Every once in a while a first semester seminary student not yet adroit in the dance of theological education will, with an embarrassing lack of sophistication, ask, "Dr. Preaching Professor, can you give us a list of simple steps to a sermon?"
My eyes drop, my spirit shrinks, and my soul shrivels a little as I explain, "No, my young green pupil, we don't put together a sermon like a bookshelf from Ikea. Monet did not have a paint by number for Water Lilies. Rodin did not follow a set of directions to sculpt The Thinker. Jesus didn't construct the Sermon on the Mount from a kit. You are here to become a homiletical artist and not an electrical engineer."
By this point in my speech the budding scholar is considering transferring to a Hebrew class so I compromise: "Future preaching luminary, instead of thinking of steps to a sermon why don't you try thinking of questions that might lead to a sermon? Here are inquiries that your listeners will be glad you thought to explore."
How many people in your text have handlebar moustaches?
What's the weather like in your story? (In the Gospels it snows at Christmas and is ninety degrees for the next thirty years.)
What's the most irritating sound in your story that's not a sheep or a Pharisee?
If you were drawing a picture of your passage, how big a box of Crayolas would you need?
Who's the best looking person in your story (pick someone other than Jesus because that's cheating)?
Would the contemporary version of your story be set in Cracker Barrel or Starbucks?
Who in your story would just as soon not be mentioned in your sermon?
What do you wish wasn't in the Bible because its absence would make writing your sermon easier?
What are you tempted to hear when you read the story that isn't there but would be if the writer thought more like you do?
What have you heard other preachers say about this text that would make the writer of scripture scream?
What did the writer of this passage say that would embarrass your mother?
Which character on Modern Family would feel most at home in your story?
What do scholars say about this text that is too boring to mention?
How would they tell this story on Fox News? NPR?
What disconcerting truths in your text will your sermon skillfully avoid?
What in your sermon might awaken a ninth grader?
What would Fred Craddock preach on this text?
What did Barbara Brown Taylor already preach on this text (ask this question only in desperation and only on Saturday night)?
If the listeners completely missed your point what would they hear?
Are you willing to skip the stuff you want to say that no one will care about?
Will your sermon be evidence that preaching is a dying art?
Will your sermon be closer to the Gospel than the announcements made earlier in the service?
Can people who go to church three times a week guess exactly what you are going to say?
Do you have three points or is it an interesting sermon?
What part of the sermon will make your spouse regret coming?
What will you say that your children will wish you had not?
How would the sermon be different if you had to mime the whole thing?
If you were going to wear a hat while preaching this sermon, what kind of hat would it be?
Will visiting Episcopalians wish their sermons were longer?
After Jesus' first sermon in Nazareth the congregation almost threw him off a cliff; is this a possibility for you?
Will the Tea Party or the Green Party be offended?
Who should sing the solo before this sermon-Mumford and Sons, Lady Gaga, or Kanye West?
If this sermon were a hamburger place, would it be McDonald's, Five Guys, or Wendy's?
Which major league baseball team is most easily connected to your sermon-the Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Angels, or Los Angeles Dodgers?
Who do you wish could hear this sermon-Jon Stewart, Antonin Scalia, or your sister?
What kind of eggs would go best with this sermon?
Would this sermon make your preaching professor proud?
Which part would Jesus like the most? Can you spend more time on that part?
When you pray about this sermon are you praying for guidance or forgiveness?
Does God want to be associated with your sermon?