Notes from a First Year Preacher
Preacher to Preacher: An Interview with Rev. Dr. Mark Labberton
Cornel West says that "justice is what love looks like in public." That is a marvelous definition and even more so if you were to say, what does that look like in the character of God? So, I want to point people to that and speak about my heart's wrestling with the discomfort as I am moving deeper into the heart of God. I want to invite people into experience that has a seminal encounter with God. So justice isn't just wedded to action, it arises as an act of worship, otherwise it's an agenda and then potentially a fad. If it arises as a response to a God of justice whose total heart sees, engages, and serves, then I and the people I serve are invited into a different place that, in my view, is much riskier, much more integrated, much more sustainable, marshaled by what it is and isn't. I'm not the rescuer or messiah—I worship the God who is the Messiah. I am not surprising God, it's all in his sight. I'm joining with what's in God's heart.
What is your process of preparation for a sermon?
I think of preaching as a very long conversation, a sustained ongoing conversation with a community, and that conversation happens in and through the text. At any given moment as a pastor, I had a five-year plan for preaching that involved the whole of the biblical canon. That plan was nuanced by what is happening in the world, in the community, and in the liturgical calendar.
So I was thinking about what I was going to preach sometimes a year or two before I even got to it, because it was in my long-term vision. Long before I was preparing or breaking anything down, I was soaking in the text, reading it over and over again for months before I ever came to it in order to really internalize it. So before I even begin, I could talk aloud without notes and tell you a lot about that book or section of the book. It's become very conversational to me. I have the whole thing in my mind, the arc of the text.
When it comes to actually preparing, I would take 2-3 weeks in the summer where I didn't take appointments and I would break everything down into sections of texts, giving titles to texts and writing about two paragraphs summarizing what I think the core of that text is in relation to the series that we're on. Now sometimes I came to it just as the book itself, for instance, "We're doing Matthew." Sometimes I came to it through a specific lens, such as "Matthew as the Gospel of Surprise." My way of juggling the topical versus biblical debate is I'm looking at it in both ways. Fundamentally, I want it to be driven by the text, even though it's presented as a topic. Sometimes, I begin by asking certain questions of the text. And other times, my study led me to an overarching theme.
So after those two weeks, I had the following year's sermons broken down into outlines, paragraphs, and themes. I also prepared a summary document that talks about the purpose of the series and what points I think the text is trying to make and why we are doing this in this season of the church's life. So that becomes the fuel for music, worship, Bible study, writing, or whatever else. So long before I ever get to a sermon, all of this has happened. So I never get to Tuesday and am panicking about Sunday. I'm not saying that in a cavalier way, but it's just been steeping for that long. In the end, I'm just walking people through the text.
Now, preaching is more varied and creative than that, so all during this seasoning period and on the Tuesday beforehand, I do more exegetical work and step back and try to think imaginatively and randomly about where all this ties into the theme or recent events—lateral, big thinking. Then it begins to have a definitive shape. I tend to think of every sermon as having an internal storyline about what this story is doing. I'm inviting people into this text and we are going to tell this story together.
Jenny Warner is the Pastor for Justice, Spirituality, and Community at First Presbyterian Church of Bend, Oregon. She graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in Intercultural Studies and Psychology in 1992, and in 2010, received a Masters of Divinity from San Francisco Theological Seminary. She is a trained spiritual director, certified by Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle.