How would you like it if someone lived for six weeks in the attic of your church building and overheard everything said during those weeks? What influence would it have on this individual-for good or evil-to hear the interactions in your church?
I recently preached a first-person narrative sermon based on this very scenario (I dressed in dirty overalls and long-underwear, and entered the sanctuary as “Ottie Boy Skankman!”) As I re-enacted it, in the middle of a church service, I pretended a ladder to the attic was lowered into the sanctuary; as a mountain man-with a gun!-I came down the ladder (actually entering a side door). Ottie Boy Skankman announced that he had some things to say and the congregation had better listen! Worshippers were shocked-even terrified! The man had a gun! (I used an old dark glove with a pencil down one finger; I quickly gave the gun to a congregant: “I ain’t gonna shoot nobody!”) Ottie Boy proceeded to preach a sermon like none the congregation had heard before!
The idea for this first-person sermon came from an incident in one of the Mitford Series novels by Jan Karon. While borrowing her idea and giving her credit, I changed the story to fit my congregation.
As my redacted version relates the narrative, Pastor John Kaven pastors a small church (Hillsborough Community Church) in Hillsborough, North Carolina. About seven miles from Hillsborough is a slightly larger town called Wimberg. The jewelry store in Wimberg was robbed at gunpoint in the middle of the day. The robber, who lives in a run-down mobile home by the river with his family, is a drunk named Ottie Boy Skankman. Ottie Boy, while heavily under the influence, made no effort to disguise himself and robbed the jewelry store. Several people recognized him as he jumped in his old truck, jewelry in hand, and barreled out of town. The police gave chase within just a few minutes. They found his old truck, but they could not find Ottie Boy-even when they brought in dogs! The reason? He ditched his old truck and jumped into a shallow creek. Walking/running down the creek, he made his way to Hillsborough. Without anyone seeing him, Ottie Boy managed to make his way to the Hillsborough Community Church. There, he secluded himself in the hot attic over the sanctuary and classrooms.
For six weeks, Ottie Boy lived in the attic, fearful every day he would be caught and sent to prison. For these weeks Ottie Boy listened to everything said in the church building. That included Sunday worship services, Sunday School, prayer meetings, board meetings, counseling sessions, church dinners, etc. At night, he would come down, stretch, and snatch food from the refrigerator. At one point, Ottie Boy, desperate for something to read, swiped the preacher’s Bible from his office. Church members knew that some unusual things were happening in their building, but they thought children were the culprits. Food was disappearing from the church kitchen; the preacher had lost his favorite Bible; after the church had been cleaned, a candy wrapper was found in the sanctuary. But no one guessed the truth; an armed robber was living in their attic!
From his perch above the sanctuary, Ottie Boy heard some gossip, hear-say better left unsaid! He was exposed to someone shouting derogatory words directed at the preacher in a board meeting. But Ottie Boy also heard, early in the morning, the preacher praying for the very man who had scolded him. To make a long story short, Ottie Boy, in spite of a few negatives, had never been exposed to the kind of love that he heard expressed in that building over those six weeks. The essence of Ottie’s “sermon”: “I have not had a drink of alcohol in six weeks. I want to claim Jesus as Lord. I know I will have to spend some time in prison, but when I get out, I would like to bring my family to this church and for us to serve God in this community of brothers and sisters.”
I have given here only a synopsis. I worked many Scriptures and much humor into the message. At first I was quite nervous in my role (I don’t consider myself an actor); but I soon lost myself in Ottie Boy’s testimony. I think it went over well and provided a fresh way for my congregation to see what happens when a sinner is exposed to the gospel as reflected in an authentic and faithful community of believers who care about God and each other.
David Enyart is Professor of Pastoral Ministries at Johnson Bible College, Knoxville, Tennessee teaching both graduate and undergraduate homiletics.