Some moments are so embarrassing, so cringeworthy, so regrettable, they deserve to be canonised. If it’s true that we learn from our mistakes, it’s probably also true that our mistakes can teach others.
And if not, well … maybe they’ll just give them a bloody good laugh.
The worst sermon ever preached in the entire history of Christendom was preached by me, at the North Balga Christian Centre in Perth, several years ago. I’ve told the story many times, in public and in print. But without the video evidence, some people refuse to believe that something so diabolic ever took place inside a house of worship. I know, you always thought the worst thing was when Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), the king of Syria, captured Jerusalem in 167 BC and desecrated the Temple by offering the sacrifice of a pig on an altar to Zeus was the worst thing! Think again.
So, here it is, for all of you who think your last sermon was a stinker, or for those of you tempted to believe you’re God’s gift to the pulpit … a cautionary tale. Never believe you’re bigger than the Word.
For your further edification, below is the full, tragic story, from my ebook, An Idiot in the Garden (2014).
The story behind the worst sermon ever preached …
I once had aspirations of becoming a preacher—not a pastor or a priest, or anything so dedicated. But an itinerant preacher, someone who would spread the good word from church to church, in the tradition of my uncle, who had been an itinerant preacher of some note.
But the day I decided to preach a sermon dressed as Darth Vader was the day my aspirations came to an end.
The context was a small church of some 30 members. They were simple folk, and not given to grand theatrical displays or menacing gestures. They liked a simple message, and preferred their preachers to stay behind the pulpit—not marching around their small church in knee-high boots, a black cape, and a great Sith helmet.
I had disrupted them sufficiently some weeks before. Preaching on the topic of walls that divide us, I decided to build an actual wall from old banana boxes around the pulpit, similar to the stage set of Pink Floyd’s live productions of The Wall in the 70s. As the sermon began the wall was only partially built, and I proceeded to fill it in as I spoke—until I was completely walled off. Then, as a grand finale, I burst through the wall—all 100 kilos of me. To say that they got the message is an understatement. It scared the bejeez out of them.
Nevertheless, they invited me back—to preach on the topic of evil. Having had very little experience in this area, I decided it would be most effective to preach the message not as myself, but as the Lord of the Sith.
So, as you do, I hired a magnificent Darth Vader costume from the local fancy dress. It cost me almost $100, but as I wanted to make an impression I figured it was worth it. I strode around the house a number of times to make sure it was both comfortable, and terrifying. And once I had made my small child burst into tears I knew I was onto a winner.
My mistake though was that not once did I rehearse actually preaching my sermon dressed in the gear. This was fatal, as a number of critical misjudgments did not come into play until I was actually standing in front of the church.
I am not given to public speaking, so the idea of doing it from behind a mask suits me. However, I realised some moments before the service that no-one would be able to hear me. As it turned out, that would have been a good thing. But, since they were there to hear me speak as much as see me stride, I needed to be amplified.
My solution was to take a lapel microphone and place it in the small hole in the front grille of Vader’s face mask. I fed the wife behind the 5kg rubber chest plate, and clipped it onto my belt, beneath the cape. No-one was any the wiser. Until I started to preach.
I strode to the front of the church to the strains of the Imperial Death March, which I had organised to play over the sound system. Then, as 30 or so people shuffled uncomfortably in their chairs, I raised my gloved hand, and shook it at them violently.
‘Evil!’ I boomed. ‘Is your maaaaster!’ Then I marched from one side of the congregation to the other with my hands on my hips, allowing the cape to flow. The intent of this was to impress upon them by sheer visual force the impact of evil upon their lives.
It didn’t work out like this though, and in fact on the video (yes, I had asked for it to be filmed) I look like the fifth member of the Village People.
The problem was this—I hadn’t realised that the small hole in the front of the grille had been put there so that the person wearing the helmet could breathe. Having bunged it up with a lapel microphone I had no access to oxygen. This resulted in two things—my head got incredibly hot, and the resulting steam fogged up the eye-pieces of my helmet. Then, I started to hyperventilate.
I have had my fair share of panic attacks over the years. I had never had one in front of 30 people dressed as the Dark Lord. Worse still—it was amplified by the lapel mic. Within minutes my voice was not the deep bass tone necessary to create fear among the congregation—but the thin and breathless squawk of a man who does not want to die dressed in boots and a cape.
I had prepared a 25-minute message. Within seven minutes I was in serious trouble, unable to breathe, unable to see, and stumbling over the feet of the people in the front row as I tried to grasp something to hold on to.
I did manage to say this through my panic: ‘Which way will you choose? The way of evil? Or … the other way?’
And then I strode down the central aisle of the church and out the door. And I never returned. I stumbled to my car and ripped off my helmet, gagging for air.
Meanwhile (you can see it on the video) the congregation sat faithfully for 10 minutes waiting for the punchline. Some of them coughed politely, but no one spoke, and no one thought to come and check that I was okay.
Not even my wife, who the video captured sitting in the back row of the church, with her head in her hands.