There is a file on my desktop called “Sermon Stories.”
The idea of this file is to collect phrases, images, and short paragraphs describing experiences and stories that would work well as sermon illustrations. A suggestion from a seminary professor in Homiletics, the file is a great idea, and it actually contains some pretty good material. Unfortunately, I hardly ever use it.
First of all, I haven’t found a way to sort these stories into any kind of useful system, so it’s nearly impossible to match up stories with Scripture texts. Second, I probably should rename the file “Sermon Stories For My Next Call,” because many of them are about current parishioners, rendering them inappropriate in this context. Third, I have a habit of writing down just enough of the story to remember the impact and the outline, but not to recall the details I would need to preach it well.
All this is to say that, despite my intentions and efforts, my sermon illustrations usually come from things I have experienced or remembered that particular week, preparing with a specific text in mind. I end up using the smaller, more immediate impressions instead of the more dramatic, profound experiences. Rather than feel guilty about this, I have come to appreciate the way it shapes the way I process my environment.
I am grateful for the way that seeking a way to connect Scripture and my daily reality in order to preach changes the way I view both. Looking at the world, I ask questions that I was taught to ask of Scripture: Where are glimpses of the kingdom of God? How do we experience God’s judgment? Where is the Good News? Then my conversation with the text itself becomes much more immediate as I imagine the daily worries and hopes of the people whose stories are recorded there. What do they fear? Where is their hope?
Last summer, I worked with a small group of lay preachers in my congregation as they studied Scripture, prepared sermons, and preached. At the end, they all told me how convinced they were that God had chosen that specific text for them, and how the time and care spent preparing their sermon had a powerful impact on the way they saw their world and themselves. Hearing their witness reminded me of the privilege of intimacy that exists between God and an attentive preacher.
Ideally, I suppose, each of us would interpret the world using this intensely theological framework. Whether preachers or hearers, ordained or lay, we would carry on one long conversation with the Word of God. Many certainly do, and some with a kind of effortlessness that makes me envious of their natural perspective. But, for the rest of us, I consider the process of preparing and hearing sermons a valuable means of directing our attention, asking us to retrace again the steps of God’s creating, saving, and sustaining presence. As I grow and learn from the immediacy of God’s grace evident in my daily life, so do those who hear my preaching. It is the power of the Word to awaken and enliven us, not just once, but again and again.