Where Do Good Sermons Come From?

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Listening for the Sermon

Where do good sermons come from? My best sermons occur to me in an internal and external environment quiet enough for listening. Quiet is so important for my own sermon work that I sometimes wonder how preachers who thrive on noise and action manage to unplug long enough to prepare sermons at all, or whether their process is completely different from mine. Here is the kind of listening I do in order to finally hear the sermon I will preach.

Listening to Scripture
I do not mean exegesis here, though close reading of a biblical text is its own form of listening, and one I commend! I have in mind here a broader kind of listening. I have come to believe that a preacher limiting their attention to the pericope on which the sermon is based is something like a family therapist treating only the so-called “identified patient,” without attending to how other family members are part of what is happening in the family. There is more to any Bible story than can be printed in the bulletin for reading aloud, just as there is more to any life story than can be heard in one conversation.

Before I start writing a sermon or look closely at the sermon text, I often read the whole letter, gospel, book or section of a book (such as the Joseph cycle of stories in Genesis) from which I am preaching. For those whose sermons are always on the gospel reading appointed by the lectionary, this practice may get a little repetitive. Adapt the practice in any way that helps you listen for how your sermon text is part of something bigger. Imagine listening to long sections of the book of Jeremiah with the same combination of interest, patience, boredom, and curiosity that you listen to the unfolding stories of the people among whom you live.

Listening to People
Good sermons come from real relationships. Conversation with would-be listeners of sermons is a way to exegete the place and time within which the preacher speaks. To preach well, one needs to know what is going on in people’s lives, and what is going on in the congregation’s shared life.

The kind of listening I am commending should not be confused with a practice most of us preachers also know from experience, namely, trawling for sermon illustrations late in the week, when a sermon seems to be going nowhere. We strike up conversations with bank tellers, grocery clerks, the quilting ladies, the high school kids in the fellowship hall: not because we are particularly interested in these people but because we need a sermon for Sunday. Apart from the ethical concerns about using the content of private conversations in public proclamation, this practice of conversation as a means to the end of sermon content leaves people feeling used, as if their lives matter to us only in as much as we can exploit them for our work.

Instead of such instrumental use of conversation, I suggest two other kinds of listening. First is the listening that results from genuine curiosity about people’s lives. What was the experience of registering for the draft like for the high school senior? What has it been like for the 50 year-old to be back in the job market? How does it feel to be alive one year out from a cancer diagnosis? We are not looking for sermon fodder here; we are just paying attention to the people who will hear our proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Knowing them helps us know how to speak God’s word to them.

The other kind of listening is more closely connected with a stuck sermon. The conversation with the quilting ladies or the high school kids is different if the preacher does not feign interest in one thing (the people) while looking for help with another (the sermon). Instead of that, one might simply admit to being stuck at a certain place in the sermon. The preacher presents the group with the problem: “It seems to me like the dad in the story of the prodigal son is kind of a pushover. I don’t know how to talk about that story without it sounding like God’s grace is just permission to throw your life away. What do you think?” The conversation that results will probably make the sermon better. Moreover, it will likely leave one’s conversation partners feeling part of a proclamation that is the work of a whole community seeking to hear God’s word and keep it.

Listening for Words
Good sermons also come from listening to how the words one chooses will sound in the sermon itself. A friend who preaches without any notes practices the entire sermon multiple times out loud, in an empty sanctuary. Those of us who produce manuscripts often listen for words, and listen to them imaginatively, as we write. Some people call this “writing for the ear.” Others speak of oral/aural performance. To listen for words is to ask about the words of the sermon, “Do I really talk like that?” and “Do my people talk like that?” Whatever the label, good sermons are not good essays. They, and the words used in them, are more immediate than the words of an essay. Good sermons are preached with words that connect preacher, text, and people in the shared, lived experience of God’s Word.