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Asking the Clergy: How do you find inspiration for sermons?

The Rev. Paul Downing of St. Paul's Evangelical

The Rev. Paul Downing of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Rev. Douglas Arcoleo of Our Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church and Rabbi Manes Kogan of Hillcrest Jewish Center. Credit: Paul Downing; Steven Sunshine; Manes Kogan

To those listening from the pews, a spiritual leader’s sermons may seem improvised on the spot, but researching and writing those words can take weeks — sometimes even months. This week’s clergy discuss the preparation, inspiration and yes, perspiration, that goes into creating weekly homilies.

The Rev. Douglas R. Arcoleo

Pastor, St. Catherine of Sienna Roman Catholic Church, Franklin Square

I could probably write a book on this subject, but the short answer is: inspiration for a sermon — I hope — comes from God! After all, a priest is called to preach not his opinion, but, in season and out of season, when popular and unpopular, a priest is called to preach the truth. And so I pray, and turn to the Bible (Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth) — from Genesis to Revelation and every book in between — especially the passages that will be read to the congregation.

In addition to God-at-work in the word, I then have recourse to God-at-work in creation — and in particular, in people living both in time and in eternity. It is the lives of others (nonfictional and fictional, I might add), coupled with their historical context (dates significant to the local, national, worldwide and particular audience play a part in forming the words as well), that, for me, provide the words preached in a sermon; words that seek to apply the unchanging truth to the lives and circumstances of real people today. And for that application, there is no greater inspiration than Jesus Christ: the way, the truth, the life; the greatest sermon ever preached!

The Rev. Paul Downing

Pastor, St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Port Jefferson Station

Inspiration begins with the Bible, a month in advance, so I am simultaneously writing many sermons. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we follow a three-year lectionary prescribed for the church year. I attend weekly Bible study with colleagues. Once I review the texts thoroughly, going sometimes to the original Hebrew or Greek words for clarification, I look to see what God is saying about us and our relationships, and what God is inviting us to consider. After that, inspiration can fall on me from any place: a movie or song quote, pop culture references, everyday imagery or anecdotal material from my own journey. I consider it my task to make the Bible relatable to people in today’s context without ignoring the context of the original writings. Again, I reiterate, it needs to start with the text itself and not be me trying to prove a point using Scripture to back me up, as that is a false narrative and can be used to do great harm. A good summary of the preacher’s job is this: Wrestle with the text and report back on the experience, on what you find. If it’s good, it’s God! The rest is just me muddling through.

Rabbi Manes Kogan

Hillcrest Jewish Center, Flushing, Queens; member of the Long Island Board of Rabbis

During the year, I mainly find inspiration for my sermons in the weekly Torah portion, the public reading of a set of passages from the Torah scroll. I read the particular section for the coming Shabbat and try to relate it to living a life of Torah, spiritual connections and acts of kindness. For the High Holy Days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur (coming up very soon, in September), I do something different. About six months before Rosh Hashanah, I create a file on my computer called "Ideas for the High Holy Days," and I begin making notes of meaningful things that happen in my life, in the Jewish community, in America, in Israel and in the rest of the world. Then I review the notes and I use them to put together four sermons, two for Rosh Hashanah and two for Yom Kippur. For these upcoming High Holy Days, I will speak on personal insights from my parents’ passing, inspiring lessons from the Tokyo Olympic Games, and how to recognize transformative moments in our lives and use them as opportunities for growth.

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