A Method of Sermon Preperation

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.

analog hyperlinks

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.

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On Being Connected

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered;

an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.”1

I like this quote from Chesterton, and years of camping, hiking and traveling have taught me the utility of this outlook. That being said, I have found that it is the little inconveniences that are hard to make fit this paradigm. Sleeping in a tent? Sure. Running in the rain? One of life’s little joys. Fighting with hotel thermostats? Not so much.

Late this summer I spent a lot of time in hotel rooms as I traveled for work. To the right is my “window seat” on a flight from Dallas to San Antonio. (Why did they even bother installing a window? Do I need to see the engine?) Travel also means dealing with hotel wi-fi networks. At least everywhere I stayed had free wi-fi. (I’ll spare you my rant on that pet peeve here.) But, I still found it frustrating.

At home, my network is saved on all my devices. I turn them on, they are connected. The typical hotel experience involves having to go to your browser, convince it to go to the login page, and enter a username and password. Every time. It always seems more challenging on a small device like a cell phone.

Having recently made the jump to a “smart” phone under intense pressure from my kids, I discovered that if I had logged onto a network once, it would be “saved” in my phone. The only really useful thing for a network is to be connected, however.

I soon found myself saying out loud to my phone as I did the digital dance of trying to connect, “I don’t want to be saved, I want to be connected!” It only took me about three times of hearing myself say that before I started mulling over the theological implications of such a statement.

It is nice that my phone saves networks. That function allows it to auto-connect at home. But it is not the full functionality that makes the phone really useful. Who wants to travel around and just catalog wi-fi network names?

We too, are made for more. Being “saved” is great. I am thankful that by Christ’s death atoned for my sins. But the New Testament has many references that indicate there is more to life that that.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:8)

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. (John 15:4)

And now little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. (1 John 2:28)

May our Lord never look upon us and say, “I came that you might be connected, that you may know me and walk with me and follow me, not just to save you.

1G. K.. Chesterton, “On Running After Ones Hat”, All Things Considered, 1908

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Imagination at Work

I’ve been published at the Imagination Symposium being hosted by the Center for a Just Society. (This is under the auspices of the John Jay Institute.)

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A Gospel Conspiracy Theory (Sort of)

I recently watched the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder again. It is a masterful performance by Wilder, despite some of the other quirks of the plot. An interesting plot element is the shadowy character of Mr. Wilkinson. Most of us remember him as “Arthur Slugworth.”


He appears as each golden ticket is found and explains that he wants the child to steal an Everlasting Gobstopper for him. The presence of the conspiracy plays into the demise of both Violet and Mike. It also lays hold of Grandpa Joe, but Charlie, the hero of the story, resists the siren song to sell out, and is declared the winner.

The Slugworth conspiracy served to help separate the sheep from the goats in this iconic film. The lure of lucrative betrayal is an element that lingers throughout the film–especially when the characters met challenge or rebuke.

Without the presence of Slugworth, the film would have lost one of it’s darker undertones, and also some of it’s moral punch when Charlie lays the Gobstopper on Mr. Wonka’s desk when he thinks, he too, has been disqualified and must leave without his lifetime supply of chocolate.

In the Gospel narratives, it is clear that during Holy Week Jesus makes explicit that one of the disciples would betray him. A conspiracy is afoot, and Christ makes it known to all, though he does not name Judas immediately. I found it interesting reading John 6 recently, that we have a hint that perhaps the disciples knew something was up much sooner.

But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) (John 6:64 ESV)

Even the “There are some of you who do not believe” signifies that there is a potential agent provocateur in their midst. This, it seems, would incite a question–if unspoken, at least thought–by all 12 disciples.

“Is it me?”

This led me to ponder, was the presence of a betrayer necessary to the development of the Apostles? Was it part of their divinely ordered formation to “have a Judas”? Did the dark undercurrent of the possibility of betrayal play, perhaps, a similar effect in the development of the disciples as the presence of Slugworth played for Charlie?

A case can be made that we can only really grown in Christ-likeness if we are willing to face hard questions. Some of the hardest were faced by the disciples. “Do you want to go away as well?” and “Do you truly love me?” come to mind.

In the early church, one of the hardest questions faced by believers was whether or not they could be faithful even unto martyrdom. Some were not, and this generated some controversy in the early church. Could someone who had denied Christ under duress really be a believer? Could they be restored to fellowship?

Interestingly, it was those who had stood up under near-death torture and suffering who were most sympathetic to those who had caved. It seems they had empathy for their brothers and sisters because they too, had felt the strong temptation to give in.

We may never have a knife held to our neck and be challenged to recant our faith or die. But, all of us face decisions on a regular basis where we know one choice to be Christ-affirming and another to be Christ-denying. We all, on occasion, fall short of the glory of God, either through commission or omission.

Ultimately, we only truly rest in God’s grace, and not our own merit when we, in honesty, can answer Jesus and say, “Yes, sometimes I do want to bail. I know the sin and vice that lurk in my heart and the evil that I am capable of. Too often I chose the path of destruction and not the path of life” Only when we echo the words of Peter, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” (Luke 5:8 ESV) do we truly grasp the position we are in.

But in God’s grace, he does not depart from us. He calls us to lay ourselves on his altar, broken, blemished and unworthy. He takes us, and he breathes his Spirit into us, that we might become what he created us to be–loved by him and lovers of him. Like Peter walking away from the beach in the final chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus persistently, insistently, and lovingly chides, “Follow me.”

We may be tempted to utter, “But….”

“But nothing, you are still standing.”

“Only by the grace of God!”

“Exactly. Now follow me.”

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There are Two Ways to Stray

“Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left. ” (Joshua 23:6)

This is far from the only place we see the metaphor of a path being used in scripture. However,  it did give rise to a bit of insight as I read it on Saturday.  There are two ways to stray off of a path.  We can go right or left. Obvious, right?

It would be disingenuous and anachronistic to read into this passage current usage of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ in terms of theology or politics. However, the biblical record does reveal two ways to wander.

First, and most obvious, is to not do what God has instructed. This is certainly the immediate threat to the fledgling Israel. Indeed, much of the rest of the Old Testament narrative showcases this struggle.

But the second threat is more subtle. In some ways it is an over-correction of the first. Historically,  there is some ground for this theory. We see the rise of the Scribes and the Pharisees coming out of the Babylonian captivity and the reasonable desire to not have to go through that again.

The Scribes and the Pharisees–the legalist–attempt to define the path. They attempt to anticipate the leading in each and every conceivable situation. The devise rules to cover everything. It’s not that they set out to slam the door of heaven in men’s faces. (Matthew 23:13) But that is what rules do. We start with a simple injunction and someone keeps asking, “well, what does that mean?” and each and every conceivable situation must be addressed.

Jesus, you may note, was not a big fan of this approach. He had some harsh words for the Pharisees. He called them blind guides. (Matthew 23:16, 24) They were blind because they thought they were on the path, but they were actually leading others astray.

Jesus was not so hard on those who had veered off the other side of the path. The tax collectors, prostitutes and other “sinners” did not try to justify themselves before him. They knew they weren’t on the straight and narrow. Jesus accepts us when we admit our true condition to him.

But both errors–legalism and license–have the same root. Control. Either we want to control how we don’t follow God or we want to control how we do follow God. If we are in control, then we are lord, not anyone else.

Jesus did not come to give us license or legalism. He leads. He is in control if we wish to learn from him.

And he said to them, “Follow me,” (Matthew 4:19)

And Jesus said to him, “Follow me” (Matthew 8:22)

he said to him, “Follow me.” (Matthew 9:9)

“take his cross and follow me” (Matthew 10:38)

“take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)

“come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

Jesus said to them, “Follow me” (Mark 1:17)

he said to him, “Follow me.” (Mark 2:14)

“take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

“come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

Luke and John have 10 more instances, mostly drawn from the same scenes.

Following is surrendering control. I can’t map the way ahead and follow at the same time. If I attempt to, I will become discontent. Eventually, I will probably think I know better and depart from the path.  We don’t need to to know where we are going to follow.

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:3-6a ESV)

“I am the way.” Jesus does not tell Thomas where he is going. He doesn’t answer Thomas’ question with a destination, but with a means to navigate. I am the way. Follow me. You know the way Thomas, because you’ve been living it.

We must seek the mind of Christ in order to follow him. We must trust his heart, listen to his voice, and follow. It’s hard, there is no map. It’s hard, we can’t stray off to explore on our own. And yet it is as easy as putting our foot into his footprint right ahead of us.

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Certainty is an Unobtainable Luxury

I find the debates between atheists and theists interesting. I’ve seen some recent posts from the atheist’s side that bring up issues of epistemology. Having been a philosophy major in college, epistemology is a subject I respect and enjoy. I do not assume that you are aware of what it is.

epistemology |iˌpistəˈmäləjē| Noun. the theory of knowledge, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

In other words, epistemology seeks to answer the question, “How do we know that we know something?” It is a daunting philosophical question that most of us don’t consider in our day-to-day activities.

But, “How do you know?” is a valid question. Especially in our information-saturated, anybody-can-edit-Wikipedia world. Does our information come from a reliable source? How do we know it is reliable? For some questions, we are willing to chance it, trusting the “crowd-sourced” wisdom of the internet. “Urbanspoon says this restaurant is liked by 89% of reviewers….”

For other questions, it seems, we should have greater confidence in our information.

“Is this an accurate medical diagnosis?”

“Is this a sound retirement investment?”

“Why am I here?”

“Is there a God?”

Many of the atheist authors I’ve read recently hold up the standard of certainty. We should only accept knowledge that we are certain is true. That sounds reasonable on the surface. I certainly agree with the driving motive, that we should seek truth over falsehood. But there is a fatal flaw with epistemological certainty.

It is impossible to attain.

Doubt is always lurking. Counter-examples can be constructed for most any proposition we put forward. Many like to point to science, but history is littered with the crumpled remains of disproved theories and thesis. It is hubris to think our current batch is somehow impervious to the same fate.

Obviously, we have learned many things along the way. Electricity, gravity, antibiotics. We’ve figured out some very useful stuff. But if the history of science teaches us anything, it is that the next disruptive discovery is always lurking in the future.

Obviously, other disciplines have the same historical track record. Religion, philosophy, even history. They have all made mistakes.

But even on the personal level, certainty is not possible. Name one thing you know with certainty.

Could it be wrong? Can you construct a situation where you may be deceived? Of course we can. All we have to do is watch the Matrix (or read Plato’s allegory of the cave, which is really the same basic story). Walk into most any Philosophy 101 class and you will hear enough doubt cast about to last you for the rest of your life.

We can talk about what is reasonable doubt versus unreasonable doubt. It may seem mad for me to deny the existence of my coffee table. But that doesn’t mean I can’t. I have had dreams. I have had hallucinations, thanks to high fevers. How do I know the coffee table isn’t one of those?

We can spend the next several hours establishing the reasonableness of the existence of the coffee table. But, at the end of it all, can we prove it exists? Not just show strong statistical evidence significant to >0.00001. That still leaves room for doubt.

Now, consider everything else we encounter in any given day. Do we stop to reason it’s existence? Do we inspect everything? Of course not, we’d never make it out of bed in the morning. There is not enough time.

No matter how materialistic (in the philosophic sense) one may be, we cannot escape doubt. Doubt is the defining human characteristic. Rene Descartes, in pursuing truth arrived at his famous dictum, cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am, by doubt. He doubted everything he could possibly doubt and was left with the activity of his doubting and the only thing he could not explain away.

The antidote for doubt, the way we escape this paralysis of thought and action is this:


Even with no theism in sight. Even with no questions of ultimate purpose and meaning, every single human being exercises faith. You just did.

You tapped your computer to make it scroll down. You acted in faith that that physical action would result in some result. You didn’t stake your life on it. You, undoubtedly have experienced a time where pushing that key did not achieve the desired result. But you did it anyway, without 100% certainty. This is played out constantly throughout our days.

My point? Atheism needs to find a new argument, because doubt leads down a rabbit hole to nothing. We must be intellectually honest enough to admit that we can do nothing other than live by faith. Once we do that, we can start a rational discussion of what are worthy objects of faith and what are not.

The definition at the top of this post reminds us, “Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.” We like to think we can somehow isolate facts. Derive truth. But we can’t. Certainty is a luxury we cannot obtain.

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Musings on Baptism, part 7

I thought maybe I was done with this series of posts, as it turns out, I’m not. I had the joy of baptising a young Soldier this morning during chapel. Then, at church a couple of hours later I witnessed the baptism of 2 infants.

The Spirit spoke through me this morning to this Soldier. I don’t say that lightly or out of some false holiness, but out of humility. I told him that, “Baptism isn’t a finish line, it’s a starting line.” It wasn’t something I had thought of to tell him beforehand. I give credit to God for that flash of insight. I reflected on those words as I watched the two children being baptized a little later in the morning.

One of the weaknesses of the evangelical approach has been, ironically, the emphasis on evangelism. We do need to evangelize. But that is only part of what we are called to do. We like to think we are “great commision churches” if we focus on evangelism. But, we neglect a vital part of the commission by only working on “conversion.”

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20 emphasis added.

Make disciples. We are to be fishers of men. But our calling isn’t to just pluck them out of the lake and stick them in the live well for Jesus. We are to guide them into the transforming life that Jesus modeled and promised. Discipleship, spiritual formation, catechism. Call it what you like, we shrivel and starve spiritually without it.

Too often, the recent church in America has looked to “get them in.” Getting them in and getting them wet is just the beginning. Now we have to raise them up in the faith, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. I feel more confident that the 2 infants this morning will get that from their parents and their church. The young Soldier graduates basic training in a few short days and chances are I may never see him again. I pray that he continues to seek after God, as he has come to these past 9 weeks. I pray that he continues to have friends like the one that stood next to him this morning during his baptism that can help him grow in the faith.

Evangelism is to the church what recruiting is to the military. Important, challenging work. But that is not all there is. Soldiers know that once you arrive at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and swear your oath of enlistment the journey is not over. It is just the beginning. Much the same is true of baptism and conversion. The Soldier still has basic training and advanced individual training to look forward to. Then they will arrive at a unit where the will start the process of learning how to live out and apply what they have learned, and start learning many other important things for their time in uniform.

It is the same way in the life of faith. Once we are baptized, whether as an infant or much older, it is the beginning. We are in. We are on on way, but we aren’t there yet. The transformation has only just begun, it is far from complete.

May we all press on to the goal that we have been called to in Christ Jesus.

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