Pastor, how do you do it? How do you preach a sermon week after week, year after year?
Preaching begins on Monday and ends on Sunday, and begins again. It is a labor of love. Love of words. Love of Scripture. Love of people. That last one is quite important. There is no preaching without someone to hear. I believe hearing is where 70% of preaching actually happens. Here’s what my 30% generally looks like…
For me, preaching begins in silence. I take time in my study each week for silence and prayer, and I make a few notes. I’ll confess that like you, I haven’t always been good at this part, but I’ve always aspired to be. One reason is that I want to love God, and you love another by spending time with them. Another reason is something that Eugene Peterson once wrote in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction:
“In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, there is a turbulent scene in which a whaleboat scuds across a frothing ocean in pursuit of the great, white wale, Moby Dick. The sailors are laboring fiercely, every muscle taut, all attention and energy concentrated on the task. The cosmic conflict between good and evil is joined; chaotic sea and demonic sea monster verses the morally outraged man, Captain Ahab. In this boat, however, there is one man who does nothing. He doesn’t hold an oar; he doesn’t perspire; he doesn’t shout. He is languid in the crash and the cursing. This man is the harpooner, quiet and poised, waiting. And then this sentence: ‘To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.’”
Preaching begins in silence, and grows through listening. Many a preaching professor will tell you that a poor listener makes a poor preacher. I think I most recently read that sentiment in Will Willimon’s Pastor, and before that in more than one book by Fred Craddock. For me, listening looks like this: I take time in my study each week to read the biblical text and biblical commentaries, and I make notes; I then spend time most weeks dialoguing with my congregation around the coming Sunday’s text in the Wednesday evening Pastor’s Bible Study, and I make notes. The former is a means of talking the text with the wider Church past and present, with its best scholars and pastors. This conversation helps me get a sense of the Hebrew and Greek, the history of interpretation, and the rhetorical and narrative quality of the text. The latter is a means of talking the text with my particular congregation, which is itself a 130-year-old interpretive community. We gather around the text–or better, we are gathered around by the text. We hold our individual stories and our congregational story in one hand, and the stories of Scripture in the other, and we listen. We hold the two further apart, and then closer together, and we listen for the “still small voice” of the God who promised “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Preaching begins in silence, grows through listening, and only after that becomes a manuscript. Late in the week I write out my sermon–by hand, with my favorite pen, on unruled paper. I stopped drafting sermons on my computer midsummer 2018, and by the fall, I had discovered that a fountain pen nib is a much better listener than a keyboard. It invites me to slow down and to focus more intently on the words that I inscribe on the page. Unlike the uniform letters of a computer font, the ink left behind captures my personality and my voice. I underline this word. Add in these words here. Scratch out that line and sometimes cross out a whole paragraph or most of a page. But it all stays there in the pages, numbered in the top right corner, telling the story of the growth and pruning of this sermon–and this preacher.
Finally, Sunday morning comes, and the preaching event occurs. I carry my manuscript into the pulpit with me on Sunday morning. I’m a manuscript preacher. This doesn’t mean, as some like to say, that there is no room for the Spirit. By now, the Spirit has been at work in me and in us for a week, for this sermon. And seeing as how I rarely ever say from the pulpit exactly what is written on the page in front of me–seeing as how some of my best lines are ad-lib in the pulpit at 11:41 AM–well, the Spirit is at work in this moment, too.
When it’s over, when I say “Amen” and sit down and we all pause for the Discipline of Silence, it’s not really over at all. It is a preacher’s burden to walk away from the pulpit each Sunday and reflect upon all the thoughts and feelings that linger within after a sermon is preached. For me, the sermons that I preach haunt me like the benevolent and troubling ghosts of A Christmas Carol for at least the rest of the day on Sunday, and sometimes on into Monday morning. Sometimes I feel like the sermon crash-landed on the front pew, and in a Baptist church everyone sits in the back. Sometimes I feel like all I had to do is hoist a sail, catch the wind, and hang on for the ride–and everyone was on deck pulling and pushing together. I can’t parse those feelings or explain them fully; it’s a mystery to me.
I do know the Spirit is in all of that too, for whether I feel the sermon was a wingless dove or a ship at full sail, most Sundays someone will say at the door on their way out that today’s sermon mattered to them. All I can say–all I really need to say: Thanks be to God.
Preaching begins on Monday and ends on Sunday, and begins again. It is a labor of love. Good Baptist theology would say that the sermon is not something that I the preacher deliver as a good to be consumed by the congregation, but rather, something that I the preacher and we the congregation create together for God’s sake, and for the sake of the world God so loves. Best I can tell today as a practitioner with a lot yet to learn, that’s what my 30% of the preaching at First Baptist Church looks like. With God’s help, I figure the other 70% of preaching happens on the other side of the pulpit. I have heard it said that when people greeted Carlyle Marney with the phrase “Good sermon today, pastor,” he would sometimes reply, “We’ll see.” So I wonder on this Monday morning: Congregation, how do you do it? How do you preach a sermon week after week, year after year?