What do we agree about? How to prepare a sermon.
Here’s the backstory to how I know Pope Francis and I agree.
I wrote this week to Susan Stabile, a law professor and Faculty Fellow of Spiritual Life at the University of St. Thomas. Susan had written an endorsement for Forty Days with the Holy Spirit followed by a fine blog post. I wrote to her about my first term at Perkins School of Theology–how I cajoled, screamed at, and urged my students never, ever, ever to begin sermon preparation by heading to the commentaries or, worse still, the internet. Never, ever, ever.
What then? What to do? How to start?
Start the way we started class this term: with lectio divina. We turned the lights out, put meditative music on, and gathered groups of four around plastic tea candles. (For the record, I’m a docile, obedient soul who would never sneak contraband candles into the classroom.) Then we read a passage of scripture three times.
The first time, we listened for a word that struck us.
The second time, we listened for an emotion that grabbed us.
The third time, we listened for an invitation that God extended to us.
We then took the word that struck us in the first reading (okay, so I pre-selected the word) and did a word study on it using Blue Letter Bible, a handy online tool for word studies. We asked about how that word is used elsewhere. We looked at associated words. We discovered related passages in scripture by tracing the occurrence of the word.
And that, I told my Perkins students, is how to begin preparing a sermon.
With word studies based upon the word that grabbed our attention during lectio divina.
Sam, a student who poked and prodded and raised dynamite questions during term, asked, “You pick the words, so you know they work! What if we pick the wrong words?”
Fair question, to which I had an inspired response: “An hour of failed word studies in scripture is worth more than ten hours on the internet!”
Back now to my email exchange with Susan. After I told her about the exercise of lectio divina coupled with word studies, she quipped that she wished priests, and not just Protestant pastors-to-be, would follow my advice. Then, a day later, she sent me this remarkable quote from Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. The words are powerful, the challenge imposing.
And the result, if we followed it? Stunning. Sermons would not be a litany of stories and personal illustrations or, worse yet, impersonal filler culled from the internet, but a reflection rooted in meditation, a sermon suffused with depth.
This is the pope talking–not me. (Turns out the pope feels the same way I do about how priests and pastors should prepare sermons.) After talking for a bit about lectio divina, he says:
Whoever wants to preach must be the first to let the word of God move him deeply and become incarnate in his daily life. In this way preaching will consist in that activity, so intense and fruitful, which is “communicating to others what one has contemplated.” For all these reasons, before preparing what we will actually say when preaching, we need to let ourselves be penetrated by that word which will also penetrate others, for it is a living and active word, like a sword “which pierces to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). This has great pastoral importance. Today too, people prefer to listen to witnesses: they “thirst for authenticity” and “call for evangelizers to speak of a God whom they themselves know and are familiar with, as if they were seeing him.”
Do me a favor–yourself, too.
Don’t get up quite yet. Don’t scroll to another screen.
Imagine instead what it means to “communicate to others what one has contemplated.”
Imagine a sermon described with these words: incarnate, intense, fruitful, contemplate, penetrate, living, active, pierce, importance, authenticity, know, see.
Imagine if communication—from tweets to sermons to student papers—arose from contemplation.