Sermons as poems, poems as sermons: an invitation to a new practice

Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

Lauren Winner, author and Duke Divinity professor, told participants in a writing workshop to rework our sermons as sonnets as part of the revision process. Her point: at a shorter work would summarize the main points of the larger piece. I’ve found this to be excellent advice.

I’ve also found that writing a sonnet can be generative for the sermon itself.

For years, I had been selecting a “poem of preparation” for Sunday worship. Initially, this poem was printed in the bulletin for early arrivers to peruse. However, I began reading the poem out loud to open worship as I had selected those verses to preview the sermon.

I then noticed how my usual sermon preparation lent itself to writing my own poems. After reading the lectionary texts, I free write for an hour or so, jotting down ideas, feelings and stories that are evoked from the scriptures. Later, I research more insights from scholarship. A good sermon, I believe, is informed through conversation with other voices, both past and present.

Poems can be more personal. The paradox is that a glimpse of the transcendent is often witnessed on the ground of our experience. As I look over my free write, I play with thoughts that seem unimportant or random, such as in the poem below when I discovered the communion grape juice had spoiled in the church’s fridge.

Lately, I have written mainly sonnets. I have found the form helps shape the content. I must be concise with only 14 lines. A sonnet includes a volta, meaning a “turn” or transition in the poem’s content or message. The volta is often highlighted by a line break. Thinking of how a sonnet might inform a sermon, it’s instructive to think about exegetical points that shift one’s focus.

While I’m rarely rigid with the classic sonnet structures of rhyme and meter, searching for a rhyme can inspire me to revise the other lines. Referring again to the poem below, the word “wink” came to mind in response to “think” and prompted my reference to “the third day” in John 2:1. Poetry affords the opportunity to speak in new ways. It’s fun and insightful.

I preach about 45 times a year. Writing these poems has brought creativity and pleasure to my process of sermon preparation. In addition to the task itself, I’m grateful for positive responses. Occasionally, a worshipper will tack my words to the fridge or slip them into a journal. What gives me the most satisfaction is that many regulars are now crafting their own poems in response to the biblical stories. Some write sonnets for the first time in their lives!

Perhaps, as Lauren Winner did for me, this blog will even inspire you to try your hand.

“Science & Faith”
John 2:1–12
January 16, 2022

Photo by nrd on Unsplash

Six months into the pandemic,
the church’s grape juice was discovered
to have sprouted bacteria.
Time passes behind closed doors,
even if we studiously avoid
peeking in the back of the fridge.
Whether we are aware or not,
there are things that grow in the dark.

In the turning of water into wine,
we have been given a sign
pointing to life, even when we think
there is only death or decay.
The Gospel of John gives us a wink;
that wedding was on the third day.