Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thoughts while writing a sermon

Today is my typical sermon writing day. It has been taking me longer
and longer to do it, it seems. As an example, last weekend I worked
on it all day Saturday and then Sunday morning for 3 hours (and even
into the service some!).

I start my sermon writing by browsing through the readings assigned in
the revised One-Year Lectionary adopted by our Hymnal (Lutheran
Service Book). A lectionary is simply a list of Scripture lessons
assigned for each Sunday and Holy Days in the Church Year Calendar.
For example, tomorrow is the 20th Sunday After Trinity. The Hymnal
has a One-Year and a Three-Year lectionary. The Three-Year one goes
three years before it is repeated, but a Ony-Year repeats every year.
The One-Year Lectionary is strongly related to what is called the
Historic Lectionary. The roots of the Historic Lectionary go back to
prior to 600 AD. I love being connected to history like that. Just
think, in churches 1400 years ago, they were reading the same

The Three Year Lectionary came out of the reform work begun amongst
the Roman Catholics as part of Vatican II in 1962. What they
developed reflected selections that slanted toward Roman Catholic
theology which teaches that our obedience to God's law is a
requirement in order to be saved. Lutherans and other evangelical
church bodies made adjustments in the lectionary of the Roman
Catholics to provide a more balanced selection that did not surpress
the Good News that Jesus Christ is the one who freed us from the
obligations of God's law in order to be saved. The Good News, or in
Greek, evangel, is what Lutherans and other evangelicals restored in
the Reformation. Now, I use the word "evangelical" starting with a
lower case "e" to refer to the historic meaning of that word, coming
out of the time of the Reformation. Only in recent decades has the
word "Evangelical" been co-opted by some groups who are, quite often,
not very evangelical.

The One-Year Lectionary used by Lutheran Service Book is a slight
revision of the Historic Lectionary. It too has a bit more balance
than the Historic Lectionary, but most of the time it is identical.

This Lectionary then determines the lessons for a Sunday: Old
Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel. For this week they are Isaiah
55:1-9, Psalm 27, Ephesians 5:15-21 and Matthew 22:1-14.

Some pastors will submissively preach sermons from the lessons read at
a given service. That is historically what was done but that practice
has diminished over, perhaps, the last century. I choose to submit to
the lectionary. I believe the principle is important: I am not
choosing the sermon text, it is chosen for me. Preaching should be
about God's Word and not about me. So, one way to take me out of the
picture is to have the lessons chosen for me.

You will probably notice that there is still some choice, among the
four lessons. I further discipline myself to choose one of the four
without repetition over a four-year cycle. Since Real Lutheran
Fellowship started in 2007, I am now in the fourth year of my cycle.
I have a choice of four lessons the first year, then three the second
year, then two and this year the lessons are the one remaining. This
Sunday, the lesson left is Psalm 27.

Generally, the Psalms are harder to preach on. In fact, most pastors
will not preach on them. How many sermons have you heard based on the
Psalms? How many can you find on the Internet? One reason that the
Psalms are difficult is that they are almost exclusively examples of
Hebrew Poetry. Like English poetry, Hebrew poetry follows a structure
imposed by the words used. English poetry may rhyme, so the structure
is the words have a similar sound. Also, English poetry may have a
fixed number of syllables or a pattern of them. Shakespeare's Sonnets
have a structure of 14 lines with each line having 10 syllables.
There is, however, even more structure to a sonnet than just what I
mentioned. Here is an example of the opening of Shakespeare's Sonnet

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory...

Hebrew poetry is less likely to be about rhyming than English poetry
but it is often about the number of syllables. You will, of course,
notice none of this in an English translation.

One of the consequences of poetry's demands on structure is that the
wording might not be as complete as regular spoken language. There
are words missing. Again, you will never see this in English
translations. That may be considered a flaw in such translations.
The missing words are supplied, making certain assumptions about the
meaning. Perhaps God would rather we appreciate intentional ambiguity
in His Word.

In my sermon preparation, I will read through all the lessons and then
consult my list of those I have recently preached upon so that I might
make a choice on which one to preach on this Sunday. Reading the
other lessons will reveal some common themes or other possible
interactions among the lessons. Once I have a lesson picked out I
will work on translating it. This may take a large part of the day
even with some awesome tools that I use. There are many times I don't
buy so easily into assumptions that the writers of reference works may
make. With 14 verses in this Psalm, I will predict this will take
a longer amount of time and this is even more so to be predicted
because it is a Psalm.

It is a good day of preparation when I can avoid getting distracted
from translation. Obviously I have gotten distracted by writing this
email at this point, but now I think I'll get on to translation.
Perhaps I'll have an example or two to share when I get done. Time
me, it is now 8:03 AM.

Ok, it is 5:27 PM and I've finished translating. Yes I got distracted
by several things. This Psalm was quite a bit less challenging than
others I've worked with. Here is a good example of a poetic statement
with many words not given, verse 13:

Unless I trusted in to see the good things of Yahweh in the land
of the living

I added the extra space where I think words need to go to get specific
meaning out of it. Yahweh, by the way, is the proper name of God. It
often gets translated as "The LORD" where "LORD" is written in small
capital letters. The idea that we should not really use God's name
came from the Jews, specifically the Pharisees, who thought if the
never used God's name then they would never use it in vain. For a
while, the name was translated as Jehovah. Actually, it comes out of
a special code in the manuscripts of the Old Testament where the
consonants of one word (Yahweh) were combined with the vowels of
another word (Lord). That was part of the Pharisees tradition to
change those vowels so that when they read it they would not say the
name of God. When you undo the code, you get Yahweh.

Well, you will have to check tomorrow for the
sermon to see how it turns out.