Preaching “Difficult” BiblicalTexts

Editor's Note: It's happened to many of us. We casually start looking through the lectionary texts only to discover that we have to explain an inexplicable text. The month of September has presented more than a few opportunties for exasperated sighs and hair pulling. Many just finished having a go at the dishonest steward, the infamous "problem child" of the parables, after having exegeted  Luke 14:25-33 only two weeks before that. Here, young clergy woman Katie Z. Dawson describes not only sermon writing process but also how she approaches "difficult texts." How does your process compare to what Katie describes?

I am a preacher who likes difficult texts. I like to get inside of them and wrap myself up in them and really just cut to the meat of the matter and let Jesus' words speak for themselves. I pray that I get out of the way enough to let the Holy Spirit move!

My sermon writing process starts when I spend the first half of the week absorbing the text, reading some commentaries, and studying the lectionary with other local pastors. But then I let the studying be and don't try to write anything. I have found when I try to write too early, the sermon has far too much of what I want to say, far too little of the Holy Spirit, and I usually end up throwing it out come Saturday night. Instead, I let the events of the week flow into my thoughts. In this particular sermon, a news story that really provided the impetus for my writing. Other times it is a television episode, a conversation I have with a family member, or something cute that my niece or nephew does. I look for the ordinary ways the gospel has come alive in my life that week, and usually it is that moment of "aha" that starts the "sermonizing".


I hesitate to admit how many sermons come together on a Sunday morning, but to be truthful, I must say that when I finally sit down with a laptop and type, the words usually come easily. I write out the sermon from beginning to end exactly like I would stand up and say it. If I had a bit more confidence in my extemporaneous speaking abilities, I probably could preach from a very simple outline. For now, I write out exactly what I would say if I had to stand up and preach about the text and with very little editing, my sermon is written.

When I am willing to put in the work to tackle a difficult text like this and then preach a hard truth, my church folk are ready to hear it. They are yearning to know how to apply these words to their lives. I'm not afraid to speak the truth with my people, because I know that they love and trust me as much as I love and trust them. At the same time, I am careful with how a difficult text may have been used and abused in churches, and, if the moment calls for it, I will often preach against a traditional reading of a difficult text.  Yet, if we never preach about the cross we are called to bear, then we are simply not setting the bar high enough for our folks. The gospel is meant to transform lives, and that begins with recognizing where we are and how far we have to go.

Read Katie's sermon on Luke 14:25-33.

3 replies
  1. Sarah - from the UK
    Sarah - from the UK says:

    Ah, the confessions of another hard text junkie! I have to admit, Katie, I’m with you. I’m definitely a preacher who far prefers the process of wrestling with something hard than taking the easy way out. I find engaging with the difficult bits of scripture, including the so-called texts of terror, to be far more nourishing than what is seemingly more straightforward. I have also found that congregations respond far more openly to hearing these texts preached than some of the old favourites. Sometimes and maybe even often, I suspect that the hard texts resonate more with lived experience than the easier ones do.
    Thanks for the article.

  2. Bromleigh
    Bromleigh says:

    The thing that resonates the most with me in this thoughtful piece is the multiple sources of insight that sneakily impact the sermon writing process. Keeping your eyes open to those television episodes, conversations, news stories and hearing them in conversation with the texts seem to lie at the heart of preaching as a spiritual discipline.
    I find myself preaching with less and less manuscript these days, and I’m a bit ambivalent about that. My sermons are longer, not as tight; but my folks like it. The Gospel seems more internalized, they can see my wrestling, and thus they are (I think) more willing to wrestle with these difficult texts.
    Thanks for this.

  3. Katie
    Katie says:

    Thanks to both of you for wrestling with me!
    I think that piece about the congregations resonating with the harder texts is that they, too, have questions about them. They have heard Psalm 23 preached on their whole lives and if you throw in something new, they start to look at you funny. With a difficult text, that few have attempted to open up to them, they appreciate you taking the time to take it seriously.


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