Thursday, October 25, 2018

In Case You Ever Wondered: Anatomy of a Sermon

Every week, the pastor prepares a sermon to preach.  The congregation hears only the finished product.  (The pastor's wife may also be privy to the pastor's groans and laments as he wrestles with the sermon.)  What goes into the sermon?

Some of the work is done for the pastor long before Sunday approaches.  Those who follow the western rite (usually we use "liturgy" for shorthand) follow a selected set of lessons which are already assigned to each Sunday of the Church Year.  Currently, Good Shepherd is using a 3-year lectionary, and we are currently in Year B.  In Year B, the Gospel lesson is mainly from the Gospel according to St. Mark.  The lessons for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost have been set for years.  The Gospel was Mark 10:35-45 (although I preached on the epistle which was Hebrews 4:9-16.)

I choose from one of the three readings, usually the Gospel.  I may choose the Old Testament lesson or the Epistle, although the Gospel is what sets the theme for the day.  Once I do that, I read it in English, and then go to the original language for text study.  It has been my practice to actually write out the text in the original Greek (Hebrew for the Old Testament) and translate the lesson.  Thankfully, I have kept old text studies, so I am usually able to pull out a previously done text study and look through it again.  It is not unusual to add notes to a text study that was already done.

Often, I read through a commentary or two to see what insights I did not gain from my own text study.  If I have the time, it is nice to read through a sermon from years gone by.  Luther is my preferred preacher, but there are others that are worth looking at, such as John Gerhard.  Their sermons are usually WAY longer than I preach.  And, while I gain personally from them, they often touch on topics that will not make it into my sermon.  I feel like I collect a five-gallon bucket of water only to serve the congregation a drinking glass worth of material.  This is one of the perks of the pastoral office.  Nevertheless, the time which should be given to the sermons of old is short and, sadly, often scratched off the task list.  As a result, I think the congregation is short-changed.

Once these things are done (mostly on a Monday, God-willing), it is time to let the Scripture lesson, the text study, and other resources simmer.  So, I try to take a walk somewhere--either one of the neighborhoods, at Marybury State Park, or if necessary at Planet Fitness (looking at nature is better than the same view from a Nordictrack for 45 minutes).  This serves as quiet time to ruminate on the lesson.  It is a time to ask questions about the lesson: "Why did St. Mark use that particular word?  Why does St. Mark record this when St. Luke does not?  What makes this lesson unique to St. Mark?  What in this lesson calls me to repent?  What in this lesson proclaims the Gospel?  How does this reveal Jesus as our gracious Redeemer?"  The answers are not always that obvious.

Throughout that week, the reading is used with shut-ins and for nursing home chapels.  This forces me to preach on the Scripture reading, and to say something about the text.  Much of what comes from these devotions makes it into the sermon, but the simmering is not done, either.  Occasionally, what is preached at the nursing homes is dramatically changed before Sunday morning hits.  Sometimes it even changes from the Wednesday chapels to the Thursday chapel.  Actually preaching to people may bring some insight that I had not thought of before.  And actually talking about the lesson to people forces me to consider: "Why does this lesson matter for you?"

Throughout the week, I type of a sermon manuscript in bits and pieces.  Some of the best advice came from Rev. David Peterson on his blog.  Although I had done this in the past, he put is most vividly: "Vomit on the page."  I have done a text study.  I have read commentaries and sermons.  The lesson has been on simmer in my head for days.  There has to be something to say by now.  It will not be perfect, and it will not be the final product, but type something.  Say what the text says.  It can be cleaned up later.  New insights can be added.  Paragraphs can be re-written ... or stricken.  Not every insight will make it into the final draft.  They may be saved for a future sermon.  Even if the insight is brilliant, it may just not make the point that the text is making.

Farmington Hills in, where I conduct chapel every Wednesday at 1:30 PM.
American House in West Bloomfield, where I conduct chapel every Wednesday at 3:00 PM.

Once a draft of the sermon is complete (or close enough to complete), it is time to edit.  I print a hard copy and mark it up with a pen.  The simmering is not quite done either.  Edit, edit, edit.  There is always a better way to say something, or an insight that should not be overlooked.  On Sunday morning, I get over to church by 6:00 AM, and I edit the manuscript more as I memorize the sermon.  Since I have already preached some version of it at least four times already, memorization is not that hard--unless the manuscript has gone through some major changes.  Editing continues until about 8:30 AM, because that is when people start walking in the door for Adult Bible Class and I have to stop.  I would probably edit my sermon until Judgment Day if I did not have a deadline to preach it.  (And later in the day, I always think of things I could have said better.)

Then there is the actual preaching of the sermon.  During the final verse of the Hymn of the Day, I pray that God will bless the sermon and those who hear it.  Occasionally, a thought comes during the sermon and, once more, on-the-spot editing happens.  I usually try to avoid this.  Tangents are addictive (to me, anyway), but distracting.  I do not vary much from the manuscript, although it is not a word-for-word reproduction.  All of this prep work results in a sermon of about 15-17 minutes (always 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 pages of single space type).  This kind of brevity means that there is no time for cute stories, no filler, and nothing about me.  If I have your attention for 15-17 minutes, then I want to show you Jesus is the most pointed, succinct, and vivid way possible.

After church, about Noon on Sunday, I post the sermon to my blog for posterity.  It is available to whomever finds it, to use however they wish.  It belongs to the Church.

Finally -- I am rarely satisfied with my sermons because I know it can always be said better.  But if people can find suitable nutrition from fast food restaurants, I would like to think that God's word, delivered through me, is able to strengthen and sustain the faith of those who hear.  That is always my prayer.  And since it is God's word, I leave it to him to do what he wills with it.

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