Early in my preaching apprenticeship I dreamed once of walking into the sanctuary just as a worship service was beginning. The pulpit was turned around, and empty wooden shelves were exposed to the congregation. Probably I don’t need to add that I found myself half-naked — and minus my sermon notes. I don’t remember now if it was a Saturday night dream, but it feels like one!
There were some painful moments in my first years of ministry — both in the personal struggles of my people and in the organizational life of the church, but nothing monopolized my personal stress the way sermon preparation for ordinary Sundays did. Too often my Saturday night psalm, “I helped them all week; now, Lord, where is my rescue?” What a disturbing, wretched thing — what a way to feel about the proclaiming of the gospel!
For the thing I fear comes upon me,
And what I dread befalls me.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest; but trouble comes
(Job 3:25, 26).
I wanted something else. A prayerful calmness. A holy aura of sermon preparation. I wanted John Wesley’s grace-assured attentiveness.
Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights …. I meditate … with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable…. And what I thus learn, that I teach (John Wesley’s “Forty-Four Sermons,” London: Epworth, 1980, p. vi).
But all of that eluded me. Instead of quieted peace, I felt overwork, panic and resentment. There was a miserable uneasiness in me, a distress of which Emerson once warned preachers and seminarians (before many women preached): “Alas for the unhappy man that is called to stand in the pulpit and not give the bread of life.” I could not give much bread because I was not finding much. The preacher’s spiritual shelves were pretty bare, and it seemed to me then that each Sunday was an occasion to make the emptiness public.
Part of the resolution of my homiletic “bad dream” has come through the intertwining of two branches of learning: through the interplay of prayer and informed fancy (imaginary exegesis). Sister Virginia Matter, a spiritual director with the Benedictine Center in St. Paul, introduced me and members of my congregation to the Lectio Divina (i.e. spiritual reading of the Scriptures by phases or stages). At the same time, Don Wardlaw, a professor of homiletics at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, shared his guidelines for informed and imaginative preaching with a “Growth in Preaching” seminar in which I was participating.
The two paths, one conveying ancient practice and the other offering a contemporary experiential approach, converged upon a vivid participation in the biblical text. Both ways “imparted grace” (Eph. 4:29).
David Stanley wrote a few years ago that the lectio divina is a “prayerful exercise calculated to terminate in a ‘saving event’ …”(“A Suggested Approach to Lectio Divina,” American Benedictine Review, p. 439, 1972). Wardlaw’s approach to preaching a text drew near to the same concern: “We do not preach grace unless we have experienced it…. Once we have experienced it … we will find ourselves in a position to offer testimony” (Don Wardlaw, “Preaching as a Means of Grace,” unpublished, p. 15).
I found in the convergence of these two approaches to Scripture not only an opportunity for ordered, gracious preaching but also for experiencing the text and sermon formation as a spiritual moment, rather than a baffling, anxious, grace-less struggle. I could comprehend the work of preparation and proclamation more and more as God-prompted and grace-baring prayer.
A process of sermon formation, modeled on the phases of the lectio and Don Wardlaw’s steps in exegesis and sermon preparation, now looks something like this. It is usually a “prayer” of several days’ duration.
1. Silencio
This is a term M. Robert Mulholland Jr. accredits to Susan Muto of the Institute of Formative Spirituality at Duquesne University (“Spiritual Reading of Scripture,” Weavings, Vol. 3, No. 6, The Upper Room, p. 28). It refers to the period of silence or centering needed to bring us to “an inner posture of openness and receptivity toward God.” Choose a quiet place where you may go daily as a habit to read, pray and prepare. Frequently my “study” is a local Burger King where I can be aware of other people but not be interrupted by them.
The Benedictines urge use of “the best hours of the day” for this and the other phases of the lectio, when this is possible. This is a way to affirm that prayer and sermon preparation are a priority; we are bold enough not to feel we are on stolen time when we “steal away to Jesus.”
Fred Craddock has reminded us all that “time in the study is time with the congregation,” but better and more fundamentally it is also “a place apart” with God.
The silencio may well be a period of twenty to forty minutes of attentive “thoughtlessness”; we nudge all thinking, planning and fretting from our heads, as gently and firmly as possible, as we open ourselves to God’s presence and purposes.
2. Lectio
This is our first reading of the text, but the Benedictines say it is “reading with the heart; entering into an encounter with the Word; listening to God’s love calling one to hear the message.” It is so important to start here with our own patient attentiveness to “the voice of God speaking a deep wholeness into our life” (Mulholland, p. 30).
There will be time enough later to consult others about the text; the nature of this first meeting is to get it “in-bodied” as an array (or pallette) of sensations, musings, feelings and impulses. You may want to read the text aloud several times and to give it physical interpretation or enactment. What does it make you want to do? What draws? What repels? What seizes? What gently caresses?
3. Meditatio
Meditatio is described as “chewing or savoring the Word.” This is what we normally call “study,” but it is both, as Fosdick once wrote, “research without and within.” We want to find both the message for our lives and to discover the meaning this text held for another time and people. Here are four helpful approaches.
Brainstorm. Wardlaw recommends listing “random thoughts, images, ideas, fantasies, vignettes, lines or scenes from literature, art, movies, historical allusions and current events.” Joseph Matthews, one of the founders of the Ecumenical Institute of Chicago, used to rule off a sheet of paper into sixty-four little squares and, as a discipline, push himself to fill every square with some image or association to the text.
Keep track of the key words or phrases that grab or embrace you. Take seriously (as being of consequence and moment to you and your people) all the places where you are moved or stirred; investigate these things!
Recover the text. This is where historical-critical skills come into play. This is where you convene the Council of Theologians and Commentarists. Work on the historical recovery.
In Wardlaw’s method this means asking several questions: (1) what question or issue does the text pre-suppose? (2) what did the author intend? (3) what was the hearers’/readers’ mindset? Work is needed, too, on the literary recovery: (1) what does the form tell you? (2) what is the content? (3) what is the tone or mood of the text?
Find the grace and the human response. This is one of the most demanding (and releasing) aspects of prayer-shaped sermon formation. Too often this step is either overlooked or becomes a fruitless mull. Can we bring into a simple sentence what, to employ Wardlaw’s term, the text’s “grace indicative” is? Can we also discover the “human faith response” that is “pictured, demanded or implied”?
One way to attempt this, a variation on the “charting method” taught at the Ecumenical Institute, is to paraphrase your text verse by verse, then section by section, and finally over-all. The paraphrases, intimately linked to the imagery and flow of the lection, then offer a narrative about the activity of grace and the postures and variations of human response.
The grace indicative and human faith response tend to emerge more clearly as you re-tell the story. The paraphrases also offer possibilities for the sermon’s form and structure. (More detailed instructions on the charting method are available through the Ecumenical Institute in Chicago.)
Bring the People to the Text. Wardlaw asks the preacher to “compare the corporate make-up of your people — social, economic, political, ethnic — to that of the orginal hearers/listeners. Imagine leading representative persons of your congregation on a journey shaped and induced by this text. How do you envision them entering the world of the text?”
Arthur Van Seters’ “Questions to Sharpen Social Awareness” also help alert the preacher to the several social contexts of the lection (Arthur Van Seters, ed., Preaching as a Social Act: Theology and Practice, Abingdon, 1988, p. 266ff).
4. Oratio
The oratio has been called our “response to God’s address,” but this doesn’t quite convey the dynamic of this phase of prayer. For a pray-er and preacher this is the moment when we move from simple or pained awareness of God’s Word to a deeper awareness of impasse or resistance to what we hear. It is also a time for release!
Mulholland writes, “Oratio … is far more than the sanitized response we usually label prayer. Oratio is the deep cry of our heart to God. It may be a cry of joy and exultation. It may be a cry of pain. It may be penitent or petulant, releasing or resistant, responsive or rejecting. Oratio may be a point of resolution…. It is the honest expression of our thought, feeling, and desire to God, the outpouring of deep speaking to deep” (Mulholland, p. 31).
Can we make the heart’s cry translate into a single, simple, focal sentence that will become the heart of the sermon experience? This will become our theme. It will ordinarily bear a close relationship to the grace indicative discovered earlier, as well as the human faith responses imagined and identified. In another sentence can we say what we want our approach to be, our why and our how?
One of Wardlaw’s formulaic statements of a theme might be something like, “Since most of my elderly hearers fear that they have little strength to provide for and protect themselves (the “why”), I want to picture for them possibilities of opening to God’s provision and protection amid an alien environment (the “how”). A sentence like this names your purpose. Theme and purpose express the preacher’s oratio for himself or herself and the church.
5. Contemplatio
Contemplatio is “resting in the Word” or “active yielding” to God. In the practice of lectio divina this is normally a time for silence, rest, and for some an act of appreciative self-expression (for example, writing a journal entry), here, the sermon itself becomes the appreciative response to God’s presence in the process of spiritual reading and informed imagination. The sermon is formed according to the messages you have received about the way it needs to unfold, whether by a charted structure, a social context, the scriptural claim, the interplay of text and metaphor or one’s personal response.
Sketch the sermon. Fred Craddock prescribes a mental/oral walk through the sermon, starting with text, theme, and purpose recorded at the top of your paper. The act of contemplatio walks through the message, stepping down the page as one steps along a path of ideas and images. You are guided on the way by the grace indicative and by the heart’s cry, the oratio. You record the movement, striking or re-arranging materials as needed. You follow the movement, yet you watch for its ordering. Later you review or retravel, elaborating more where transitions or careful expressions are needed.
Write the sermon. Now write the sermon in full. Examine it. Refine it. Some will want to prepare a brief, recording only the title, text, transition lines, key verbs and images for each paragraph of the text. Finally, “re-member” the text and your responses and discoveries by physically reclaiming its movements and feelings. This is not so much a rehearsal of gestures and intonations for some eloquent oration as it is a vital, prayerful, sensory anamnesis of God’s grace as it came to touch you through the text.
6. Compassio
The staff of the Benedictine Center in St. Paul added this last phase to the lectio divina. It is a helpful and appropriate addition, especially in the context of sermon preparation and proclamation: “What I thus learn, that I teach.” Preachers are called, after all, not only to meet privately with God through the channel of a text, but to share the grace with our people, to serve the fresh bread of life from shelves that are sufficiently stocked!
In a sense it seems absurd to remind preachers that prayer matters in sermon formation. Yet it proves so often to be the skimpy preliminary to heady study and anxiety. Perhaps where prayer and imaginative study intertwine throughout the whole process we will become more assured of grace, and our people will eat and be satisfied.

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