Pulpit Soapbox – a mini-rant and a preaching lesson

Saint Paul at Saint Paul's, London

Saint Paul at Saint Paul’s, London

I love good preaching.

Okay, I am a preacher by trade.  I am a decent preacher by practice. You can hear my sermons at Sounds like Grace or gracetc.org .  I love getting to hear really good preaching.  I hate bad preaching.  Abhor. Loathe. Detest.  Judge.  Oh, yes, I judge and judge with disdain and anger when I feel like an opportunity has been wasted.

The Good News is my life, and I want it getting out.  I have range.  Don’t guess that I don’t.  I appreciate when someone has a different approach that is theirs and it works.  Case in point, I was a young Southern Baptist who had never heard a woman preach until college.  A Southern Baptist pastor the Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell changed my world when she preached a sermon that I simply didn’t have the self to preach.  It was a sermon from a woman’s perspective, and it was beautifully constructed and delivered and handled Scripture and truth with integrity.  I was then, and I am still blown away by a good sermon.

I have been an Episcopalian for fifteen years now; most of those years have been in professional ministry.  And the preaching here is not famous for being great.  Oh, we have our bright spots.  But we are far more likely to produce good vestments than good sermons.

Don’t take it personally, yet, if you are a preacher or you love one.  Maybe your pastor is the exception.  But so many sermons lack one thing.  Just one thing.  Most people don’t know what the Heaven they want to say.  Know what you are trying to say, and the rest will pretty much flow.

Here are the basic four principles of good preaching.  I can help you.  Contact me if you need coaching.  Contact someone.  For the love of God.  But these four rules will get you started.

  1. The first thing you have to figure out is what you are trying to say and what you are actually saying.  Know what you are trying to say.  Be able to say it in one sentence.  Even if no one else knows what you are trying to say, you should.  Then pay attention to what your congregation is hearing.
  2. Talk with your audience.  Look at the them.  Listen to them.  Their understanding is your goal, so pay attention and communicate with them.  If they don’t understand what you are saying, back up and say it again.  Repeat something.  Ask questions.  Honor them.  Love your congregation in the sermon.  Trust them.  Without this number one is a waste of time.
  3. Be yourself and have fun.  I like obscure things and use them often.  Greek, history, odd moments in the Simpsons.  I once based an entire sermon on a Bob Marley song.  It was a hard sermon, and I am not sure more than two of two hundred of my parishioners like Bob.  But they loved the sermon because I was having fun and it was authentically me.  People want to hear what you have to say about these great truths and mysteries.  That isn’t the same as preaching your self or your politics or your issues.  But use what you know and love to communicate God’s word.  You will have more fun that way, and fun is infectious.
  4. Pray.  The great black baptist pastor who taught me preaching invited a younger pastor to preach (not me).  Afterwards he told him he wouldn’t have him back because although the sermon was clever, it was not steeped in prayer.  You could tell.  Your people can.  In the end, preaching is an act of faith and worship, of love.  Steep your sermons in prayer.  Be humble.  Seek God’s word before and during and after.  People don’t really hear us.  They hear God speaking if we are faithful.  I have had people get things from sermons that were not in my prep at all, but that they needed.  My prayer is that they hear God.  Listening to the sermon should be like opening the Bible.  We are saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

I preach without notes so that I can communicate rather than read.  I don’t memorize my text; I learn the text.  I write out the Biblical texts every week at least twice.  I read the New Testament passages in Greek, as best I can with lots of study helps.  I make mind maps and plans.  I have multiple examples, and most of them are extras.

After studying, I try to discern what God is saying in the texts, in my community, and in me.  I write out the sermon in a kind of outline form, which looks more like ugly word art than a manuscript or even an outline.  Then I write it out again.  And almost always a third time.  Then I look for the central single statement I can boil it down to.

Then I take that statement and look for an analogy or story or picture that will precisely draw that statement in people’s minds.  People should go home with an image, a picture, a story, and most importantly a greater understanding God and the Bible.

Don’t draw out every conclusion.  Trust your people to think and pray and mull.  Leave open what is open.  I want my people to think and pray and mull, so I leave things in every sermon undone, un-concluded, un-finished.  End strongly.  Make A point.  But don’t make every point.

The people you are talking to are the living, breathing, walking, working, singing, dancing Children of God, heirs of the Rule of God, the royal priesthood and keepers of mysteries.  Don’t talk down to your congregation! Ever.  You are not that holy.  You are a butler, a servant to these holy people.  Honor them, and they will listen to you.  You can be direct, honest, even mean without treating someone as less than you.


The example.  This last Sunday was these four texts:  LECTIONARY.  The final sermon at 8 was this one: SERMON.

The prep included several pages of notes.  Here are two examples.


The central conundrum as I understood it was that we are not called to this work and life for ourselves.  We are called to move outward, to grow up past the law into the ethics of ownership which includes some real responsibility.  In the previous weeks I had used the Keys to the Kingdom as a central image and wanted to talk about the bishop giving you those keys at your confirmation.  But after the first run through, I realized it was too small an image, and the sermon was too heady without a stronger image for Sunday morning.

Now my Saturday night congregation is primarily the long-time faithful who include about 25% retired clergy every week.  There are Jungian Christian explorers and older women who have carried the church for decades.  Collectively there is like a millennium of experience of faith there, so I don’t do a whole lot of drawing conclusions, almost always leave in the notes and obscuranta, and can leave a heady sermon knowing they will take it into their hearts.  I do have to be directive about encouragement, hope, and the need the church has for them to give back their wisdom and learning and faith.

Sundays is more mixed.  The eight o’clock service is quiet and is between Saturday night and Sunday at 10 am in terms of maturity.  I bring in more imagery and explanation, filter out most obscure note things, and start to draw more clear and concise conclusions.  I don’t have to push as hard emotionally with this group.  They are focused, and the service is quiet and easy to keep focussed without much rhetorical work.  I don’t have to repeat much and circle back as intentionally as the later service with music and kids.

Sunday at eight is a solid group though, and quick to laugh.

So you can see the development in the sermon, imagery, and delivery.  If you look back on the sermon blog, you can find Sundays where two versions are included and can compare.  Finally, I always circle back to the sermon in the welcome and announcements.  It is the place where I am reminding people of how to make this concrete and what they are bringing into the Eucharistic prayer and communion.

I hope this is fun for you.

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