The Feathers Are Cheap and the Discoveries Joyful: On Sermon Writing and Life

I've written about a hundred and twenty sermons in the last two-and-a-half years since starting CityChurch. And while writing has always been my thing, sermon writing has not. Manuscripting a thirty-minute sermon was daunting in the first many months. It still is, although I've come to trust more in the process and in God-behind-the-process.

I've never been a three-point-sermon kind of gal, and I generally don't use outlines in the traditional sense. My process of sermon writing is a lot like constructing a collage from scraps of colored things of odd shapes and sizes and textures--like the ones my children made when they were younger.  They'd come home from preschool with construction paper wet with Elmer's glue. Leaves, glitter, popsicle sticks, cotton balls, and other miscellany clung to the page for dear life. Jumbled together in an arrangement of sorts, these items resembled houses, people, bugs, hearts, stars, letters of the alphabet--whatever the monthly theme inspired.

Sermon-writing day is Wednesday, blocked out of the week, sacred. But sermon writing doesn't start on Wednesday. Instead it begins several days before with mulling, reading, pondering, wondering: What does the text say? What does it mean? Where are we going with it? What problem does it address? How will this connect to my congregation? I'm digging for meaning, understanding while at the same time looking desperately around for the materials that will help me construct a message related to the weekly passage of scripture. A story. A survey. A problem. An anecdote. A truth. An invitation. Feathers. Glitter. Popsicle sticks. Scraps of colored paper. Three thousand words, sometimes four.

There are weeks when I begin this pondering process and the materials I need seem to appear in front of me like a well-stocked elementary art room. But other weeks, I spend time waiting for the materials to arrive. In fact, those weeks, staring longer at a Bible dictionary or commentary tends to make things worse. Those resources are like the paper, the backdrop, a given. I have to divert my attention elsewhere--go on a walk, read a book, meet someone for coffee, watch the news--in order to find the rest of the pieces I need. And invariably, something I need to glue down to the paper appears: A metaphor. A closing. A conversation. A question. Gorgeous words from a smarter, more thoughtful writer.

This is what writers call "finding their material," but it's a also a lot like thrift-shopping: It doesn't cost me much to browse and pay attention and then, when I find it, snatch a red feather out of mid-air and stuff it into my pocket for later use. The feathers are cheap and the discoveries joyful. The only problem is the wait. If I go to a thrift store looking for something specific, I almost never find it. If I go with an openness to discovery, open to finding something I didn't know I needed, then I'm bound to go home with my pockets full. In sermon writing, as in thrift shopping, the feathers arrive but not when I want them and not when I'm trying too hard.

I think most of life is like this for us seekers, sermon-writers or not. We have intense periods of mulling, meditating, and gathering information, so that we can formulate our little picture of How the World Really Is. But this is never gifted to us concretely and fully. Instead we get scraps, pieces, certainties, alongside all of our blank space on the page, waiting for us to fill it with all the answers we don't even have questions for yet, all the pieces we didn't even know we needed.