Saturday, March 05, 2011

the process of developing a sermon

For almost twenty-eight years I have been a parish minister, and for the majority of that time preaching a sermon on Sunday has been a core part of that calling. As the joke goes, I have learned that in the life of a preacher Sundays come along with amazing regularity! I am now in my eighth year in a congregation, the longest tenure for me (I served in two different congregations for six years), and that is also relevant for preaching: while I have a file or "barrel", as preachers used to say, of sermons, I have long since sifted through that material. Everything now is new territory.

Before getting to the process of developing the sermon itself, two comments are in order. First, the longer one is a pastor to a particular group of people, the deeper and more complex the relationships. I know them better, they know me better, and all of this is for better and for worse! Ken Callahan once suggested that a long relationship shapes better communication: because the people know you, they listen more closely, and because the pastor knows the people, he or she is more in tune with what is going on in their lives (as opposed to those who speak only as guest preachers). There is a great deal of truth in this insight.

In addition, the sermon is always preached in relation not only to a particular people, but at a moment in time. For this reasons barrels of sermons have a somewhat limited shelf life. 2011 is not 2001, or 1991. I have sermons in each of those years preached in Advent, on Transfiguration Sunday and at Easter, but the world is different. There are wars, economic crises, political and cultural shifts; people are much more affected by technology and have a different perception about religion, spirituality and the church. So the subtext underneath a sermon is always in flux, and therefore requires new and creative work.

I truly enjoy the creative process of developing a sermon, and want to describe how that has become a spiritual discipline. It begins of course with prayer and humility, an openness to God and the Holy Spirit and a desire to be faithful to the life of Jesus as the pattern for what is taught. For the most part I preach from the lectionary, but as some will say, I am not enslaved to it. Were I a slave to the lectionary, however, I can think of worse forms of servitude. The common lectionary (a schedule of readings over three years that is shaped by the life of Christ) is not perfect in and of itself; remarkable passages are omitted. Still, it is a guide. I have friends who preach series of sermons, and was in a meeting recently with a technology consultant who could almost not imagine preaching in a non-series form. Yesterday's innovation can easily become tomorrow's routine.

For years I was a part of a lectionary group that met once or twice a year for several days and worked on sermons for a season of twenty weeks or so. This is an ideal that I recommend. One is able to begin to think subconciously about texts and connect them with culture and experience. For reasons having mostly to do with changes in our lives (a couple became district superintendents!) this no longer is a part of my life. I miss it and I would urge the preacher to find and form such a group. On my own I often take a day or a half-day and escape, sometimes simply to a coffee shop, and I will work on a group of five sermons out in the future. This is a similar experience, but admittedly is more introverted than extraverted. I am listening to scholars in commentaries and maybe the voices in my own head rather than other people. I do think some combination of the two is preferable.

Within a given week, the discipline looks something like this: I have already chosen and have begun to think about the passage. The sermon has a title, but I will confess that the title, by the time the sermon is preached, is often not that relevant to what is really important. So early in the week I will jot down outlines, connect ideas, think about narratives and stories. If I find myself in a meeting that is drifting, this is a rich time to play with the concepts that are in a sermon. On many days I will meet a member of the congregation for lunch, but if that is not the case I will head out myself to a quiet restaurant, with a Bible and my notes so far, and I will do more writing.

I usually begin writing the sermon on Thursday, but I make only a little progress. I come back to it on Friday morning and my goal is to have a draft by noon. The length of a typical sermon, for me, is less than 2000 words, or 20 minutes. I find that I can say what needs to be said in this amount of time, and that in our congregation this is the point where people are still with me; any longer and the link begins to become more fragile. Not to compare myself to them, but our congregation has hosted both Will Willimon and Zan Holmes, and both preached approximately 20 minutes, or less.

On Saturday morning I generally go to the office again. It is very quiet then; I began this practice years ago when my wife would be visiting yard sales and our daughters slept until noon. I revise the first draft of the sermon, and having gotten some distance from it and slept on it helps. I ask a few questions: is it biblical? is it good news? is there humor (if this is appropriate)? is there a tangent that needs to be reined in? can anything be omitted? is there any personal experience? what i am asking the listener to do? do the transitions make sense, or are they awkward? and, a question that has entered into the equation lately, what is the "big idea" in the sermon? in this revison process I never go beyond noon.

On Sunday morning, i arrive at the church very early, and give myself at least an hour to work with the sermon. I go through it, sometimes orally and try to make it shorter and clearer. I learned this discipline from reading Robert Jacks' Just Say The Word. Jacks taught speech at Princeton Seminary and was an advocate for writing the sermon in a form that could be easily spoken, as opposed to a paragraph or an essay, which is more relevant to the classroom. The last two steps, Saturday morning and Sunday morning, help the sermon to move from 2400 words to 1900. They also help me to become familiar enough with the content to preach it, as opposed to simply reading the manuscript. I do have a manuscript in the pulpit, and friends have encouraged me to preach from an outline or without notes, but I am not there yet. It helps me to know that the manuscript is there, but I only glance at it a few times while I am preaching.

As the sermon emerges, it is not so much a linear progression as a connection of a variety of ideas, stories and images. So a sermon about the transfiguration of Jesus includes light and fire, mountains and valleys, Moses and Mt. Sinai, Elijah and Mt. Horeb, commentaries on Matthew 17, Eugene Peterson's The Jesus Way and especially his chapter on Elijah, with whom I am less familiar than I am Moses, something I heard this week about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his prayer life, my own memories of spiritual highs and lows, the movement of the liturgical year, in particular connecting Baptism of the Lord and Transfiguration (both include the affirming voice of God about Jesus) and Transfiguration and Lent, as Jesus leaves the mountain and on the way down encounters the epileptic boy. I remember reading a remarkable book entitled The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because one of our daughters was assigned to read it in college. It is about the Hmong people and a Hmong child's experience of epilepsy, which, in their language, literally means "the spirit catches you and you fall down". These are all elements that will be in some relation to each other. Not all of them will be included in the sermon, but they are all eligible along the way.

I do enjoy reading, and I read widely. It is probably true that I watch television less than the average person, but I am paying attention there as well. I have come to believe with the late and great preacher Ernest Campbell that, for the preacher, all of life is a homiletical possibility. In January I knew that I would be preaching on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, and so I re-read Richard Lischer's The Preacher King. I had first read this classic text in 1995, when it was published, but much has changed since then (for example, I was blessed to develop a friendship with Michael Thurman, who serves Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, and, just as importantly, our nation elected an African-American president). I learned a great deal by reading this work again; some of that did find its way into the sermon, but I benefited personally as well.

Lastly, I am aware that preachers are not always encouraged by their congregations. I know this experience very well, while also claiming the present blessing of preaching to people who are very engaged and supportive. I would simply urge you to see the work of developing the sermon as your offering to God and as a means of self-development in your own vocation. And I would imagine that there is someone out there listening, someone who is hungry for what you might say in the sermon, even if that is not obvious to you or ever voiced. I know it to be true.


Blogger Betty Newman said...

I love that you begin with prayer, and end with an offering to God. Great attitude toward preaching! Oh, I thought of a sermon title while reading this post - "When God Speaks" text including the Baptism of Jesus, the Transfiguration, and the event during Holy Week from John's Gospel. Again, great post.

9:06 AM  
Blogger RevMommy said...

thank you for sharing your method with a greenie like me who is still developing my own method.

7:18 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home