People often ask about how sermons are constructed, wondering where I find ideas of what to talk about, why I choose certain references, what my creative process is. Here are a few thoughts about the sermon I gave this past Shabbat, posted yesterday, that might give a bit of insight into how a sermon comes together (at least for me). You can read the sermon text here.
First off, the hardest thing in my experience is deciding on the topic. It seems on the surface like there are a million and one things to talk about, and I suppose there are. But not all of them seem like they make for good sermon material, not all of them sound interesting (to me), and not all of them are appropriate for pulpit preaching. Sometimes it feels like finding that idea is comparable to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. You know it is in there somewhere, but it can be awfully hard to locate!
My ideas generally come from one of three places. First, something from the weekly Torah portion. It might be a verse, it might be a word, it might be something in the commentary. But I often find my topic while flipping through the pages of the portion. Secondly, I commonly find a sermon idea in something that happens in the course of the week. A meeting I’ve attended, a conversation I’ve had, something I’ve seen, an interaction between two people at the bank. So be careful, the rabbi is always watching! And the last source for me is the news. An article I read in the paper, or something I hear on the radio. That might not necessarily be a current event, but could be a reference to the anniversary of an important historical moment, or a strange factoid, or a story about another cultural custom.
Once I have my idea a process of free association begins to unfold. Sometimes it is sort of organized, and I might jot a few notes down here or there, but mostly it happens in my head, and often when I am walking our dog around the neighborhood. (interestingly I generally do that without my mobile phone) How this works I honestly am not exactly sure. I think it has something to do with just giving my mind the space to float a bit, to think about things not immediately connected to anything in particular. But I suspect that sermon kernel is running in the my back of my head the entire time, like a kind of undercurrent. And so my thoughts are constantly being pulled into the orbit of that sermon, a process that I think is more unconscious that conscious.
As best I can, I’ll try to walk you through that process in terms of this past Shabbat’s sermon. First off, the initial idea. I was looking through the portion, came to the end, and there in the Hebrew was the Masoretic note about the conclusion of the book of Leviticus, and how many verses are contained in the book. I stared at that note for a moment, and I thought ‘endings!’ That might be a viable sermon topic, because after all, we seem to be interested in endings.
Then the free association process was off and running. Game of Thrones had just ended. We were reading in synagogue the end of a book of Torah (Leviticus). The last word of the book, when looked at with the last words of the other four books of the Torah is interesting. That led me to thinking about famous last lines of novels, and I thought it might be fun to include a few and see if people in the congregation could identify them. I went back to Game of Thrones and began to think of other famous endings of television shows. The most famous of all (at least back in the day!) was the last episode of MASH, a show that was an important part of my growing up (here is a link to the last few minutes of that episode). Many of the pieces of the puzzle were now on the table. There were two questions – first, how should they be assembled? And second, what is the point of all this?
Time to walk the dog! And so, as our trusty pooch meandered through the neighborhood, the pieces of that ‘sermon puzzle’ began to take shape. The order, what should come first, what next, what connected to what. At the end of the half hour walk I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to put those pieces. Then it was a matter of doing it, worrying a bit over transitions, weaving strands.
But there was a last piece nagging at me, which was that the Torah itself is a book that doesn’t have an ending. Deuteronomy ends and the people are still outside of the land. How might that connect to all of the other material about endings, about wrapping things up and concluding stories?
Then it occurred to me that might be exactly the point. The experiences of our lives, by and large, do not end in neat and tidy sentences, carefully constructed to perfectly conclude a moment. Instead, our lives are more like the (lack of an) ending in the Torah. We are perpetually just on the cusp, just on the other side of that (Jordan) river, always looking towards that Promised Land but never quite arriving there. We are always in a state of having one more river to cross.
Which is the name of the last track on Bob Weir’s solo album Blue Mountain, released in the fall of 2016. I love that record. In it Weir wrestles with his own mortality, with the passage of time, with the importance of taking that next step even in the face of daunting odds. And that song gave me the last paragraph of my sermon text. One more step, one more river to cross.
One last note – the title I gave the sermon when I posted it on my blog – At the End of All Things. That line comes from Tolkien’s the Return of the King. The hobbits Sam and Frodo lie exhausted, having finally completed their quest and destroyed the ring of power. It looks as if they are about to die, and Frodo says to Sam “I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.”
So there you have it. A bit of Torah. A dash of Game of Thrones. A nostalgic fondness for MASH. A good dog walk on a beautiful afternoon. Some Bob Weir for good measure. And a little Tolkien sprinkled in. Mix it all up, type for a while, and you never know what you’ll come up with.
Sorry about the length of this post! Anyone who read to the end, I owe you a scotch!