If you’ve sat through many church sermons, you’ve probably heard some challenging and stimulating ones, and you’ve heard some boring ones.  At one time or another, particularly during a boring sermon, most of us have asked ourselves the question, “How hard can it be?”

My answer to that is, it all depends.  I’ve had the chance to preach on occasions, and all I know is that I would not want to be a senior minister having to crank out a sermon every week.  The preparation is time consuming, frustrating, and, if done with the right kind of attention, is usually a bit like ripping off a scab.  If I put in the time and pay attention to the process, a sermon, or rather my understanding, grows through at least three stages, each one more painful and more interesting than the last.  This process became clearer to me a few years ago when I was to preach on the text, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”  Here’s how it happens for me.


The first part of the development of the sermon is basic content.  I spend time reading, studying, and doing some preliminary writing about the chosen text.  This is usually the easiest part because it involves going to my favorite commentaries and other sources and reading the works of people who have already done the kind of scholarly work that is beyond my skill and knowledge.  From these sources I get meanings of words such as “blessed” as they developed from the Hebrew or Greek, cultural and historical context for the scripture, and other background that helps me understand the context in which the words were originally spoken or written.  This step alone yields a pretty decent sermon.  This is the easiest part because it primarily engages the intellect.  Dealing with facts, background, thoughts and theories is for most of us the easiest and least threatening approach to something.


A more difficult but fruitful phase of sermon preparation comes when I let the content that I’ve gathered percolate over the course of a few days or weeks.  Once the text and the basic ideas are lodged in my head, they become a filter through which I begin to see my daily experience.  I begin to notice ways the text applies to my current situation. I don’t necessarily go searching for ways to apply it.  I simply discover ways it already applies.  I recall personal history in which the text is relevant, and I begin to notice ways that it is relevant interpersonally, culturally, politically, and in other aspects of life.  At this point the scripture comes to life and begins to make sense in new and exciting ways.

When that happens I not only have content, I have appreciation and application.  I have gone from “I have to write a sermon” to “Oh, that’s interesting” to “Oh my, look at that!”  That alone makes for a better sermon.


But that’s not the end of the process.  If I continue to pay attention, to let the meaning percolate, at some point I encounter a crisis.  Some event takes place in my life that forces the question, “Are you going to live out those ideas that have been percolating or are you going to play it safe and do things the way you normally do?”

I hate it when that happens, but I now know from experience that the middle of the crisis is precisely where I need to be.  If I can live in the midst of the crisis and not panic and push for a quick resolution, something inevitably happens.  Something I had not seen or thought of before pushes its way into my consciousness and provides a new awareness or even a new option.  The text has become a part of me and I have a living sermon, at least for me.  If I can then put all that into words that are coherent, I have a sermon to share with others.


The sermon about being “poor in spirit” played itself out in just such a personal crisis.  During my sermon preparation/percolation, I found myself in a significant conflict with another person.  OK, not a conflict, a battle of wills.  It was one those situations in which no matter who wins, there was going to be too much emotional collateral damage for anyone to feel good about the outcome.  In the heat of the conflict, I had to ask myself, “How does being poor in spirit apply in this battle of wills?  What would it mean to spiritually poor in this situation?  Can I allow myself to experience spiritual poverty here, or will I continue to fight for my way?”

In the midst of the conflict I had to retreat into silence.  I went to a place where I could be alone.  I began with reciting to myself all my own wishes, preferences, fears, angers, and all the other things that were driving me.  Then I sat.  In the silence, I began to recognize those things for what they were, the frantic energy of a frightened, untrusting person.

In that moment, spiritual poverty for me meant giving up my own agenda; an agenda driven by fear that had me believing I had to control the outcome (which wasn’t really in my control anyway), and believing that I knew what was best for myself and the other person (who was perfectly capable of deciding that for herself).  I had to divest myself of the belief that I was entitled to have things go my way because of my own goodness or because I thought the other person owed me that.

It took awhile, in silence, to clear away the mental and emotional clutter and to realize some things.  I could frame those realizations in spiritual terms or humanistic terms, but either way, I had to place my faith in something more than my imagined ability to see the future.  I had to trust in the wisdom of someone other than myself.  I had to remember that a decision that came out of love and respect for the other person would provide a better outcome than one that came out of fear and grasping for control.


The conflict was resolved with far greater mutual understanding that I would have imagined.  And the sermon?  It went well.  I learned some things.