Rewriting Sermons

A while ago, I was having trouble with a sermon that I was working on. I had read the scripture carefully and I had a message that I wanted to deliver, but the words just weren’t coming. Every story I tried to tell felt wrong. Every sentence’s feel was just a little off. And, weirdly, it all seemed very familiar. I kept feeling like I had delivered this sermon before… so why wasn’t it working now?

So I went back and checked the sermons I had given in the past. And it turned out that I had given this sermon before. Or, at least, I had given a sermon that used the same scriptures and had the same basic theme that I was trying for in the one that I was working on. And I was faced with an unpleasant choice: should I scrap the one I was struggling with and look for a different angle on these scriptures… or should I scrap the one I was struggling with and just use the old one?


A little background might be useful here. Before I was a pastor, there were usually two reasons I would preach. One was plain old pulpit supply. When a local pastor had an emergency or was just on vacation, they would call me in to lead worship. The other was for my job with Back Bay Mission. I would book preaching gigs where I could use the sermon to preach the gospel and tell people about the Mission’s work. Either way, I almost always used the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for whatever Sunday I was preaching.

The RCL provides several texts for every Sunday and rotates through a three-year cycle. So the RCL readings in 2015 and the RCL readings in 2018 are identical. But I don’t always use all of the readings for any given Sunday. In fact, I almost never use all of the readings; I use one or two for the sermon, and maybe base the call to worship off of the psalm of the day. So there’s a bit of a coincidence here: not only did I happen to preach on the same Sunday in 2015, but I choose the same scriptures from the RCL suggested readings!

Now, I pride myself in never delivering the same sermon twice. That’s part of why I use the RCL. It would have been easy enough to have one or two Back Bay Mission sermons and one or two other sermons and just recycled them again and again. But I wasn’t preaching that often (eight sermons in 2015), and writing a sermon usually isn’t a big challenge for me. Moreover, the sermon that I gave in 2015 was a Mission sermon. And while I sometimes mention the Mission in a sermon in my current position, a lot of it wouldn’t have made sense if I just grabbed this sermon and delivered it again. Giving the same sermon wasn’t an option.

But then I thought a little bit about how music works.

I’m not a professional musician, but I do play the saxophone. And I practice several times a week (and even every day when that works for my schedule). And the fact is that it would never occur to me to play a tune once—either in the practice room or for a performance—and then put it away and never play it again. Instead, I work on a single tune for ages. I learn the melody, I learn to hear the chord changes so that I can solo over them, I listen to recordings of other people playing the same tune, I analyze the harmonies. My goal isn’t to get through the tune, it’s to really learn it, deep down.

I play the same tune over and over again. I never play it the same way twice, but I keep what works and get rid of what doesn’t. A certain phrase might show up in many solos, while another phrase only shows up once. I revise and refresh. Constantly. Every time I play the tune.


And realizing that made me wonder: why don’t I do that with sermons? In fact, why am I so resistant to the idea of taking an old sermon that’s been lying around—maybe even for three years or so—and reworking it, keeping what works and getting rid of what doesn’t, revising and refreshing? Note that I am not suggesting simply reusing the same sermon. But why not take something that worked once and see if I can make it work better?

Of course, there are challenges to doing that. As I wrote above, I’ve been using the Revised Common Lectionary, which means that I only get the same texts once every three years. And this spring, I’m planning on switching to the Narrative Lectionary, which runs on a four year cycle! But… the Narrative Cycle doesn’t have any prescribed readings during the summer, which opens up some options. Maybe I could take a Sunday or two during the summer to rework an old sermon.

Or maybe not. Preaching isn’t the practice room or a gig. But surely we shouldn’t just let old sermons lie around collecting dust. There must be some way to reconsider, rework, and revive the work we’ve put into them.

Preaching and Listening

For my birthday this year, my wife generously bought be a new tenor saxophone. I started on clarinet in sixth grade. In college, I switched to tenor saxophone (and still doubled on clarinet), and played on school horns. A few months after college, I bought a late-60s King Cleveland off eBay. Despite hundreds of dollars of repairs and adjustments, it’s never been a high quality instrument. The octave mechanism stick, there is always at least one leaky pad, the action is slow, it feels like it’s made out of tin, and it’s always a little stuffy. Now I have a P. Mauriat Le Bravo 200 that feels and plays much better. So… a huge thank you to my wife!

And that means that I’m practicing again. It’s something that I have to make time for, but I can usually get an hour or two in every day: practicing the blues in different keys, running scales and arpeggios, striving to get my tempos up, going through different tunes, and… transcribing.

Transcribing is the practice of listening to another musician’s solo and trying to replicate it. So, right now, I’m working on Miles Davis’s famous solo from Kind of Blue. I’m not writing it down — so, I suppose, I’m not technically transcribing — but I listen to a few notes or a few bars and try to play them back. And, as I get more of it under my fingers, I can play more of the solo right along with Miles. The point of this exercise is to train my ear; to get to a place where I can hear a phrase — in principle, any phrase — and repeat it.

And I do this because of something that I heard saxophonist Bob Reynolds say. To paraphrase: improvisation is the art of transcribing ourselves in real time. I want to be able to play what I’m hearing in my head at the same time that I’m hearing it.

And I started thinking about this in the context of preaching.

Specifically, I started thinking about why I don’t listen to — and imitate — other preachers? We have a handful of rockstar preachers in the United Church of Christ; and even outside of those rockstars, I know many pastors whose preaching I admire. Technology has made it easy to record and share sermons, and many churches publish recordings of sermons, so they’re easily available. And I know that listening to other preachers deliver good sermons well invigorates and inspires me when I hear them at denominational gatherings; so surely listening to them on a regular basis, for the purpose of learning from them, would make be a better preacher.

So why don’t I do it?

I think there are a few reasons.

First, I don’t think we usually think about preaching as performance or about sermons as a form of music. But it is a performance and public speaking has a lot in common with music. As preachers, we each have our signature patterns and phrases. Volume, rhythm, and phrasing all matter. Even where we look, how we gesture, and what facial expressions we wear make a difference. And while it is a lot of work to compose a new sermon every week, part of that composition should include thoughts on how I will deliver it.

Second, we tend to think that ‘borrowing’ from another preacher is bad form. The reason that I transcribe on the saxophone is to train my ear; and part of what I am training my ear to do is learn the language of jazz. I am learning new phrases that I can add to my repertoire… and that I can deploy elsewhere. I will never play Miles’s solo during a performance, but a measure that sounds like it might possibly be based on something from that solo might sneak into a solo on another piece where there’s an Em7 chord. The same principle should apply to preaching. I will never deliver the same line that some other preacher delivers, but a rhythm or inflection might slip in during a sermon on a different scripture. Of course, it will only do that if I add it to my own ‘language’. Not necessarily the words I say, but how I say them.

Third, I think many of us are scared to experiment. On Sunday morning, I have to use the time I have during the sermon to do a lot of work. Not only do I have to deliver an inspiring message; I often have to provide a basic education on the Bible, comment on current events, and do a dozen other things. Experimenting with a new style of preaching means taking a risk that my congregation might not be open to. The last think I want people remember is an awkward moment in the sermon; especially if that means they aren’t remembering something else. But that should be easy to manage: only use new things in practice until you’re comfortable with them.

So, I’m going to try an experiment. Along with practicing my saxophone and working on that Miles David solo, I’m going to take the time to listen to other preachers and — as it were — work on their solos. Hopefully, that will add some licks to my preaching vocabulary and make me a better, more interesting, and more diverse preacher.

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