The internet of course. Just kidding. Although I suppose some folks go to the internet for ideas (and probably in some cases entire sermons) I have mainly relied on more traditional ‘methods.’ There are three major places I go searching for sermon sparks.
First is the text. The tradition gives us a weekly reading cycle for Shabbat morning, with specified texts from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and the Prophets. Not uncommonly a read-through of the weekly portion will put a sermonic idea into my head. Sometimes it might come from an overarching theme in the portion, other times it might be a single verse, or phrase, or even one word. Reading the text with commentaries is always helpful, as the commentaries bring out ideas that I wouldn’t think of otherwise.
Secondly, מעשה שהיה as the Talmudic rabbis used to say – something that happened. I’ve given sermons (or sermonettes) on such things as license plates, encounters in Home Depot, an unused ticket to a Who concert from the 70s, conversations I’ve had with people, things my children have done, the list could go on and on. But something that happens in the course of every day life strikes me as sermonic, and then I work from there. Sometimes I will attach an actual text to the idea as it develops, sometimes I won’t. But the thing that happened in someway illustrates the message of the sermon. In a sense, the event becomes a kind of ‘text’ in the sermon structure.
Finally, the news. The events of the day, the headlines. By and large you’ll find most rabbis, and clergy folk in general, are news hounds. In the news you can find sermonic material in human interest stories, op-ed columns, obituaries, and sometimes just in the actual news itself. Jews in general are interested in what happened in Israel, or what happened to a Jew or Jewish community anywhere in the world. Sometimes these sermons might be more information driven and less ‘message’ oriented.
Oftentimes, of course, the above three areas are combined into one sermon. You might find an idea in the text, realize it works well with something that happened in the news during the week and then you’ll also use a story to reinforce the point. Sometimes the pieces come together easily. Other times it can be a struggle. My feeling about it is you do your best, and then just move on. But one thing is for sure – you need to start somewhere.