Day in the life of my sermon

A couple days ago I commented that the texts for Sunday, September 17th were “dumb.” It was Friday and I actually said it was a bad sign that it was late in the week and I was still in “these readings are dumb” mode.

In response to that a couple people asked what I meant by that. Was I serious about the bible being “dumb?” Well, instead of answering those questions one by one I decided just to write a sprawling post detailing my sermon writing process. I want to be clear though, this is my process. If it doesn’t work for you, well that is because you are not me.

Monday: My day off. I don’t look at the texts or really even think about work if I can help it. I sit in my man cave, play video games, read sci-fi short stories, and maybe emerge to watch baseball or go to the cigar store.

Tuesday: Tuesday morning is my first look at readings for this coming Sunday. Tuesday has three parts: the initial read, listening to the podcast, and text study.

The initial read begins with quiet. My secretary gets in at 11 and Tuesday is my custodian’s day off so the church is mostly quiet when I first arrive. Quiet is supposed to help but it never really helps me. This is the first time I usually mutter to myself “those readings are dumb.”

Now I don’t mean that I think the Bible is dumb. I’m a pastor, I spend more time reading the bible than most. However, at first glance the honest truth is that the assigned readings never say what I want them to say.  I come to the Bible hoping that it says something I can use against that person I’m arguing with, or that it will give me quick instructions on how to wrestle with challenges facing my church, or that I will find the magic words to make all the stress of my own life go away.

It is certainly good that the Bible never says what I want it to. If all the Word of God ever said was what I wanted it would be a disappointing faith filled with tirades against the people I’m annoyed at and self-help suggestions. Not much good news in that kind of book at all.

As a side note, I should say that this part sometimes gets skipped. Sometimes I only glance at the text. Sometimes Tuesday morning is booked with meetings and so this step just gets missed. Sometimes I glance and the text and say to myself “oh I know this story” and don’t actually read it. Without fail skipping this step always results in more trouble.

Part two of Tuesday comes with listening to the Sermon Brainwave podcast on workingpreacher.org. Now I’ll be honest about myself: I learn and grow through arguing. I enjoy a good debate. It’s fun. I’ll be honest again about sermon brainwave: I rarely get a sermon idea directly from the podcast. So why, you may ask, do I spend a half hour almost every week listening? Well getting back to “I like to argue” working preacher usually gives me somebody to argue with. My argument usually begins when Sermon Brainwave dismisses, or at least labels, a text as difficult/impossible to preach. I’m contrarian by nature and so I’ll spend a significant amount of time trying to prove them wrong. It usually goes like this:

Setting: Tuesday morning in pastor’s office

Sermon Brainwave: We would not recommend you preach 1 Samuel 28.

Pastor Dave: Ha! I’ll show you. There is tons to preach in a story about Saul hosting a dark magic ritual to contact the ghost of Samuel!

Real confession: 1 Samuel 28 never comes up in the lectionary, but I do have a pretty cool sermon prepared for it just in case.

Tuesday usually ends with pastors text study. It’s a time with colleagues and I consider what is said there confidential. However, I often end up advocating for people preaching the Old Testament text (I’m and Old Testament guy).

Wednesday: Wednesday is busy. Meetings, after school program, and our Wednesday night worship service. Sermons on Wednesday nights are more like bible studies so I spend most of the day constructing that bible study. I really enjoy Wednesday night and the bible study atmosphere so at some point I usually end up thinking about what Sunday morning would be like if we just did Sunday like Wednesday night.

Thursday: By this point panic is beginning. It’s not full panic, but that little twinge in my stomach is starting to arrive. I know I should have something, but I usually don’t. What time I have this day is usually in a kind of frantic and unorganized mess. I take a shotgun approach to researching all three options given by the lectionary. Basically I look in the back index of every book I have for mentions of the readings for Sunday. Usually this means I read a lot of Walter Brueggemann. Often I find one or more of the passages I am looking at in his writings, but the points he makes are all Brueggemann’s points and not mine. Occasionally this approach will lead to some semblance of a sermon, but usually it does not and I am stuck walking home muttering “these readings are dumb.”

Friday: Come Friday I have usually resigned myself to the fate of having to explain to my congregation why I don’t have a sermon. Maybe we can just talk it out I don’t have to write anything. No one but me is in the church Friday mornings so if I’m really stuck I’ll play Common’s Black America Again album and hope lyrical genius gives me some inspiration. Frequently I am stuck staring at my Bible. I have frequently commented that while I am preparing for a sermon I  look like a madman. I’m in my office alone just staring at a Bible while the hip-hop amazningness of “joy and peace” comes blaring through my speakers.

Inspiration for me usually begins with a sermon title. All my sermons at this point have titles. My senior year of seminary I was the preaching for two little congregations in a small town in Ohio. One of those churches liked to have sermon titles to put on their sign on Sunday morning. For the first six months my sermon titles where technically connected to my sermons, but they were not thought out at all. The crowning achievement of this time was when I titled a sermon “everyone’s annoying” after the story of widow and the unjust judge in Matthew. At 7:51 AM I drove into this small town and found, after saying “all are welcome,” the church marquee read “come to church to hear: Everyone’s Annoying.” Good thing the marquee was on the main road through town. Since that moment I have resigned myself to the idea that sermon titles deserve a little more work than that. I have also found that if I can come up with a clear and short title for a sermon than I probably have some sort of preachable moment.

After the title comes than the only thing left is to figure out what I’m actually saying. This is hard and usually involves me standing in the pulpit with a piece of paper and a cup of coffee and hoping stuff pops into my head. Sometimes stuff gets written down and sometimes I’m just talking to myself. Again, I look like quite the madman.

live shot of me talking to myself in the pulpit

So what is the point of all this? Well I don’t have a deep point other than this: It’s OK to have strong feelings about the Bible, even if those strong feelings are pretty silly. I have all sorts of strong, and ridiculous, feelings about scripture. I honestly prefer the Old Testament over the New Testament. There are Gospels I enjoy (Mark) and Gospels I don’t enjoy (all the rest). I find Joseph to be an insufferable character and wish the lectionary assigned something other than John for Easter Sunday.

And all of these opinions are rather silly.

But, if you need permission to be rather silly; to have strong opinions about scripture; to wrestle and dance with what the Word says;

Then you certainly have my permission.

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