How I Prepare a Sermon
by The Rev. Canon Glenn Spencer
Rector, All Saints Anglican Church
1) This is the beginning: I read the text several times as soon as possible. I am intentionally attentive to the text. I read it over and over again at different times during the day as early in the week as possible. I look at the Greek/English parallel verse by verse and then word by word. I read it in context only after I have spent some time on the text as it stands. Later if the text is part of a paragraph, I read the whole paragraph, then I read the paragraph within the chapter and then the sections of the book. One reason the canons require graduate classroom work in both the Old and New Testaments is that it takes a long time to prepare a good sermon — years, not days. By the time you are in your study and doing research for your Sunday sermon you will have put the requisite time in to Romans or Matthew or The Revelation so that you have some understanding of what the author means to communicate to his audience. With that time and study you are then prepared to dig deep and wide for the potential meanings and applications of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books, libraries, cultures, and communities.
2) I am always asking myself, “What is going on in this text in the author’s world?” “What is going on in the text within this chapters and the whole book?” It is difficult to pass over to the author’s horizon, as well as the horizon of his intended audience, however it is not impossible. But it is not likely to occur accidentally. This is a period of full immersion in the textual experience. And it is time to discover for yourself and for your parishioners what has been overlooked and forgotten. Take the word “sacrifice,” and do a word study and imaginatively pass over to the horizon of the intended audience. For us today the word is practically an abstraction, but not in that day when Paul wrote the Romans to “offer their bodies as a living sacrifice…” But note the difference between then and now as it is elaborated by Dom Gregory Dix: “It must be remembered that this sacrificial language was then (in Paul’s day) endowed with a vividness of meaning which it cannot have today. To us it is no more than a metaphor and one, moreover, which raises no clear mental picture. Few modern Christians have ever seen a blood sacrifice. But for those who first used this language sacrifice — in its crude and bloody reality — was an everyday spectacle. For many of them it had been the very heart of religion for half a lifetime before they ever heard of the Eucharist. It is very significant that while these same writers are never tired of ridiculing the sacrificial cult of paganism and depreciating the effectiveness of the ‘typical’ sacrifice of the Old Testament… they (were) never led to avoid such language about the Eucharist. Accordingly, when they use it, it must be given its full meaning.” And what he says about the Eucharist must be said as well about St. Paul’s insistence that we offer our bodies as living sacrifices: “it must be given its full meaning.” So the preacher has to be shaken from his own theological slumber so that he may be an instrument to call Christian sleepers to awake. You do this only by wondering if you really understand what you’re reading and passing over to the horizon of the author and his audience.
3) When I jump to conclusions about the meaning of the text (which is sure to happen if I am paying attention to the text) I bracket them and I try to set them aside so that I may see in the text what my snap conclusions may conceal, which means I am taking notes. I have not always done this. Frequently the snap conclusion in and of itself isn’t a theological error and it may be perfectly orthodox and useful to the church; the error is that it is not what the text is about, it may be lazy in a way. Snap conclusions may be personal, subconscious tricks, or they may be socially constructed smoke screens that obstruct insight into the text; snap conclusions, aka — “the obvious meaning,” are like bait to a fish; they have a tendency to lure me away from the text into an abstraction, an abstract meaning, a concept, and so I bracket them.
4) I will come back to my brackets later because I have learned that my snap judgments may be revelatory of other things: If they are the result of personal biases I can learn something about myself. If they are socially constructed I can learn something about myself, my family or one of the many communities I tend to straddle in life. They may be the result of fear or laziness or hurriedness or they may be true insights. Sometimes when making snap judgments I have to work hard to keep them from looming over my work and overly influencing my reading and I have to be hard on myself to accomplish the bracketing and I do not always succeed. I have to say to myself that I may well be grabbing the “ready-to-hand” as a way to avoid my bewilderment of an alien and threatening text. If a text just seems obvious and comfortable that’s a red flag. The “trouble-free” meaning should trouble me. Moralism arrises or gives birth to “trouble-free” meaning because moralism is the pay-off and we have something to say — we can safely pontificate on the moral. Moralism is the “ready-to-hand” meaning that is the mark of laziness and timidity. What do I fear? Am I lazy about meaning? Snap, bourgeois conclusions, the “ready-to-hand,” homogenize the text, relieving my unease and puzzlement over its weirdness or my fear that the text is simply not relevant and has nothing to say to us today. Am I trying to protect the text from insignificance? How do I know what is insignificant? How much of my personal, ready-made life, which has had several decades to build up its vindications and defenses, is working to protect me from the nagging fear deep inside of me that there really is no significance? Maybe I should let the text declare its insignificance and embrace it?
5) Heidegger’s concept of the “ready-to-hand” was a way of talking about things in the world that are at hand, available for use, like a hammer or the everyday use of the concepts of space and time. I use a hammer by picking it up and I don’t even think about it. The same with space and time. I don’t criticize it because I use it to achieve something and I do not need to think about it as I use it. But when the ready-at-hand breaks it gets my attention in a way it did not before because it is no longer useful. Snap judgements (which may be right or wrong, fitting or unfitting to the text) are frequently ready-to-hand and since they are so useful in getting a hold on the text they are practically invisible. It takes a lot of attentiveness to see what isn’t broken, especially when it makes you feel like you are getting somewhere with the text when in fact you are going absolutely nowhere.
6) Sometimes discovering the significance of a text requires its audience. In that sense discovering the meaning of texts is a collaboration between the preacher and the audience, not that audience participation in the sense of turning the sermon into a dialogue is beneficial which it is not, but that Christ’s disciples in a congregation represent a multitude of incarnational events and commitments that in a manner constitute a mutually shared horizon that is wider, deeper, and richer than any one single horizon. Pastoral & lay dialogues should be encouraged as a way by which the preached sermon may bare more and more fruit.
Words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books, tombs, libraries, cultures, and communities. The “ready-to-hand” can impose itself anywhere along the line. Take the Lord’s Prayer as given in Matthew 6:9-13:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”
Two words in the Lord’s Prayer illustrate the “ready-at-hand” and its power to lull us into a slumber. The word that we have traditionally translated as “daily” as in “daily bread;” and the word that we have translated as “evil” as in “deliver us from evil.” The word that is ubiquitously translated as “daily” is the word “epiousios.” The word “epiousios” is used two times in all Greek literature — here in Matthew 6:11 and then again in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:3. The word “daily” is a frequent translation in the New Testament but the Greek word from which it is translated is “hemeran,” as in “the day.” The word “epiousios” is composed of two Greek words. The preposition “epi” which means “on, above, after, beyond,” or “set over” for example. While the word “ousios” which means “essence,” “real nature,” or “substance,” and you are familiar with the word as it is used in the Nicene Creed to declare that the Logos is of the very same substance as the Father. So how do we get from epiousios which looks like it should mean “beyond substantial or super-substantial,” to daily? But what does super-substantial mean? It sounds closer to meaning something like a sacramental meal than it does a prayer for daily provisions. At any rate this shows how easy it is to miss out on the meaning it may have for the intended audience.
7) Throughout the process, including when I am composing the sermon, I assume that my parishioners are smarter and better read than I am.
8) If I had to put a monetary cost on the words in the texts and in the sermon I am composing, verbs are the most expensive, adjectives the cheapest.
9) As the years roll on, your parishioners will help with the understanding of the biblical texts. Priest and parishioners will spontaneously collaborate in grasping the meaning and meanings (including the meaning of meaning) of texts and their application to the exigencies of our life together in the Body of Christ. In their comments and questions about sermons and teachings, whether positive or negative, along with our frequently faltering attempts at pastoral care and our mutual bafflement in the face of evil, the priest and his parish become the visible instantiation of the Body of Christ to one another and to the world.