A good number of people have asked me of late, “How do you write a sermon?” There actually are many aspects to that task and I will try to address some of them.
The very first thing that has to be decided is what text is going to be preached on. I follow the revised common lectionary (https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu). It was established so that clergy would not preach on their favorite texts all the time. It uses cycles; A-B-C. A is predominately for texts in Matthew, B Mark, and C Luke. John fills in some of the blanks of the years … especially in Mark. NOTE: we are currently in the cycle B. A new cycle begins with Advent and each cycle is broken into seasons; Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time (Time after Epiphany), Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time (Time after Pentecost). Each season also has its own color. Green for Ordinary, Purple/Blue for Advent/Lent, White for Christmas, Easter, Communion, and Baptism, then Red for Pentecost and Ordinations. (https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/liturgical-colors.php)
After I choose the text (I use NRSV), I read it and begin to do a process called Exegesis (exposition or explanation). First, I begin to look at the grammar of the text and pick out key words. It is especially important to look at the Greek, Hebrew, and even German when going through the English. English sometimes loses the translation. Remember…Jesus spoke in Aramaic and there are some words that don’t exist between all the iterations from then to now. Aramaic to Greek, Hebrew to Greek, Aramaic to Latin, Latin to German or French, and finally Greek and Hebrew into English. Remember the earliest known fragments of text, Gospel of John, are dated some 200 years after Jesus spoke them. So we are using copies of copies of copies of translations of translations.
Then I look for the Literary, Historical, and Cultural contexts of the text; what is happening in and around the text. Sometimes, I look at geography; especially when a landmark is significant. When the writers of the texts speak about direction, they generally speak of going up or down to somewhere. They don’t mean North or South they mean up or down in elevation. One goes up to Jerusalem or down from Jerusalem. They go over to somewhere from a location and that tells us East or West.
I will then compare the parallels of the stories between the Gospel writers...Gospel Parallels. Each author has his own nuance of the story and is trying to make a particular statement or claim in that story. Perhaps it is emphasizing Jesus’ kingship, priesthood, or position as a prophet. I’ll compare what the Epistles are trying to say about the teachings as well. When doing Luke…we see Paul teaching the Gentiles and questioning along with all the interviews Luke did, the manuscripts of Mark as well as Matthew. When we look at Mark, we can hear Peter perhaps speaking to the Romans. Matthew used some of Mark and even his own eyewitness account as he spoke primarily to the Jewish nation. We can’t forget about the QSource but we don’t have that resource (that is why we have to use the parallels). John, of course, was a rebel and used his eyewitness account theologically instead of chronologically speaking to the world.
I will generally write notes in a little notebook…yes I still do this by hand… putting down words, links, stories, personal illustrations, etc. I’ll write in my Bible as well, with pencil, highlighters, or even use sticky pages of notes (most of these notes come from the Bible Studies I have taught). There is a danger with this in that I may use an illustration I’ve used before or follow the same train of thought.
That is why it is good to consult new books, commentaries, and other new resources so the thoughts don’t become stale.
I sit back and pray. Sometimes I have to pray harder than most just to come up with an idea, but I can tell you the Holy Spirit has never failed me! I organize my thoughts in this manner… Listen, Learn, and Live. Listen to the Word. I listen to the text just like you do on Sunday as I read it out loud. Learn about the text. I learn what those words, links, stories mean and try to put that down in the computer. I then try to make sense of all of that and put it in a life application…Live the Word. The hands-on piece. I think the life application in going outside of the four walls, is the most important part. Afterall, we are called to go out…not just to sit.
When I write, Mondays at the latest, I generally just start doing it until I get to the AMEN. Then I edit the sermon from 8 or 9 pages (I’ve been known to go to 20 pages but that’s when I have gotten in the way of the Holy Spirit…lol‼) down to about 6 (24 pt Roman, single space). I’ll actually preach the sermon from the computer and do editing and timing. I find that 6 pages gives me about a 12-minute sermon. Then I preach the sermon with Tim listening, and we then wordsmith it, so it flows and makes sense. We talk about the pauses and actual presentation and then preach it one more time on Wednesday. Finally, on Sunday morning we go through it one last time and make any changes necessary. I always have an iPad copy and a hard copy on Sundays just in case something goes haywire, or I can’t preach and someone else needs to. I am always prepared to go off script and preach what comes to mind…but that can get a little crazy especially if folks want to get out on time.
I try to take two weeks of study leave and outline all the sermons for the cycle, writing a good number of them. This frees me to come up with various learning center classes, bible studies, and other learning/teaching opportunities as they arise. I wasn’t able to do last year but I will this August!
There you have it, my Listen, Learn, and Live style of preaching. Most pastors have their own twists on sermon writing but we all generally utilize a “threefold” technique developed in the early 1920’s. It helps us not bore people to sleep (hopefully this article didn’t).
I’m looking forward to September and getting back to near normal again! I thank you for your patience and your generosity over this pandemic. I believe we will come back stronger than ever before!