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The Joys and Perils of Reusing Sermons

For a long time—the thirty years and more that I was the pastor of the same church—I prided myself in never preaching the same sermon twice. There were exceptions, of course. If I went off somewhere on vacation or for some other reason and was given the opportunity to preach, I took with me a sermon or two, usually a recent sermon, adapted it some for the new place, and preached it over again. These occasions were rarely wholly satisfying. The message, usually part of a series, often seemed slightly off in a new context and preached to people I hardly knew. I loved the discipline of writing a new sermon each week—the rhythm of the pastoral week, of the pastoral seasons and years. But lately that has changed for me.

I retired in late 2011. Since that time, I have served as interim pastor at several churches, and at those churches I’ve learned the joys and some of the perils of rewriting and re-preaching old sermons. In doing so, I’ve added new methods to the old in preparing for Sunday.

Writing the Original Sermon

Let me begin with the old: how, over the years, I’ve prepared my sermons. I do so not because I think it’s the only way to prepare sermons or because I think it is necessarily the best way, but because how I have approached writing and preaching new sermons is related to how I rewrite and re-preach those same sermons.

Defining the Series

I preach in series. Sometimes the series is controlled by a single passage or book of the Bible. For example, I’m about to embark on a series on the book of Philippians. In the course of the series, we—the congregation and I—will read through the entire book. Sometimes the series is conceptual. I just completed a series on story, looking at how God works in the lives of people. Sometimes—more rarely, in my case—the series follows the lectionary, though even in that case I try to give it an overall theme and shape. I publish these series long in advance for the sake of those putting together the liturgies. My series plans include a précis of the sermon, a biblical text, and perhaps some liturgical notes.

No one who has put together series outlines in advance has entirely avoided the terrifying question that comes on reading over what you optimistically wrote some time ago: What was I thinking? By now, the week before the sermon is supposed to be preached, the worship director has picked out appropriate music, the choir has rehearsed a difficult number that perfectly matches your announced theme, and the organist or pianist or band is ready to add musical support to the ideas you put down in your plan—ideas that now seem, well, incapable of being made into a sermon that anyone would want to listen to. There’s no changing now.

Studying the Biblical Text

But there remains the biblical text. I throw myself into the text, often finding in it surprises that I did not know were there when I chose it for that sermon. I read it in the original languages, a procedure I recommend not only because you might discover something in the Hebrew or Greek that is not in the English, but even more because reading texts in the original languages slows one down, makes one notice what otherwise one would not notice. I try to let the text take hold of me and carry me forward, even when that takes me to places I did not anticipate when I wrote the précis in the sermon plan. For me, the best sermons are those in which I find a surprise in the text and carry that surprise over from the preparation of the message into the pulpit.

“There is a time for writing, and a time for rewriting, and ample joys in each.”

Writing and Rewriting the Manuscript

Once I have the central thread for the sermon and a concept outline, I write it out or, better, type it out on my computer. The whole thing, word for word. Not that I will actually preach those words. I never read my sermons. I have for years tucked the typescript into the back of my Bible before I preach, but I have never actually consulted it in preaching. It’s there because, well, it’s what I do. A kind of talisman, I suppose.

When I have a completed manuscript, I put it away until the day before or, sometimes, the morning before I preach it. The space between writing and preaching is important. It gives me a chance to bring fresh eyes to the message when I’m ready to commit it to memory and preach it. When the time comes, I read it over carefully, marking it up, x-ing through sentences or whole paragraphs, drawing arrows to move concepts from one place to another, writing around and over the typed text, and—this is important—preaching it in my head to see if it will come out of my mouth the way I think it should.

The typescript is the first draft. The marked-up version of the typescript is the second draft. The third draft is rehearsing it, usually while walking. Actual walks are best. In a pinch, pacing back and forth in a room will do. Memory—my memory, at least—is kinesthetic. The flow of the message and the flow of the walk become one.

The Preached Sermon

With that, I’m ready. The preached sermon is the fourth and last draft, different from the previous ones, and not always better. I sometimes leave my best sermon out there on my morning walk when no one was listening. But for me, preaching in this fashion gives the message immediacy. There is nothing between me and the congregation—often not even a pulpit—except the words I speak and the Spirit who uses those often-poor words to speak the word of God to the people of God—or so I pray.

Listening

There is one more step: the listening. Good sermon listeners are as important as good sermon preparers and preachers. There is an art to listening to a sermon, to hearing its truth and ignoring its many missteps. A sermon is an aural dance with three partners: the preacher, the listener, and the Spirit. For years, I left it there. If we danced well together, there was joy in the room, and the Word of God was spoken.

Rewriting for A New Context

But now I’ve added something to the process: rewriting old messages for new contexts. Rewriting is a kind of translation. There are two parts to it: translating an old word for a new and different time and place, and discovering in the old word a new word not yet spoken. I’ll take those two things up in that order.

Translating for a New Context

I begin with the manuscript. If I’m where I can access my files, I pull out the old manuscripts with the mess of my notes scrawled across them. If, as often is the case these days, I’m not in a place where I can access the physical files, I pull up the sermon on the computer. I read it, remember (if I can) the preaching of it, and let the thoughts it engenders pop out at me. I go back to the biblical text. This is important. I read the text again, checking out what needs checking out in the words and grammar and looking for the resonances that the text may have with other texts—the internal biblical conversation. I think about how the words may or may not speak to the congregation to whom I will be preaching it. And then I set about rewriting the text, often (though not always) writing it over completely.

Context—not the biblical context, but the immediate context in which the message is to be preached—is key. The message has to be translated into a new setting. Often, the new setting elicits from the old message new applications. I have a sermon on Ruth, part of a series called Story. The point of the message is that God’s truth sometimes comes to the community of faith from the outside. It’s not just that Israel speaks to Moab but that Moab speaks to Israel. It’s Ruth, the Moabite, who instructs Naomi, the Israelite, about faith. But recently, preaching the sermon in southern California in the midst of the controversy in our country about immigrants, particularly immigrants from Mexico, the message took on a new dimension.

I began the message with a contemporized version of the basic story of Ruth. Eli (Elimelek in the book of Ruth) is a warehouse worker in SoCal who gets laid off. He packs up the car with his wife and kids and heads south to Moab. Just enough contemporizing to get the congregation to think about the story in today’s terms, just enough to suggest that Moab could be Mexico from the point of view of the congregation. (If the sermon were preached in Mexico, the roles would be reversed.) When we come to the end, I made the point that Ruth was an ancestor of Jesus and that Jesus, therefore, according to the Matthew genealogy, had Moabite blood. And if we are the body of Christ, if we have his blood, as John 6:53–58 suggests, then we too have Moabite blood. The message took on meanings it did not have when I first wrote it. It spoke to the political situation at the time without my having to spell it out. Context—that amalgam of time and place—is key.

The best sermons are those in which I find a surprise in the text and carry that surprise over from the preparation of the message into the pulpit.

Discovering a New Word in The WORD

Sometimes what’s new isn’t the preaching context but the biblical text: On rereading it, new insights emerge from it. You see it differently. I had preached on Jacob for a long time before I saw that Esau got the blessing after all—the blessing that Jacob thought he had stolen. The blessing included not only the riches of the earth, but these lines: “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you” (Gen. 27:29). When Jacob meets Esau in the climactic scene in the story, Jacob does just that. He bows to Esau, seven times for good measure (Gen. 33:3). The biblical text forces on us the question “Can you really steal a blessing?” The answer appears to be no. I would not have seen this if I had not gone back to the text and preached it anew.

The Perils

There are perils in rewriting and re-preaching sermons. Sometimes they get stale. What worked in one place doesn’t work in another. I re-preached the Ruth sermon recently. The Moabite blood piece fell to the ground like so many stale Doritos. Its time was past. I rewrote it again, going back to the original point—the work of the Spirit is larger than the work of the church—but even that felt flat. Time to retire it.

Rewriting as Biblical Tradition

Rewriting sermons seems to work best in a mix that includes new sermons. The new and the old, the written and rewritten, play off each other. New insights and old create a richer brew than one without the other. In this, the process of writing and rewriting sermons reflects the Scriptures themselves. If biblical scholars are right—and I think they are—the biblical stories were written and rewritten for centuries, adapted for new times and new contexts. The story of the banishment of Adam and Eve from the garden resonates with the banishment of the Judeans from Jerusalem in the time of the Babylonian exile. The travel narrative in the gospel of Luke becomes an extended commentary on church. Deuteronomy rewrites the Exodus Sinai story; Matthew rewrites Mark; Ephesians rewrites Colossians. Rewriting is as old as the Bible.

As the ancient preacher might have put it: There is a time for writing, and a time for rewriting, and ample joys in each.

This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/.