|Chloe Breyer, who was ordained deacon in June 2000, is now serving as chaplain of the Cathedral School at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
The Holy Spirit is an essential ingredient for a good sermon, but no substitute for time in the library.
Just because great preachers tell you that they owe their most memorable sermons to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration does not mean that they failed to flip through the commentaries or agonize over their diction. Although a few great preachers may owe more to direct assistance from other-worldly powers than to heavy research and drafting, these paragons should not be imitated when a seminarian prepares for her first sermon.
Before going to seminary, I heard a lot of talk about the Holy Spirit’s influence on preaching, particularly on strong preaching. When a congregation dissolves in tears or responds to a sermon with choruses of “Amen,” when they’re moved to take to the streets in protest of injustice or to turn their lives over to God, the Holy Spirit is given most of the credit. Little is said about the preacher’s cleverly disguised exegesis, deftly woven into a gripping story; or about the number of drafts she has written, edited, or filed in the wastebasket; or about the years of practical experience she draws upon as she stands before large crowds like an improvisational actor, exercising her ability to think on her feet.
A week before finals, I gain a different perspective on sermon preparation and delivery. Having successfully completed one preaching course and garnered a handful of preaching experiences, I am overconfident of my ability to deliver under pressure. When a fellow seminarian asks me to substitute for him at Sunday vespers at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I quickly agree, jotting down the sermon date to worry about after finishing term papers.
The next thing I know, it is 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon on the day of my vespers sermon. I sit in a coffee shop across the street from the cathedral staring at the screen of my laptop and scanning one of my least favorite gospel passages from John:
“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.”
I dislike the implications of this passage for the souls of non-Christians—those who have never heard the gospel, are dedicated practitioners of another religious tradition, or simply good people who do not place their faith in Jesus Christ.
I have six hours to write and print out my sermon. I am familiar with this text. Part of the reason for my last-minute preparation is that I plan to lift a large section of an old class presentation on the historical context of the fourth gospel. Now, as I face a blank computer screen, conscious of the clock, cutting and pasting this ten-minute sermon becomes a daunting prospect.
I type the date and center the title—“Vespers Sermon”; nothing is worse than a blank screen. I can’t launch immediately into my prewritten explanation of the early Johannine community and the Council of Jamnia; a grabbing opener needs to come first. I begin to copy the text. The text is always a good place to start. And it will have to print in at least eighteen-point type, or I may not be able to read it in the dimly candlelit cathedral: