By: Rev. Jeffrey T. Barker
A preaching plan, I believe, needs to make sense and remain coherent on three levels: macro, mezzo and micro. The macro level introduces the global claims of the Gospel writ large. The mezzo level includes consideration of the ecclesiastical (denominational) rhythm, Christian calendar and lectionary texts. The micro level brings the gospel to bear in the particularities of a specific localized context. This frames how I approach my preaching responsibilities. Thus, preparing to preach during the Season of Easter in the localized context in which I find myself only “makes sense” in light of the Gospel writ large.
The Gospel writ large demands we grapple with such theological concerns as the being and nature of God, the Trinity — Father, Son, and Spirit, the Church, Sin, Salvation, Sanctification, the Second Coming. One could also explore these in light of the denomination’s Articles of Faith as a way to keep the big questions before the people of God.
Thus, as I approach preaching during the Season of Easter I attempt to carry forward the journey we have walked together during Lent (Doctrine of Sin). At the same time I work to create space for a greater consideration of the celebration of Pentecost (Doctrine of the Church and Doctrine of the Holy Spirit). While Easter is writ large in the resurrection of Jesus, the hard work of “making sense” of the resurrection occurs in a window of time. Pentecost Sunday prevents us from “holding onto Jesus” too long. These ultimate concerns keep us from becoming too preoccupied with ourselves.
The rhythm of my preaching life has been informed and shaped by the Christian calendar. Let me offer a simple overview. Advent and Christmas hold together six or seven weeks of worship and preaching (Incarnation). The number of weeks in the Season of Epiphany varies much from year to year but always opens space for new discoveries about the personhood of Jesus. Lent provides space for deeper self-reflection and examination (sin). The Season of Easter names and celebrates the resurrection of Jesus (new birth). The purposeful marking of the Pentecost Sunday invites consideration of the role of the Spirit and the life of the Church. Sprinkled throughout the Christian calendar’s annual pilgrimage there are other stopping points to consider the Trinity, ordinary lives of holiness and the like.
More particularly, my preaching life has often been punctuated by the use of the lectionary — weekly readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, New Testament and Gospels. This keeps my preaching life accountable to the whole of Scripture. Yet, on a very practical level, I have found it more helpful for my congregations to preach primarily from one of the texts rather than the interaction of all the texts (yet not always!). For example, the lectionary provides readings from I Peter throughout the Season of Easter. This approach allows a congregation to sit with this letter and consider how it might color and inform their experience of Jesus and who they are to be as the people of God.
Finally, our ecclesiastical (denomination/district) calendars require consideration. My current context requires the Annual Meeting, including elections, to occur in the April-May window. With Easter Sunday on April 16 this year our Annual Meeting will be held on April 23. This shapes and influences potential preaching paths during the Season of Easter. The utilization of the I Peter texts affords us a path to keep the Season of Easter and our ecclesiastical calendar in sync.
In these days, I find myself in a new and different preaching context regularly. As I think about my preaching life in this Season of Easter my context is among a people I am still getting to know as I assist them with the necessary preparations to call and welcome a new pastor. This context and the novelty of our relationship causes me to rely on some guidance from the lectionary. During this particular season, I will preach from the I Peter texts as we imagine who the church is to be. This will culminate on a glorious celebration on Pentecost Sunday. A lot of our time will be spent in reflection upon the nature and purpose of the church.
From Macro to Micro Sermon Process
The movement from the Gospel writ large to the delivery of the sermon in a localized congregation remains dynamic and fluid. A preaching calendar, which is typically 6-9 months ahead, allows me time to be gathering necessary resources for the exegetical work I will be doing. However, my sermon writing becomes a week-to-week journey in conversation with the congregation.
Sermon Text Selection — Having paid attention to the macro and mezzo considerations I reflect upon the context in which I find myself. What are the questions my parishioners seem to be asking? What are the concerns I’m hearing about the neighborhood, city/town, school, elections, etc.? Is the congregation experiencing loss, fatigue, doubt or fear? Questions like these help me discern the lectionary texts to utilize as primary preaching paths. Context matters.
Context — My current preaching context is a transitional ministry assignment. My primary purpose is to help the congregation discern that to which God seems to be calling them in this next chapter of ecclesial life and faithfulness. At the same time that I am preparing a congregation to welcome a new pastor, I am helping them to understand who they are as the ecclesia.
Sermon Gestation — Once sermon text selection and context have been identified my sermon process unfolds purposefully. In the weeks prior to beginning the sermon writing process, I sit with the passage. With the I Peter text, I will read it in one setting 4 or 5 times a week for a month. Adapting the practice of lectio divina, I make note of the words and phrases capturing my attention. It is here that the work of sermon writing begins as it brings transformation to my life.
A second aspect of my sermon preparation is that of exegetical work. I review commentaries and explore any translation work. This work is often front loaded at the beginning of the sermon series as I look for the overall themes and messages in the text. Again, I typically begin this hard work a couple of weeks before the first sermon is delivered. Yet what often becomes my struggle is that I’m often a “season ahead” of my congregation in my theological imagining!
Sermon Writing — The move from the exegetical to the homiletical occurs seamlessly. There are a variety of schools of thought pertaining to use of notes or a manuscript when preaching. Some even argue that neither is appropriate. I am one who preaches “from a manuscript.” The process of working through how I communicate the Gospel is very important for me and occurs best through the completion of a sermon manuscript. It also holds me accountable to sermon focus and length in the larger context of corporate worship.
An important element to note is that, as individuals respond to the sermon each week through comments, questions or email exchanges, I am prodded toward greater faithfulness to the microlevel experience of this particular people. In this way, the sermon process remains interactive between pastor and people.
Sermon Delivery — Many believe the use of a sermon manuscript force one’s eyes to the pulpit, as if one were reading a static document. For me, the sermon manuscript emerges as an oral document. I attend to voice modulation, intonation and pauses. In fact, before I preach a sermon in the context of corporate worship I have often preached the same sermon two or three times to an empty sanctuary. This preparation frees me to “move away from the manuscript” and yet to be careful about my theological language and grammar. In the space of Christian worship the sermon comes to “life” as a theological conversation among us — God, pastor, and people. It is a dynamic exploration of the Gospel in the context of a local congregation.
And this, for me, is the joy of the preaching life!
Rev. Jeffrey T. Barker serves in the Office of Transitional Ministry on the New England District, as well as Adjunct Professor at Eastern Nazarene College, Northwest Nazarene College, Nazarene Theological Seminary, and Newbury College.