"Oh no, I've preached on this text a hundred times! What can I say now?"
What preacher hasn't thought that? Our present three-year lectionary is a vast improvement over the old one-year lectionary. Still, many texts are so familiar that we wonder what we can say that's creative or fresh. What will we do in the summer of 2009, when we have five straight Sundays of John, chapter six? What will we say about the "bread of life" that we haven't already said before, or said the Sunday before? Here are four suggestions:
1. Look for parts of the text you've never noticed before.
Retired homiletics professor Eugene Lowry preached at our seminary chapel some years ago. His text was the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30. The apparent point of the story is "use well what you have been given," and most of us have preached this simple moralism more than once. Dr. Lowry, however, began his sermon by asking, "Where's the gospel in this, the good news?" He noted that most people pass quickly over the opening verse and focus on how the three servants used the talents. The gospel, he said, is in the very first verse: The man "entrusted his property to them." The message of the sermon was that God has entrusted to us all creation, all that we have, and finally the coming of Jesus. God gave us "all the property." It's all a gift! Once we have established the wonder of this gospel, then we can consider how to steward these gifts. The sermon was a different slant on a familiar text.
One text last summer was the much beloved Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37. The lawyer's initial question was, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus asks what the man read in the law, and he gave the two answers we know so well: Love God and love your neighbor. What can I say about that story that I haven't said many times?
As often as I've thought about and preached on that text, I noticed one little detail I had never realized before. The man asked about eternal life, but at the end of the story Jesus said, "Do this and you will live." The direct answer to the lawyer's question would have been, "you will have eternal life," but no, Jesus says simply, "you will live." I took that to mean that Jesus was telling the lawyer not to be so concerned about eternal life that he would neglect how one lives here and now. Jesus shifted the focus from eternal to daily life. How should we live this life? Love God and neighbor, here and now.
In basing a sermon on some often overlooked part of the text one needs to make sure to be faithful to the overall message of the text, but it is precisely in these small details that familiar texts can be given fresh insight.
2. Have a different audience in mind.
How would poor people hear this story? Oppressed people? What would this text mean to someone dying, someone depressed, lonely or a skeptic? Every congregation has a variety of people and a variety of circumstances. New voices have enriched how we read familiar text--liberation theology, feminist theology, persons from other parts of the world, for example. Listen with the ears of different people.
3. Read, read, read!
A preacher is like a lake. To keep the lake fresh, rivers and a spring must be flowing in even as the weekly sermons are flowing out. With no inflow, the lake will run dry, and so will the preacher. There is no substitute for wide and constant reading. Novels, poetry, short stories, journals, commentaries, theology--whatever you read, your preaching will profit. I find it helpful to take notes while I'm reading. Underlining doesn't do me any good, because I soon forget what I've underlined. I type my notes and put them in a notebook, lately on a disk, and refer to them often.
4. Keep your eyes and ears open.
In a recent Partners journal, Pastor Terrill Sorenson of Britton, South Dakota, wrote, "There is a treasure trove of ingredients to assist us in our preparation to preach and teach the faith. It's found in the homegrown stories and histories of the people we serve." (Partners, July/August 2007, 14)
In my former parish, my partners and I were chronically behind in visiting shut-ins. An elderly lady offered to visit them all for us. Her visitation ministry was an enormous help. I asked permission to mention that in a sermon, and the modest lady turned me down flat. I had to wait until she died, and even then she probably looked down from heaven in stern disapproval. It's tricky to use local stories, but with tact and permission it can be done, and they carry immediate credibility and persuasion with a congregation.
There are stirring stories of faith in the history of every congregation and community. Listen for them!
No, it's not easy to remain fresh. It takes effort, but the effort is enormously rewarding. The Bible will never grow stale, and even the most familiar verses will shine with new luster.