A Sample Sketch of the Sermon Process
It might be helpful to illustrate the process of sermon development and delivery which has been discussed in the preceding pages. This sample is not a finished sermon but is rather a sketch of the process.
The conception of the sermon. However vague at this point, there has to be the germ. It may spring from a text or from the life situation of the congregation. The place of origin is not important so long as both text and congregation are permitted to respond to each other.
This sermon arose from the reading of a text, Philippians 1:12-18, especially verse 18. It is a surprising and arresting statement: “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice.” Paul has opponents in the ministry who apparently preach out of strife and divisiveness, and Paul seems to disregard the motive, celebrating the fact that they are preaching. Is Paul really subordinating motive for a greater good — a Christian act? Sounds like a good word for hypocrisy! But then, it may be possible that some of us are too concerned about inner feelings, too preoccupied with motives? And yet the other extreme is frightening.
Playing with the idea. Here open all the faculties, permitting the idea to trigger thoughts, feelings, memories, former ideas, etc. Be playful, jot down ideas, but forget about order or sequence.
In Phil. 1:18 Paul disappoints us at first. He seems to contradict Jesus (“as a man thinks in his heart”) , and all our Christian training to the effect that nothing you do can be right if your reason for doing it is wrong. Didn’t church people applaud Washington Gladden for returning to John D. Rockefeller a gift to missions because “the gift without the giver is bare”? And the real force in the voice of the Fourth Tempter in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is the offer “to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Basic to our accepted understanding of the Christian life is not only that heart and hand agree (integrity) but that all that the hand does should be from the heart. The order of business is: think it and feel it; then do it. Reverse the order and you have hypocrisy. We have been advised and we have advised: Don’t do it unless you sincerely feel it.
Arriving at clarity: We need, then, to turn again to the text. Does Paul really say what he seems to say that he can celebrate a Christian act that is not from a Christian motive? Here the tools and skills of a contextual and textual analysis are put to work. The preacher begins with the text as would any member of his congregation, asking the immediate and spontaneous questions, as in the paragraph above, but now his responsibility as pastor-teacher-preacher demands exegetical work, careful and honest.
And so Paul does say it, but how can he? Is there a flaw in our priority on motive? Has he a word for us here?
Well, on an elementary level, doing something without an adequate or proper inner motive is, regardless of all theories and theologies, necessary. Floors are swept, meals cooked, diapers changed, doors opened, papers graded, classes taught, even sermons preached because some things must be done even when we are not all excited to do them. Waiting for the heart to prompt us would bring the world to a grinding halt.
And it can be a healthy exercise to act first and feel later. The old James Lange theory in psychology insisted that feeling follows the act. Interest in a book follows study. How often we don’t really want to, but we do, then we are glad we did. Surely it isn’t hypocrisy in a bad sense to smile, then feel like smiling; to act friendly and then become a friend; to give and then know what generosity is.
In fact, it may be just plain Christian to engage in Christian activity prior to or apart from good, pure motives. Maybe part of the failure of the church has been its inwardness, its tinkering with its soul to get tuned up for action. The old adages about not legislating morals, not forcing people to love each other, etc. have been true enough to perpetuate themselves but false enough to prevent attitudinal changes that follow rather than precede Christian conduct. New social contexts and civil issues, new patterns of thinking and living, of course, threaten and give rise to fear. Shall I wait until my heart is right to listen, read, participate, extend my hand? Is it possible that by acting like a Christian I may become one? God may move from hand to heart as well as from heart to hand. (Some cases in point come to mind.)
Method of sharing: Suppose the process described above matches somewhat the normal process of conceiving an idea, playing with it, wrestling with it, and bringing it to clarity; is there any reason why you could not repeat that process in the pulpit as your method of sharing? Read through it again and see if the method of personal preparation and the method of public proclamation are not, in terms of movement, much the same. It is too often the tragic fact about preaching that after the minister comes to a conclusion about a matter, it is that conclusion he announces, exhorts, illustrates, and repeats. Given the opportunity, the congregation could arrive at that conclusion, and it would be theirs.
And it would bear fruit.