The Weather (again) and Reflecting on Sermon-writing

At the risk of this becoming a weather blog, you should know that despite yesterday’s bizarre snowstorm (complete with an avalanche in Little Cottonwood canyon that rolled a minivan with 9 people in it. They all escaped after one of them kicked out a window with the ski boot he was still wearing), today the high is supposed to be sixty degrees. We only got a dusting of snow that stuck to the grass, but some parts of the valley got almost a foot.  The big worry now: flooding.

Today is my “work from home” day, but I got much of my work done yesterday.  I wrote my board report and the order of service for Sunday.  I am excited about Sunday’s service because it is one of my favorites–the intersection of Pesach (Passover) and Palm Sunday.  A bit of trivia: the very first sermon I wrote was for Palm Sunday. I thought writing a unique sermon about the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem must be the hardest thing ever. After all, the same story is told again and again and again.  How could a preacher ever hope to say something new and interesting about it?

Then I wrote the sermon and for the first time, I experienced the magic that I still experience every time I write a sermon.  I sat down discouraged and unable to think of a thing to say.  And then, I began to write. And I began to find access to things I did not know I knew.  It’s like sinking down through the superficial and finding the deep, powerful essence of the story.  Sermon writing is like that for me: a surfacing of some kind of deep, universal meaning that was there all the time, I just hadn’t noticed it. When I stop and approach my topic or story with–well–a kind of emptiness and humility, I discover that there is always plenty to say, plenty to learn, plenty to share.

That’s why I consider sermon writing one of my core spiritual practices.  Unlike the stories some of my colleagues tell, I don’t agonize over my sermons. I spend time doing research, learning about my topic, mining for wisdom from a variety of sources.  Then I wait. I gestate. I let go of writing the perfect sermon.  Then I ask, “What does my congregation need to hear about this topic this week?”  And I write.  I write my sermons in one sitting, from beginning to end.  I tell stories that move me.  I try to make connections.   I try to make things relevant. I ask questions and sometimes, I propose answers.

I don’t try to write a comprehensive essay. I don’t try to include everything.  I don’t try to look smart or speak as an expert. I’m just someone whose job it is to think about things.  I don’t try to wrap up all the loose ends. I like loose ends. I believe they are like fringes, and they give the listener things to hold on to.  I don’t worry about perfect grammar. (A sermon is a part of the oral tradition, not an essay to be graded by my inner eight grade English teacher.) I let go of more than I include. I look for the real beginning and the real ending and delete my false starts and didactic summaries.  I imagine looking someone straight in the eye as I craft each sentence.  And most of all, I let go.

The key to non-anxious sermon-writing is that it’s not about me.  It’s about the congregation. I honor the fact that the listeners bring more to the sermon than I do.  I remind myself of the hundreds of times someone says, “I loved how you said…” and then tell me things that they heard that were nowhere in my text and that I never said. But they heard what they needed to hear.  Even if it was exactly the opposite of what I thought I was saying! I rely on the grace that I have come to know intimately in this whole process.

That grace is extended to me, as well.  In the writing of a sermon I am always blessed to learn something, to be reminded of what is really important, to fall back in love with my congregation.  And most of the time, I find I also wrote the sermon I most needed to hear and that ministers to me.  That is the payoff for all the hours of work. That is the real gift.

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3 thoughts on “The Weather (again) and Reflecting on Sermon-writing

  1. “Then I wrote the sermon and for the first time, I experienced the magic that I still experience every time I write a sermon.”

    This statement seems to contradict itself. How can you experience something for the first time which you then say happens every time you write?

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