending him a dollar here and a quarter there because they saw his success wrapped up in his success."

Moss is also heir to another tradition -- he is a "prophetic preacher" who emphasizes social justice. There will always be a need for a preacher who speaks truth to power, he says.

"We place preaching formally with the person behind the pulpit," he says. "But I believe the poet preaches, the playwright preaches. They become the prophets, especially when the pulpit refuses to preach. So when the pulpit no longer engages in prophetic, social justice preaching, then the poet and the playwright take on the mantle of what the church is afraid to do."

The time I almost shouted

I didn't need Moss to teach me about the power of a sermon. I knew it firsthand -- from hearing his father. I was a reporter in Chicago years ago, assigned to cover a political rally in a church, when I heard the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. preach about Daniel in the lion's den.

I never forgot how the church shook when Moss reached the climax of his sermon. I almost dropped my reporter's pad and shouted.

But that's not my favorite sermon.

Mine came from an unlikely source. I was a college junior when I heard an elderly Texan in cowboy boots preach the most unforgettable sermon I ever heard. He told the tragic story of Demas, a companion of the Christian leader Paul, who deserted the apostle at his greatest hour of need because Demas had "fallen in love with the world."

The minister built his sermon on a parable about, of all things, ducks. The sermon stayed with me for so long that I tracked down the minister years later to thank him. I still have a cassette copy. And I still haven't heard anything that hit me so hard.

But I keep looking, waiting -- needing -- another moment like that.

So this holiday weekend, I'll be among the multitudes who will sit in the pews, hoping another sermon takes flight.

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