(In lieu of a sermon, this pastor’s perspective on the process of writing a sermon, with a bit of commentary on John 20:19-31, the gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter, near the end–couldn’t help myself!)
When I was serving at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Vancouver a few years ago, members of the congregation would tell me from time to time, “You know, Pastor Jaech once gave a sermon where he talked about how a sermon is created….” By the time several people had told me this, I was thinking, “Hmm…that seems to have made an impression! Maybe I should try that!…” And, in light of the fact that we’re doing a narrative service of Holy Communion, today seems like a good day for a “narrative” sermon! So, here goes!
To begin with, I think it’s important to keep in mind that pastors come in all different varieties of personality and background, so the process of preparing a sermon is going to be a little different for each of us! Also, the process is going to vary for each of us from week to week, based on things like how tired we are or what’s going on in our lives, in our congregations, and in our world, etc. In any case, the preacher should plan to devote many hours each week to the creation of a sermon. Generally, most of us don’t wait until Saturday evening or Sunday morning to begin!… The sermon has many ingredients—ingredients like Scripture, prayer, Bible study, individual thought, experience from daily life, and the writing and editing process, not to mention the actual proclamation!—and so it needs a fair amount of time to percolate and/or marinate!…
The first step in preparing a sermon is to sit down and prayerfully read the Scripture lessons for the coming Sunday. I try to do this early on the week—usually on Monday—so that I have time to think about how the “rubber” of the ancient Scripture meets the “road” of our modern lives. Of course, prayer is an integral part of the process all along the way: Throughout the week, I pray for inspiration and guidance, asking the Holy Spirit to give me a message that will resonate with those who are listening. Of course, I’m always aware that if there are 50 people who’ll be listening to the sermon, there’ll be 50 different sermons being heard; each person will hear something different, because we all filter the message through our own experience and background…. I’m also very aware that there needs to be a balance of intellectual and emotional appeal in a sermon. Some weeks the sermon may lean one direction more than the other, but I strive to have some element of each. It’s always intriguing to me how different kinds of sermons speak to different people, and it’s often humbling to find that the sermons I think are pretty good tend to fall flat, while the ones I think are mediocre are the ones people like!… There’s nothing new about this phenomenon; Martin Luther himself noted it in his writings some 500 years ago, and I think probably every preacher before and since Luther has noticed it. I think that’s one of the ways the Holy Spirit reminds us preachers, “Hey, this is NOT about you!…” J
So, on Tuesdays I attend a study group where a bunch of local pastors study the Scriptures and discuss various angles for preaching. Each week one of us is designated to lead the conversation. This requires that we do some research. We read articles about what the Scriptures meant in their original context, and we read articles about how they might apply today. We also share our own insights and ministry experiences. This helps us begin to find a direction for our proclamation. To paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: When preaching you need to know where your landing strip is before you take off!… After Tuesday’s text study, I carry the Scriptures and study ideas around with me in my heart and mind the rest of the week, wherever I go. Sometimes an idea will come to me while I’m out walking. Sometimes I’ll have an experience during the week that makes me think, “Wow. I need to weave that story into my sermon!…” All too often, it seems to me, the Holy Spirit wakes me up in the wee hours of the morning to give me ideas!… Of course, I have to admit it’s probably because that’s the time She can best get my attention!
Most weeks I sit down to write on Fridays. The first few sentences are usually the most painful: I often don’t know quite where to start, but I know that I have to just write something!… For me, it’s not a linear process: I don’t write from beginning to end uninterrupted. I write down the ideas that have been sparked by Scripture and the Spirit, and then I rearrange them. I end up cutting a lot of things and adding others…. I confess that some weeks I end up composing the equivalent of two or even three sermons!… Sometimes I have too many ideas bubbling around in my brain, or I have something I just need to get off my chest before I can settle down and figure out which message I’m being called to preach! I think you can probably imagine how time-consuming—and frustrating!—that can be!… I try to finish a draft on Friday, but sometimes I can’t quite pull it off and have to carry my work over into Saturday. In fact, lately it seems I’ve ended up doing the bulk of my work on Saturdays, because I’ve felt the need to have some time off on Fridays…. Anyway, after I’ve finished a draft, I put it away for a bit, then come back to it and make revisions.
On Sunday mornings, I get up at 5 am and sit down with my coffee. After some wake up time and some prayer time, I practice the sermon a couple of times, and I usually time it. I make a few more changes, and then I print a clean copy…. Back in the olden days, when I was a young associate pastor and had fewer responsibilities, I used to memorize my sermons and preach from notes or even without notes. Yet as I’ve taken on more responsibility in the congregations I serve, I’ve gone to preaching from a manuscript, because it seems to me that my sermons are more unified and of better quality when I write them out. I believe that the people I serve deserve the best I have to offer, and that’s what I try to provide. As I said at the start, every preacher is different, and what works best for me, might not work for others!… BUT you should know that just because I use a manuscript, that doesn’t mean I’m tied to it! The sermon “ain’t over” until it’s preached, and sometimes the Holy Spirit sparks a thought right in the midst of the preaching moment, causing me to change course! So, before I stand up to preach, I always say a silent prayer, asking God to help me be open to the Spirit…. Another thing: Even if I preach the same sermon twice, it’s never quite the same: There will be variations in wording, in delivery, and in the chemistry between the audience and me. For example, some groups are quick to “get” my humor, while others aren’t so sure about it!
All in all, creating a ten-minute sermon probably takes about ten hours: One hour for every minute preached is the standard rule of thumb we were taught in seminary. This is something important to keep in mind, as you prepare to call a new pastor for Creator!… Whoever that new pastor is, he or she will likely be spending a significant chunk of time doing sermon prep each week, and that’s as it should be, because we Lutherans place great value on the proclamation of God’s Word…. And actually, it’s not only Lutherans who value good preaching!… A couple of days ago, I read the results of a Gallup poll which found that what draws people to worship is NOT the music—no matter how good or lively it is!… The main thing that draws people to worship is PREACHING—preaching that speaks the Word of God into people’s lives here and now, giving us the healing and hope and purpose we need for life in this world….
So, that’s the nutshell version of how a sermon is prepared!… Of course, as a preacher I can’t let you go without giving you four quick takeaways from today’s gospel lesson, so bear with me for just a moment longer!… The first takeaway: I think Thomas gets a bit of a bad rap, having been saddled with the nickname “doubting Thomas” for all these centuries!… Consider this: By evening on the day of Resurrection, the other ten disciples are huddled behind closed doors, quaking in their sandals, because Jesus has been put to death on the cross, and they’re thinking, “Yikes! We’re going to be next!…” Apparently, they don’t believe the witness of Mary Magdalene, who told them that morning that she’d seen the Risen Lord. (In those days, women weren’t considered credible witnesses, after all!)… So, Jesus shows up in the locked room, and he shows them the scars of the crucifixion, in order to convince them…. Afterwards, the ten go and find Thomas and tell him they’ve seen the Lord…but Thomas declares defiantly that he wants to see for himself. And a week later, he gets his chance when the Risen Jesus appears again—this time to all eleven disciples!… When Thomas hears the Lord’s voice and sees the scars of the crucifixion, he makes a greater personal confession of faith than his companions have yet made: “My Lord and my God!…” This leads to the second and third takeaways that I want to share with you today. The second takeaway is that faith is something each of must experience for ourselves. Like Thomas and the other ten disciples, you and I can receive the witness of others, but in the final analysis, we must see for ourselves…. The third takeaway is this: Doubt is NOT the opposite of faith…. The opposite of faith is certainty. Think about it!… At our confirmation class this past Wednesday evening and in our Bible study on Thursday morning, we all agreed that it’s normal to have doubts and it’s okay to ask questions about God, faith, life, etc…. Our Lutheran tradition recognizes that matters of faith and life aren’t always “black and white”; there are a whole lot of gray areas! Here at Creator, I think we strive to walk with each other, sharing our faith, while honoring each other’s doubts and questions…. My friends, when we work with and through our doubts and questions, in time we may find that our faith has grown stronger. So, we can say that doubt and faith are complementary: They exist and work together. As the father of a desperately ill young child once said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!…” In closing, I want to draw your attention to a fourth and final takeaway that’s woven throughout John’s gospel: namely, the divine wisdom that contradicts the conventional wisdom of this world. Where conventional wisdom tries to convince us that seeing is believing, divine wisdom declares that believing is seeing, and that’s a key message that’s woven throughout John’s gospel. When you and I come to believe in the loving God revealed through our Risen Lord and Savior, it changes how we see our lives and our world, and THAT. CHANGES. EVERYTHING…. Thanks be to God for the new vision and new life that are ours through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.