An old preacher joke acknowledges how most of their congregation believes the preacher only works an hour a week. On behalf of my clergy colleagues, the following will give folks in the pews a sense of that part of the preacher’s week dedicated to preparing a meaningful sermon, especially as we are toiling to write something original for Easter Sunday.
Most Christian preaching begins with the Revised Common Lectionary, a collection of scriptural readings forming the foundation for sermons and worship. Each week, the lectionary suggests brief extracts, one each from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Gospels and Paul’s letters.
In a three-year cycle, congregations are exposed to much of the Bible. The RCL results from a collaboration representing the majority of Christians in the United States.
The preacher’s quest is to find themes common to suggested texts around which to build a sermon. While I don’t pretend to speak for all my colleagues, my practice is probably not dissimilar from most.
The process begins days before stepping foot in a pulpit Sunday morning.
After reading and re-reading each text and meditating and praying over it, I highlight words or phrases that jump out. I then read surrounding Scripture, seeking to understand the context. With a reasonable handle on scriptural context, it’s time to dig into the historical, cultural and linguistic backdrop.
These are ancient writings, meant initially for people who lived significantly different lives from ours, who wrote the first manuscripts choosing words for which the meaning may be quite different after many translations. Before figuring out what it has to say to us today, we must seek to understand what it was intended to convey hundreds of years ago.
Imagine the difficulty our clergy ancestors had searching out the information needed to bridge this gap. And yet, the great ones did, and they left behind treasure troves of helpful commentaries. While it may not take as long to research as in the days when one had to trek to a theological library, a serious preacher can bury herself in the excellent biblical scholarship of our own time, readily accessible through the internet.
If one desires to offer sermons relevant to the times, theologian Karl Barth once advised preachers, “Take your Bible and your newspaper and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
Barth’s 20th century quote was updated by one preacher recently. “Hold the Bible in one hand and your handheld device in the other, filled with Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, blog subscriptions, news articles from a variety of sources and perspectives, societal studies and local gossip.”
Now, we’re prepared to honor biblical authors writing about their times, while writing sermons relevant to ours, employing ancient texts to convey a contemporary message. It’s time to return to the text to determine what now jumps off the page. Then I start writing.
This is where it gets interesting. No preacher comes to this moment with a clean slate. Each brings a lifetime of experiences, their own politico-economic status and cultural differences, forming the lens through which we read and interpret the Biblical text. God makes sure we each trod different paths on the way to the pulpit.
My pre-preaching days connected me with many of “the least of these,” as I observed the injustices they confront daily during over 40 years in politics, law, heading Wyoming’s child welfare and poverty programs, and time administering the state’s mental health and substance abuse services.
Perhaps most influential to my preaching was a year working with Habitat for Humanity in Nicaragua, living among some of the poorest people on the planet, witnessing the Bible’s liberating power.
The preacher’s personal experience means that although we may preach from the same verses, we preach decidedly different sermons, honoring the great diversity of God’s world.
For those who might think their preacher works but an hour a week, you can see how much they cram into that “one” sacred hour. And that’s just the sermon-writin’ part of their week.
Rodger McDaniel lives in Laramie and is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. Email: email@example.com.