In 1940, my Uncle Ray, a young Methodist pastor, was named interim pastor of a thriving community in Kansas, an assignment that usually went to a more senior minister. He was told by his district superintendent that if he did well over the next six weeks, the appointment could be permanent at the upcoming annual conference. The following is taken from his memoirs.
“I knew that good preaching was the key to good pastoring. I never worked so hard on sermons in my life as I did for the next six weeks, preaching Sunday morning and Sunday night.” Being named pastor after the six week’s trial, he plunged headlong in to the work of the parish and continued to place a high priority on preaching. “I began to work long hours on my sermon. The importance of sermon preparation became habit, and the disciplines I established at that assignment became the habits of a lifetime in sermon preparation. Some prolific fellow ministers I knew claimed that they could throw together an outline together in an hour or two on Saturday night, and preach it on Sunday morning. Others told me that they made little or no preparation at all, saying that they simply let the Lord put the words into their mouths.
One day in town, I encountered a layman from the Church of one such preacher, and I said, “Your pastor tells me that he depends on God to tell him what to say when he stands up to preach on Sunday morning. “Yeah,” the man responded, “that may be so, but what gets me is that when the Lord QUITS telling him, he keeps right on going on his own.” It began to take me on average, 20-22 hours to bring a 20 minute sermon from its first rough draft to its final polish. I wrote and re-wrote and began to look upon preaching as an art. I felt it should not be done sloppily lest one insult the ear of God and the intelligence of the congregation.”
Over the years, preaching well became a hallmark of Uncle Ray’s ministry, and his discipline in careful preparation, exegesis, analysis of the congregation, attention to the news of the day, and quite simply, long hours spent in his study, never faltered or diminished. If anything, he became ever more dedicated to the life-giving art of preaching.
My uncle realized early in his ministry that preaching is vital to a community. He also realized that although he had natural gifts for this work, those gifts had to be carefully honed. His ability had to be supported and sustained by ongoing effort and by adequate time set aside for reflection, study, prayer, and preparation. It simply takes time preach well. While most preachers can occasionally “get by” with little to no preparation, a 10 minute homily in the Catholic tradition should take hours--even days to prepare.
Preparation should begin at least a week or more prior to preaching, with reflection and prayer on the scripture passages. Lectio Divina, an ancient method of praying with scripture is one way of immersing oneself into the words and images of the Bible. This repetitive and meditative process may be undertaken alone, or in a group. What words linger? What images capture the imagination? What questions emerge? Is there something jarring or challenging to explore?
Here are some other ways to attend to the scripture in the early phase of homily preparation:
Write the passage out by hand and carry it with you, reading it periodically in juxtaposition with your location and activities. How does the message resonate in different locations and among different people?
Memorize it, if possible. What we know "by heart" changes us, and the message.
Engage the senses. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, and touch in the passage/s?
How do the readings fit into the liturgical season?
Next, turn to commentaries and scholarly works to explore the nuances of language, ancient traditions and culture, and connections with other passages. Only after you have engaged the readings personally, do you turn to exegesis and scholarly commentary. Do this too soon in the preparation, before you are immersed in the text, and homilies may sound more like academic lectures than a lively and sacred conversation among the text, the preacher, the listeners and the signs of the times.
Preachers must be proactive in helping the community understand the role of preaching in the life of discipleship. They must unapologetically clear space in their calendars, in their minds, and in their hearts so that week in and week out, they can offer words and images that invite their listeners into an encounter with the living Christ. It’s about time.