Sermons are born, not made," a pastor told me. "A good sermon takes weeks of incubation, and when its time has come, the final push could be compared to the labor pains of childbirth. In my brain I push real hard, and when it arrives the sermon has a life of its own—looking at me, even while I am delivering it." The pastor's wife laughed at the comparison, knowing that he had only vicarious experience with the pain of childbirth. But there is something of birth in every honest sermon.
Many pastors go through three phases of sermon preparation. The first is the chaos of gathering seeds from many sources, the search for ideas, images and metaphors. Some pastors always turn first to the scripture, concentrating on a text that comes from their own spiritual discipline, from the assigned lectionary or from mention in a random conversation, newspaper item or radio program. Scripture is the seed bed, the nurturing framework.
Other pastors begin by pondering a vivid experience in the parish, an illness or concern raised in a counseling session, a helpful book they are reading or a doctrine they wish to examine. Then they seek the right text to give a foundation to their message. When told he was not biblical, one pastor protested, "Of course I reject the lectionary, because I need access to the whole Bible to respond to the conditions of my people."
Whatever their approach, pastors agree that the first phase is chaos. "You gather all sorts of related materials, but you never know in advance how it will take shape," said one well-known preacher whose finished sermons are always finely polished works.
Phase two is order, the opposite of chaos. All preachers must determine a point in the week when they will "get down to business." Some call it shaping the backbone of the sermon, others talk of melding the fragments into a single form or unified body. Pastors use an amazing array of routines to bring order to scattered ideas. Some must always work at a particular time of a particular day. "I always begin at 7 A.M. on Tuesday," said one. "I can work only in the quiet of the night," said another. Yet another said, "It happens only when I have a pad of yellow paper and three pencils, and when I am sitting in my chair."
It seems a pleasant irony that creative sermons are shaped through such ritualized activities. During the process, the pastoral imperatives of the parish must be laid aside, but not forgotten. The places where most pastors craft their sermons incorporate symbols of the congregation, are physically comfortable and resonate with the vibrations of prayer offered earlier. One pastor claimed that she had "taught that space to speak to me." Another recalled pacing within the work space, but also "sitting in an empty sanctuary at night to empathize with the people who will be listening to me on Sunday."
The mental alarm clock contributes to sermon preparation. Sometimes the clock runs on time and at the right moment the sermon is ready for delivery. Unfortunately, sometimes the sermon assumes a will of its own and refuses to meet the deadline. Even the well-worn rituals of sermon preparation can't always guarantee an on-time arrival. In this mix of ritual and creativity, "nothing always works."
The final phase is a social "coming out": preaching the sermon to the worshiping community. In the evangelical and black church traditions, birthing a sermon is very much a communal event. The pastor often sweats in the labor, and the congregation participates as the invited midwife who is personally involved in this creative moment. Preacher and people share the experience. Once delivered, the sermon is incorporated into the Christian family. In many mainline congregations, preaching is more of an intellectual exercise and the worshipers more distant and restrained. Unfortunately, in those situations few members will comment on the "baby," and fewer still can remember it on Tuesday. Such sermons are more like a minted coin than a screaming kid.
From my observation of this weekly cycle from chaos to creativity, I've concluded that it's not so much that skilled preachers make strong congregations as that engaged congregations make great preachers.