As I peer over the ledge and stare down the final few months before becoming best friends with the Church Pension Fund, I am aware that part of my legacy (for whatever such things are worth) in ordained ministry will be that of a preacher. For more than 31 years now, I have presumed to speak the word of God to the people of God as they gather for worship. Some time ago, my wife had a ceramic mug made that now lives on my desk. It is inscribed with the words of St Paul to the Corinthians: “Woe to me if I preach not the gospel.”
While I would not rank myself in the company of preachers such as John Chrysostom or John Donne or George Whitefield, I have received enough feedback over the years to lead me to suspect that I might know the proverbial “thing or two” about both preparing and delivering a sermon. I don’t propose here to deal with the latter. Rather, I share bits of my “process” as it has evolved. Perhaps it might be helpful to those preparing for a preaching ministry, or in the early years of one. I may also hope to assist those whose vocation in the life of the church is to regularly listen to the preaching of somebody else in responding to that particular call more fruitfully.
I will structure what I share around nine simple verbs (one of which, I acknowledge, is rather shoe-horned into such a role):
No preacher is just a preacher, but a living human being with all the subtleties and complexities that accompany such a state. While the way I practice the art and craft of preaching is, I hope, disciplined and focused, it is nonetheless the “whole me” who stands in front of a congregation. A sermon cannot help but a be a reflection of the person who delivers it, the kind of person who delivers it. A preacher who is effective over the long term is a Christian disciple who is spiritually healthy and self-aware. (“Healthy” does not mean “unbroken.” The experience of brokenness can powerfully inform preaching, though a pastor must never use the pulpit as a venue for working out his or her “issues.”)
The ability to preach well is a divine gift, a charism. As such, it must never be presumed upon, but sought afresh for each occasion. A faithful preacher is deeply aware of being a vessel, an instrument. There is an artisanal aspect to preaching — it is a craft that can be taught and learned — but there is a deeper level at which the preacher is not the artisan, but merely the conduit by which the final product comes into being. So, the essential first step in preparing a sermon is to pray. I have found it helpful to make this an overt act that requires me to get up from my chair and go into a church or chapel and light a votive candle as I plead for the charism to fall on me yet once more. I beg that the Holy Spirit speak first to me, in all of my inadequacy, that I may be a fit vessel by which that same Spirit speaks to the people of God. “May nothing but the word of God be spoken; may nothing by the word of God be heard.” In this way, everything that follows in the process of sermon preparation is covered, bathed, in prayer.
Now it’s time for an initial encounter with the Scripture readings appointed for the liturgical occasion when the sermon will be delivered. This is more of the nature of a “drive by” than a “deep dive” (that comes next). In my own practice, this means copying and pasting the texts into the document that will gradually evolve into the script that’s in front of me in the pulpit. I read them through attentively and make a few notes of first impressions. What themes initially leap out at me? What questions do they invite? (I’m especially interested in “hard” questions, the sort that I find annoying or challenging.) Sometimes I find myself irritated because it’s a text I just don’t “like,” or one that I’ve preached on multiple times before and the thought of coming up with something fresh to say wearies me in advance. These feelings are all worthy of being noted. Of course, this is also an opportunity to look for connections between the readings, in case there is a common theme that might be developed. (Very often, the Old Testament reading is a gloss, a commentary, on the appointed gospel.)
Ideally, this step is separated in some way from the one that precedes it — if not by a week (in my admittedly idiosyncratic paradigm), then perhaps by a day, or at least a trip to the water cooler or a walk around the block. The very personal — subjective and reflective — interaction with the biblical texts that happens in the initial encounter needs some time to implant in the preacher’s soul, at least subconsciously, before it gives way to a more objective and academically rigorous angle of attack. Different preachers, of course, have varying degrees of exposure to and facility with biblical languages. Fortunately, there is an abundance of exegetical resources out there, both printed and digital, that can bridge the gap between a preacher’s knowledge of Hebrew and Greek and an adequate understanding of the texts. The goal here is not yet to answer the question, “What am I going to preach about?” but to get a solid grasp on what the texts actually say, what they meant to their original readership, what their historical and literary contexts are, and glean something of the history of their interpretation over two millennia. (Pro tip: A deep exegetical dive into all three readings, plus the psalm, can be inordinately time-consuming. In most cases, the gospel is going to have the most homiletical potential, so it’s probably good practice to devote the bulk of exegetical effort to that text, unless something from one of the others just clamors loudly for attention.)
A sermon grows from a single message statement — a simple declarative statement of good news, with no subordinate clauses, no negatives (“don’t”) and no imperatives (“must” or “should”). (Several teachers of preaching have said this, but I credit my awareness of it to Fred Craddock in his volume Preaching.) The gospel of Jesus the Christ is, at its core, good news, and it is altogether appropriate that congregations expect their preacher to tell them that good news (which they probably already know, but always hunger to hear again) in a fresh way. There’s certainly room for nuance, qualification, elaboration, and challenge, but such things are elements of the structure, not the foundation. It is a salutary discipline for a preacher to begin with a message statement as I have described it. It is the bedrock, the ever-present homing signal, of the sermon, even if it is never overtly articulated as part of the sermon. I have found this homiletical move usually to be the most difficult part of the process. It is mentally and emotionally laborious. If, in the previous step, it was necessary to exegete the relevant scriptural texts, here it is necessary to exegete the congregation that will hear the sermon. What do they need to hear (or not)? What might they be able or ready to hear (or not)? Several times I have considered a message statement that makes perfect sense with respect to the readings, only to realize that it’s just not going to work in the specific context where I’ll be preaching.
Now it’s time to build out a structure from the foundation of the message statement. Most of us learned in high school English classes about the elements of plot: situation, complication, crisis, and resolution. This is a useful paradigm to keep in mind when developing a sermon. While it’s often helpful to include one or more stories in a sermon, it’s better still if the entire sermon is story-like in its form. This is what can make a long sermon riveting, and its lack can make even a five-minute homily dry as dust.
l began my preaching career (while doing parish field work as a seminarian, actually) eschewing the use of a fully developed manuscript. I didn’t want anything to impede my sense of connection with the congregation. I preferred to work from notes, in various levels of detail. By the time I was ordained, however, I had switched to a fully developed text. It would be natural to assume that the purpose of such a developed text is that it be what is read from at the time the homily is delivered. But this is not necessarily the case. The purpose of writing a sermon out is to ensure that the best words and turns of phrase make their way into what is eventually heard by the congregation, even if, by then, the script has been cast aside. It’s a disciplinary tactic, a quality-control measure. Most importantly, perhaps, it provides a planned method by which the preacher can “land the plane.” Many extemporized sermons get caught in a repeating loop as the preacher casts about for a satisfying way to tie everything off.
Many sermons are in some ways like essays in terms of their form and content. The main difference between the two, however, is that an essay is intended to be read, while a sermon is prepared to be heard. A good preacher pays close attention to the orality of the genre. So, after the text is written, it’s a good habit to come back to it with an eye toward making it more “hearable.” Do some sentences need to be broken up into two or more? Is there some complicated syntax that’s easy enough to track with if one is reading it, but more difficult to grasp on a single hearing? Are there opportunities to add alliteration or strategic repetition of the sort that would be out of place in an essay? A sermon is a prose genre, but the best sermons have a poetic patina.
My original aversion to fully developed sermon scripts lay in the fact that, as a member of a congregation, I always hated the feeling of being read to. My most satisfying experiences as a preacher have been when I have a written-out script in front of me, but only look at it rarely, because, by then, the sermon is “written on my heart.” During my decades in parish ministry, part of my routine, either on Saturday or very early on Sunday, was to deliver my sermon to an empty church. For thirteen years in one location, I had a Saturday evening liturgy, and two on Sunday morning. By the final (and main) service, having delivered the homily once to an empty church and twice to congregations, I was effectively liberated from my script, even though, in most cases, I followed it word for word. Those in the congregation could have been forgiven for thinking I was working “off the cuff.” We enjoyed the proverbial “best of both worlds” — the security of working from a script and the connection of extemporaneous delivery.
In my own practice, the steps from “Read” through “Refine” are scheduled as tasks on six consecutive weeks. My sermons therefore have a long incubation period. The risk here is that, if some momentous public event happens toward the end of that six-week period, it’s difficult to incorporate any response into a homily that’s already well “in progress.” Yet, somehow, grace abounds. On September 16, 2001, my flock and I were still reeling from the Al Qaeda attacks five days earlier. And the sermon that I had already written to celebrate Holy Cross Day was, with a minor improvised emendation, perfect for the occasion. The advantage, of course, is that every sermon has a long time to marinate in the preacher’s mind and heart. It has a chance to ripen, to mature, at a leisurely pace. Most of all, perhaps, it ensures that I am never stuck on Saturday afternoon with writer’s block!
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.
 For example, a message statement for Year A, Proper 23, when the gospel reading (Matthew 22:1-14) is the parable of the wedding banquet at which one of the guests is improperly attired, might be: “Jesus provides us with our proper attire for the celestial banquet.” This reframes a rather stern warning into good news. Jesus’ provision happens both forensically, by grace through faith, and actually, via the cultivation of the practices of humility, repentance and amendment of life. All of this is seen in the light of the great banquet foreseen by Isaiah in the first reading (25:1-9).