Disclaimer: What I am about to describe was not my idea, it was Patrick’s. (Lowthian, not the saint of Irish fame.) But he mentioned the idea to me, and I have adopted it and been using it for a while now.
Disclaimer #2: I use the Revised Common Lectionary for Sundays. This method does not hinge on that, but it does makes it easier. I don’t have to figure out what the texts are going to be for a Sunday. I just have to read them and decide if I am preaching on one of them, two of them, all of them, or what.
Here’s the gist of the method–you spend 4 weeks with the text for each Sunday. This requires some overlap (unless you only preach once a month). Each week is a different emphasis: read, study, pray, and write.
Read. This one doesn’t need much explanation. Read through the texts for the Sunday 4 weeks out. I maybe jot some notes if something sticks out readily, or there is a question raised by the text I want to chase later. The goal is merely reading the texts, multiple times.
Study. Read commentaries on the texts. Compare translations. Look at parallel passages. Discern key words. Look at how key themes are dealt with elsewhere in scripture. All those good exegetical things that we know we should do. Take copious notes. Read the things you may have put in the folder 6 months or 2 years ago. (Keep reading to find out about the folders.) Usually this is the step where I get zeroed in on what text or texts will comprise my sermon.
Pray. Read through the texts looking only for application for me. Is there something this passage warns against that I need to be sure to avoid? Is there a virtue held up I should emulate? An attribute or gift of God that I should be thankful for? I have started jotting these insights/points down on a sheet that goes into the folder. Some instruction in lectio divina may be useful for this point. (Readers already familiar with lectio will notice that this method is patterned similarly to it.)
Write. Read over the texts, the notes, the things prayed about, and start constructing the sermon/homily. I tend to do a fairly detailed outline most of the time. This is where you take the information you have gleaned and prayerfully decide the best manner to communicate it to your parishioners.
Some Logistical Tips
I started keeping a file folder for each Sunday in the lectionary–a real manila paper file folder. I’ve tried doing this digitally in different programs over the years and I have found, for me, having a physical place to put notes and such is easier and works better. I have an index of all the texts used in the lectionary that I consult when I discover something good/insightful/interesting about a particular text. I make a copy of it, or note where it is, find what Sunday that text is read, and put it in the folder. (I have also started some folders for those texts that don’t come up in the lectionary. I have a dream that someday I’ll do a teaching series on those texts.)
Each folder has a “cover sheet” where I list what the Sunday is (e.g. Lent 1 Year A) and list the readings. Some notes get jotted on that sheet as well usually over time. I carry the 4 “active” weeks with me in my briefcase so they are handy to be able to pull out and work on. The rest of the weeks for the lectionary cycle stay in a file drawer in my desk.
I also use 1/2 sized index cards and note the Sunday and the readings on them. I created 4 little pockets in the front of my calendar that these fit into. Each pocket is labeled–Ready, Study, Pray, Write. Each week, I shuffle the cards over as needed. On these index cards I affix tape flags of one of 4 colors. Those colors correspond to the tape flags on my study bible on my desk which will have all 4 weeks of readings marked for easy access.
I find especially in the “read” phase, I can fill dead time by reading over the texts. If I’m sitting in a waiting room somewhere, I can look and see what the texts are and open my bible and read them.
There is no real reason why all of this could not be done digitally. I am just biased toward paper, (as if you couldn’t tell–who else carries a briefcase and a paper calendar?) So that’s the way I do it. I spend less time figuring out how to and more time doing this way.
Advantages of the System
Simmer Time. Having interacted with a text over a month gives it more time to ferment in my brain. More time for the Holy Spirit to call things to mind. More chances for me to rub them against other texts I am working on, or reading devotionally. I have actually found that working on 4 sermons at various states simultaneously helps me keep the bigger picture of the narratives in mind. Instead of interacting with texts for 5 days (ideally) I spend 20 days (ideally) with them. Even if it is smaller chunks of time, I find it more beneficial.
Cushion. We all know some weeks are busier than others. Some we can anticipate, some just happen that way. If I’ve already read, studied and prayed over a text, and I have “one of those weeks” and get to sermon writing on Saturday, I’m not in nearly as bad of a position as I would be if that was the first time I said, “So, what are the texts for this Sunday?” I may not have as eloquent of a message, but since I’ve done my homework already, it should at least be sound. If I don’t reach the “ideal” of interacting with each text each day, I’m still hitting them usually twice a week at the least.
Prepped. For a while, I was only doing the texts I new I would be preaching on. (I don’t always preach every Sunday in my current setting.) But I started doing the first three steps (Read-Study-Pray) for every Sunday for several reasons. First, I enjoy it. Second, I’m building my archive of material for next time this set of texts comes around. Third, I don’t always get 4 weeks notice of a chance to preach. If I’m doing all the build up, if I find out a week out I need to cover for somebody, I can accept knowing I’ve already been working on the message for three weeks before they even asked.