At the beginning of each season I choose a theme to be the foundation of my messages. These themes are developed through prayer and seeking God’s plans for His churches under my care. I begin by asking what are the spiritual needs of my congregation, what are my own abilities to address those needs and what resources do I have to fulfill the ministry?
For example one year during Lent I spoke on the theme of Faith. The following Lent was Hope and the last year was Love. Each theme emphasizes the “journey” of faith, hope and love. In truth, the real theme became “the journey” as experienced through Faith, Hope and Love because it was the journey with Christ that my congregation needed to experience.
Sometimes it becomes necessary to change or set aside an ongoing series to address immediate needs and concerns of the congregations. The tragic shooting of school children in Newton Commetticut was such a challenge. That year’s Advent theme was “Joy”. Obviously I wasn’t going to stand at the pulpit and espouse on the joy of God’s presence while sorrow lay so heavily on everyone’s heart. I struggled all day Saturday with changing my service. It wasn’t until a church member called and said she needed to do something on Sunday to deal with the tragedy. Then I finally knew which scriptures to read and what message to give. I chose to light candles for all 28 people who died. (I struggled with lighting one for the shooter.) The focus was on it being a time to receive God’s strength, praying for those who died and finding the grace to forgive. God wanted my people to know that while there was a time to seek joy; this was a time to find strength from God. I preached from Ecclesiastes 3 and Matthew 2:16-18.
I prefer to use the lectionary and stick to it! This has advantages and drawbacks. It streamlines the process of selecting and interpreting scriptures and there are a number of pre-selected prayers and hymns to go with them. However, interpreting the scriptures to fit my theme can be challenging and I sometimes have to go “off script” to maintain my topic.
Years ago I watched a film by a National Geographic photographer who advocated the idea to master the technical skills of photography and grow so proficient that the knowledge of taking a picture becomes instinctive and automatic. Then he articulates the need to “fall in love”, and be able to concentrate on the beauty, power and passion of what lay before him. A photographer is expected to create better pictures because of his technical skills. However it’s his passion for finding and revealing the story in a picture that has people seeking his work. Still his vision cannot be expressed without the technical knowledge. In the same way, a pastor’s ability to express the beauty of God’s Grace is dependent on his pragmatic understanding of theology, Christian history and spiritual needs of the congregation.
It is simpler to pick scriptures which we easily understand or agree with then those which are more complex or difficult to comprehend. However, as Pastors we are expected to be familiar with and convey the meaning of the Bible. Simply knowing scripture and verse or having a limited knowledge of their application would be giving the congregation an uninspired and meaningless experience of God’s presence and purpose. Seminarian Fred Craddock emphasizes in his book “Preaching”; “Similarly, speaking that “addresses” the hearer but does not have the content of faith is not preaching but empty intensity, hollow exhortation,”
No one can claim to have a concise and clear understanding of the entirety of God’s plans. For pastors to deliver a message of faith, we need to have a deeper understanding of the continuity of the entire Bible, the history of Christianity, the diversity of human culture past and present, and an awareness of God’s plan for humanity that is deeper than Christmas cards and Easter eggs. We need to be theologically knowledgeable so we may effectively convey the beauty and passion of God’s purpose with conviction and purpose.
I utilize the lectionary and draw on numerous sources for pre-written responsive prayers and readings. I rarely use them verbatim. Instead I edit them for my theme or current events in the church or community.
There are three Study Bibles I use: The New Interpreter’s Study Bible NRSV, The Wesley Study Bible, NRSV, The Nelson Study Bible, NKJV. The handiest book I have for finding scriptures based on themes is “Where to Find It in the Bible” by Ken Anderson. I also use the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary and “Who’s Who in The Bible” by Conway and Browning. Also, whatever book I’m currently reading will find its way into my sermons as well as what I learn at COS.
During my first season of Advent, a 12 year old girl was spending school break with her Grandma. She heard three of my weekly sermons and told her Grandma, “I like this pastor. His sermons are short!”
Lesson # 1; Brevity is a blessing. When I was a livestock consultant for a large feed company I had to make presentation at dealer meetings. The first lesson I learned at a speaking seminar was: No matter how good of a speaker you are, you will start to lose their attention after 20 minutes. So keep your speeches under 20 minutes or break it up with music and activities. (Have you ever noticed those long winded TV preachers have to break every 15 minutes for a commercial?)
I could have one person rpick out the scriptures, aother choose the hymns and another do the childrens message. All I have to do is show up and read a sermon which I downloaded online. All the elements for a service would be there: music, scripture, liturgy, children’s time and sermons. However there would be a disconnect between the elements of service, and my sermon would be, as Craddock declared,”empty intensity, hollow exhortation”
Obviously I feel a service is the sum of its parts. The message is supported and enhanced by the other elements and though it is central to the preaching of God’s word, like an engine to a car, a sermon’s real power derives from the wholeness of the service, not from itself.
Still a sermon must have structure and it must be effective in communicating the word of God. Professor Thomas Long, in his book “The Witness of Preaching”, discusses four forms which a sermon can take. I used the traditional outline form when I was a Lay speaker and it provided a security blanket for me. The notes were all neatly typed and laid before, perfectly organized so all I had to do was read. Then one time I had to deliver an impromptu sermon with little preparation time. Everyone said it was my best message and that I should do more like that. So I started doing less structured and more Holy Spirit driven sermons and eventually was encouraged by the congregation to go into ministry. However I feel such impromptu style has high risk and I should develop a structure which keeps me more focused on the message. Using a theme format gives me a specific direction but I feel the form of my sermons needs more definition and structure. As Long points out, “A sermon form is a plan for the experience of listening, not just an arrangement of data…”
Of the sermon forms Long writes about, that advocated by Eugene Lowry is similar to the style I use. According to Long, “Lowry believes that sermons should begin by describing this problem, dilemma, or bind so clearly that the hearer feels “ambiguity” and desire its resolution.” A pastor is essentially a story teller, not a lecturer. And a sermon, like any good story, needs to start with a mystery, a tantalizing scrap of information which draws people into the story and spark a desire to know the ending. It needs to resonate with the lives that people live today and connect stories of the Bible with the stories we experience in modern times.
Creating a form which entertains and teaches requires greater structure than simply relying on the Holy Spirit. But an outline goes too far and fragments the story into lifeless data. Some structure is required which doesn’t disrupt the flow or loses the meaning of the story. One of the forms I tried required that answering 6 or 8 questions. The idea was that if I answered these questions in regards to the planned scriptures readings, everything would fall together like a puzzle and I would have my sermon. I used it a couple of times but the questions were too scholastic and convoluted. The resulting sermon was better suited for academic lecture halls than churches.
One of my former churches was not satisfied with Methodist theology and was looking for any opportunity to drop out of the Methodist family. Obviously I didn’t talk about Mission Shares. Instead the focus is on being a community church, (we’re the only one in town) community Sunday school, (which is one of two thing keeping our doors open) and the annual Fall fund raising, (which is the other thing).
My other church was the biggest one in town but has been reduced to a remnant of itself. Though solid Methodist who worry when they can’t pay their Apportionments, (mission shares never caught on) they felt resigned to a slow and certain demise. They reflect on the past but have little hope for the future.
As a novice at these two churches, my sermons focused on outreach, risk taking missions and evangelism for both churches. However I began to speak about each member’s personal relationship with God. It was hard to accept that I was a hospice preacher. Instead of focusing on evangelism, I tried to instill a deeper desire to know the Lord and allow their lives to be guided by spiritual awareness rather than secular pragmatism. I sensed a desire by my older members to finally get it right; in part, because they wish to be ready, but also because they want to leave a spiritual legacy behind.
There are other opportunities to preach besides Sunday morning and other places besides my two churches. As a reformed agnostic, I experience Prevenient and Justifying Grace and often talk about it to a new audience. Funerals and weddings are excellent places to preach this message. I make sure that everyone knows that God’s grace is offered to all people at all times. Since most of these people only come to church for funerals, weddings, confirmations or baptisms, I take advantage of revealing this little secret of God’s unwarranted grace. Who knows someone might be paying attention.
On occasion we do combined services with other denominations. When asked to do the sermon I have another opportunity to reach a different audience. I keep it lighthearted and humorous. But I also speak on the role of churches within the community. For our churches to be maintained we must intentionally insert our churches into the life of the community. So my sermons are more of an outreach and risk-taking message.
I have gotten to know my members as friends, committee members, work partners, confidants, and fellow Christians. I do realize that we are all human and that we each experience the human journey and share a common experience. Before the passing of the peace, I remind everyone that we are not gathered as friends, neighbors, business associates, relatives or Methodists, but as Christians who share a common following of Christ.
It’s impossible for any pastor to know how his message will be received. Each listener will react and focus on different aspect of the sermon. I once preached on the need to devote the same earnest effort to prayer and meditation as we do to our jobs. Afterward a lady came up to me and said, “Your sermon helped me make a decision. I’ve decided to take some time off and go on vacation.”
It is a challenge to know how they are listening. Do they hear with the ears of an overworked mother, a father worried about paying bills, an older person concerned about Medicare, a boss needing to make important decisions or someone who doesn’t know what to do with their elderly parents. In my sermons I try to speak to the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, employee and employer, grandparents and the grandchildren.
The Bible is not a book on history or theology, or a textbook or reference book. It is not a journal or a how-to book. The Bible is a story about people. People faced with challenges and ordeals that we still face today. I believe the challenge of the pulpit is to reassure people that the answers God gave to Abraham and Moses, to David and Jeremiah, to Paul and Peter are the same as those He gives to us today. Because we are all human and all experience the same human journey and are loved by the same God. It is on these common grounds that God’s grace is revealed and shared.
The myth is that Abe Lincoln scribbled out the Gettysburg Address on an envelope the night before the dedication ceremony in November 1863. The truth is President Lincoln knew he might be asked to say a few words and began to formulate his speech in July. He did write the final version on an envelope but it was the result of deep thought and long contemplation. John Wayne would refer to this as “…ruminating for ideas”. While former Senator Lloyd Bentsen would be quick to point out to me, “you’re no Abe Lincoln”, I feel my thought process is similar to Mr. Lincoln’s.
Each Monday after Bible study I put together the bulletin. Scriptures are selected, usually from the lectionary, opening prayer; offertory prayer and affirmation of faith are chosen and edited. I consider alternate worship options, allow for special Sundays, and select music based on if my best singers are going to be there. Once I get it all down on computer I attach it to e-mail and send it to my secretary who does it for both churches.
Then I begin to ruminate. Truth is Tuesday through Thursday not a lot of cud gets chewed. But by Friday afternoon I begin to graze my Bibles, commentaries, reference books and websites. I already had a general idea of how I was going to use the scriptures and, unless something happened during the week I’m still committed to those scriptures and ideas. Though I prefer the NKJV I use the NIV because that’s what we have in the pews. I place them on my Kindle@ and then add any supporting scriptures or notes. I then rehearse my sermon before my cat and dog whose reaction is sometimes more enthusiastic than my congregation’s. I have to be careful here because often my best presentation is in front of the pets on Saturday rather than the parishioners on Sunday. I can’t allow myself to get caught up in the Holy Spirit a day too early. For this reason I’m usually done by 1:00 Saturday and don’t give it another thought until we light the candles on Sunday. And that’s it. As a Pastor I need to be able to say a prayer, finds words of comfort or encouragement and even give a sermon on demand. So I have to spend a lot of time ‘ruminating’.
 Craddock, Fred B., Preaching, Abingdon Press 1985 Edition. Pg 18
 Long, Thomas G., The Witness of Preaching, Second Edition, Westminister John Knox Press, Pg 123
 Long, Thomas G., The Witness of Preaching, Second Edition, Westminister John Knox Press, Pg 126