In my vocation public speech is a way of life. We preachers spend every week discerning what the Spirit wants us to say. I spend a lot of time in walking prayer asking the Spirit to reveal some transformative Good News to our faith community. The Spirit never lets me down, though some weeks my own need to say something apart from that Good News obscures the message. I pray that my own experience and perspective is a help to this message and not a distraction.
While most of my colleagues complain that there are weeks when the well seems dry and they fret about what they will say my challenge is the opposite, I have two or three core messages coming to me and the discipline required is to choose one and leave the other for another time. More discernment. My discipline has evolved into the following; I look at the lectionary texts on a Wednesday, a week and a half before I will preach on these readings, I choose the one that speaks to me, on the Thursday I read the commentaries on that text, and on the Friday I pray and walk about the experiences I have had in life and in this congregation that speak to that text and what it is telling us. Then on the weekend I leave that project aside and focus on the message I will preach on that Sunday. On the Monday I am ready to resume the work of thinking on my sermon. Usually on Tuesday or Wednesday I will write out the sermon. So the process begins 8 days before the text is written.
From Wednesday to Sunday, with the text written, I walk and walk and practice and practice, until the sermon rolls off my lips as natural speech, so when people listen on Sunday to me walk around the church they are hearing something that sounds like a conversation, albeit one way. Every preacher has her/his own technique and discipline for preparing a sermon, for delivering their message. I believe the key parts are: starting early, reading the texts and asking the Spirit which one speaks to your faith community, reading the commentaries you believe offer insight to a faith-filled life and community, thinking/praying about a story that includes something interesting off the top, some background to the text, some connections of text and community and then some examples of where you see this text being lived out. The rest is rehearsing the story telling so that when Sunday arrives you feel ready and eager to share your Good News.
The only downside of beginning this work so early is that sometimes the sermon you are discerning and the sermon you will be delivering will collide and possibly obscure the other. It is important to keep them separate, which is why I stop all work on the sermon I am discerning on the Friday to allow me to focus exclusively on the sermon I will be delivering that Sunday.
When the service is over and I am sitting in my office looking over the cards newcomers have filled out (calling or emailing them with a thank you) I am asking myself this question, in the midst of my story telling and observation about how the text is coming to life in this community did I clearly present the observation of the commentators who know this text and what it meant to those who experienced it in real time? If the answer is yes I am satisfied. If the answer is no I resolve to do better the following Sunday and make sure the work of the commentators gets more time and better clarity.
Finally, I always ask myself, what in this sermon is information and wisdom that the listeners would not otherwise here elsewhere? I want persons of faith to know that the experience of community and worship offers something they can take with them throughout the week ahead.