Four Steps to Writing a Topical Sermon (Even When the Lectionary Seems Unrelated)

Photo by  mauro mora  on  Unsplash

Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash

Sometimes you just gotta say it.

Sometimes you just gotta address the topic of the day:

  • a sudden turn of events for the congregation
  • a tragedy
  • a cry for social justice
  • a natural disaster
  • the "elephant in the room"

How do you find a message for a topical sermon? For those of us who are bound to the lectionary, this can be a particular challenge when the authorized texts don't speak clearly to the occasion.

One way is to rely on Lectio Divina.

Backstory Preaching teaches preachers how to use Lectio Divina to discern a sermon message from the lectionary. We can also use the same process with a topic. It's using Lectio Divina on life.

Step One. Lectio

Goal: See the topic anew.

First, look at the topic as it affects real people. Whether this is a topic that affects just your congregation or local situation, or is a big, gnarly topic of social justice, it's always personal. Whom does the issue affect?

Second, consider these people. What's the story? Define it, describe it, look at it from all angles. Draw pictures, look at multiple news accounts online. As much as you can, be as dispassionate as possible. Gather the facts. Be literal, objective, and chronological: What happened?

Step Two: MediTatio

Goal: Make meaning of the event.

Where is God? That's the "Big Question" everyone wants to know. Where is God in this event? Look at the lectionary and any Scripture passage that mirrors your topic. Consider related historical events when we have the advantage of hindsight and can see where God was then.

When you look at the lectionary, can you find a connection? Don't overlook the psalms. There's so much emotion and raw humanity in the psalms, the selected psalm of the day might be the place to find an authentic link. Is there a theme, a reference, a character or tribe who experienced something similar? Or maybe there's more to the story elsewhere in the lectionary. That is, maybe there's more to the story of a battle, quarrel, or God protecting the meek that the lectionary committee left off only because the reading would be too long. Can the "more to the story" be the tie-in?

Even though many of us are "bound" to the lectionary, in the end, we are bound to proclaim Good News. If you can't find a genuine connection to the lectionary, you have three choices:

  1. Follow protocol to ask permission of your bishop (or equivalent) to substitute the readings for the day.
  2. In your sermon, name the fact that the lectionary doesn't apply directly but the Good News does in a related passage on which you will rely (and then read it).
  3. Apply your chosen Scripture within your sermon and don't mention the lectionary texts. I don't suggest this lightly or that it be done often. Pray, discern, talk this idea over with a preaching friend, and in the end. trust the Spirit to say what needs to be said. Sometimes forcing a weak link upon the lectionary lessens the impact of the message instead of strengthening it.

Now, where is God? What is the Good News? Where do you see the Holy? Where do you experience God here?

Name it. There's the meaning you search for; that's your sermon message.

Step 3: Oratio

Goal: Make meaning for others.

The question on everyone's mind is, "Where is God?"

Lead them to the Holy One.

For example, you might describe the apparent "impossibility" of finding God in this situation. God is "hidden," "absent," "bewildering." And yet, of course, we know God is there because there is no where God is not. If God is in Sheol, God is also in this situation.

Lead them to God along the same path where you found God.

What clues did you find? What mention in Scripture? What reference in history led you down the path until you found God? What do you need your listeners to know? What is God's promise and hope for them, and how can they recognize God in the here and now as you do?

Step 4: Contemplatio

Goal: Let it be.

Topical sermons are tough on you and everyone.

Build in self-care, prayer, and respite before and after the sermon. Lie in a hammock and stare at the sky, or on your bed and stare at the ceiling. Ask God to be with you.

Talk to your preaching buddies. Run a draft by them before you preach. Afterwards, invite them to listen to the audio recording on the parish website and ask them for specific feedback. Ask trusted colleagues and/or family members who both support you no matter what, AND will give you useful comments.

Entrust the message to God who always has the last word. No word we speak is its own end. You did your work faithfully. Let your words melt into God's grace who brings all things to their completion and whose reign is assured.



Finally, for a terrific book on the subject of topical sermons, Ronald J. Allen can't be beat with the aptly named book: 

Preaching the Topical Sermon

(Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992).

Professor Allen helps us preach when the bible doesn't specifically address the issues of the day and when we aren't sure whether a "topical" sermon is the right call. This book also gives plenty of practical advice for topical sermon approaches.


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