I started pinning my sermons into my Bible innocently enough, upon taking a cure at a church with a lectern for the reading of Scripture, but no pulpit for preaching. The last few priests preached from the center, a few helpful parishioners told me, with no hint of irony about the theological orientation or content of their sermons.
“Without even a music stand?” I asked. They answered in the affirmative.
A former colleague had been in the habit of paper-clipping his sermon notes into his Bible. “It reassures people to see their preacher holding a Bible,” he would say. Still a slave to the manuscript, I began printing my sermons in two columns on copier pages. A good sermon would take five or six. If I made it to a seventh, I knew I’d be testing the congregation’s patience and the boundaries of keen editorial judgment.
After several months, I began to learn the little idiosyncrasies of this method: Folding techniques, paper clip placement, the best Bible-pages-per-sermon-leaf ratio. It was around this time that a pattern started to emerge. I began placing the sermon sheets in similar pages each time. Naturally, due to their location in the middle of the Bible, the Psalms proved a fitting recipient of my sermonic fruits. After further refinement, I discovered that the end of Job provided an even better beginning for optimal balance. Most liturgical ceremony is practical before it becomes imbued with theological meaning, right? When heading out there all pulpit-less, whatever comforts and ceremonies one can attach to the preparation and delivery of a weekly sermon only aid the preacher.
These days, the placement of my sermon pages provides one last moment of prayer and reflection before heading into the sacristy for vesting and prayers. Like a preemptory I will go unto the altar of God/Even unto the God of my joy and gladness, the clipping of my sermon printout into my leather-bound Bible informs me of the task I undertake as preacher, proclaiming the gospel each Sunday from the lectionary readings. Beneath every sermon lies a series of words and prayers that undergird my kerygmatic word.
The first page fittingly goes over Job 38:1–4,
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”
Before all else, I must remember that God has spoken first, and God will speak last. My sermon is a penultimate word of proclamation, partial in understanding, limited in perspective. The Word of the Lord, the logos of creation, the Alpha and Omega, will have the last word. All my words will be judged in light of his gracious light.
Page two resides in the beginning of the Psalter, encouraged and chastened by the words beneath it: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Ps. 1:1–4). “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling.”
These words of mine are only as strong as the Word of the Lord from which they are drawn. I offer them first to the Lord, with fear and trembling, and then I can offer them to the congregation with humility and resolve.
Psalms 23 and 24 lie beneath the third page of my declarations: “The Lord is my shepherd,” and “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.”
After this comes Psalm 32, a meditation on forgiveness, followed by an admonition to self-discipline: “Be not like the horse and mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle.”
The coffee stain over the central verses of Psalm 62 provides an interlude of assurance from past times of silent meditation on God’s word: “For God alone my soul in silence waits, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.”
Depending on my mood, my confidence in the sermon, and the success of my last-minute cuts into the appropriate sermon length, I finish with Psalm 73 or Psalm 121. First Psalm 73: “But when I thought how to understand [the prosperity of the wicked] it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God.” Psalm 121: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
I preach standing just outside the altar rail. I turn from my sermon to go into the sanctuary of God for the Creed, prayers, and eucharistic celebration. After all, my primary call as preacher is to work within the context of the liturgical celebration. My sermon does not end with my word, but with the invocation of the Trinity: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. My congregation and I need God’s help above all to live into this gospel preached. Truly, our help is in the name of the Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My task is to set the table, to preach the gospel that is then conveyed in the eucharistic prayers and the eucharistic feast, and there to feast myself.