A Christmas Story in July

After I read my last post, I realized that it would not be very interesting to those of you who don’t write sermons. So today, I am going to share a true story. This really happened.  So here is a little Christmas cheer in July. Sometimes funny things happen in church and I think that is a good thing. Ann Lamott called laughter “carbonated holiness.” I will post part two of how I write a sermon later.

Sometimes December 25 falls on a Sunday. Most of the churches I have served have two or even three services on Christmas Eve. But when Christmas day happens to be on a Sunday we have worship services again on Sunday morning.

As usual, attendance is pretty low when that happens. We decided to have an informal service. I invited everyone to come to church in their pajamas. One woman said she didn’t wear pajamas. And while that might have improved attendance, she just stayed home.

A woman who was near or beyond 70 asked me if her mother could play the piano during that service.  I thought, “How old must mother be?” But I said yes figuring there wouldn’t be very many people there anyway.

She showed up and she was darling.  The woman helped her mom to the piano and she began to play.  She started out with Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Then she moved into Away in the Manger and Silent Night.  She played in a kind of honky-tonk style, but it was nice. Then she started into a lively version of Jingle Bells which is not a hymn, but what the heck. Then she started to play Santa Baby; honest to God. I am pretty sure that Santa Baby had never been played as part of a worship service before. I could almost hear those old Presbyterians out in the cemetery rolling in their graves.  Someone once said that a Presbyterian was someone who was upset that someone somewhere in the world was having fun. That did not define my congregation there.

The daughter was embarrassed and she told her mom to stop. But it turns out mother was nearly deaf. Her daughter ran up to the piano and yelled into her ear to stop. People were trying not to laugh, but it was too funny to hold it in. It’s OK, mom couldn’t hear the laughter anyway.

Later in the service the 90+ year old woman played a duet with her great-grand daughter. It was lovely and touching. You never know what surprises the Spirit has in store.  People afterward said it was the best Christmas Day service they had ever attended.


Four surgeons were discussing the easiest patients to operate on. The first said it was accountants because everything in them was numbered. The second said it was electricians because every part was color coded. the third surgeon said he thought it was librarians because everything was in alphabetical order. But the fourth surgeon topped them all. He said, “The easiest people to operate on are politicians. There are no guts, no spine, no heart, no brain and the head and the butt are interchangeable.”

How I write a sermon

Do people in the pews of churches ever wonder how the preacher creates the sermons they listen to?

In case anyone is interested today I will begin a three part blog on the process I use. This is not universal to all preachers. The only one I know is my own.

  1. Reading the passage
  2. Part A: The research
  3. Part B: The point
  4. Creating an outline
  5. Writing a first draft
  6. Delivery



It may seem like a no-brainer. You have to read the passage before you can deliver a sermon based on it.  But it is more involved than it seems. First there is the selection of the passage,called a text for that sermon. i generally use the lectionary. That is a list of Biblical passages for each Sunday. There are usually at least four texts listed.  I read them all and determine which one is the most relevant to the congregation I am speaking to. Sometimes I choose a text that is not one of the lectionary lessons. Some preachers never follow the lectionary. There is no right or wrong way to choose. But there is a danger in choosing your own passage. You may be tempted to tell the listeners what you think with a passage from the Bible to back you up. To me, that is not preaching. That is a lecture with the Bible as a pretext. But that’s just me.

Once I have selected a passage, the next step is to read it prayerfully. I desperately need God’s guidance to deliver a message to God’s people. Sure it goes through the filters of my life and my perspective, but it must be the text that informs me as to what I  will say; not the only way around.

Then I read it again. This time I make a list of the characters and the verbs. I begin to ask myself the Who What When Where and Why questions. I jot these questions down. If this is a familiar passage that I have preached before, it is important for me to try and see the text anew; like I have never read it before. Now, with one more prayer, it is time to start doing the hard work of research.



There are many books called commentaries. These are written by scholars about one of the books of the Bible.  They contain important information about the passage you are preaching. They tell you if there are language issues to be aware of. For instance in Genesis 29 the writer talks about Leah’s eyes. The Bible I use translates it as lovely eyes.  Other translations call them weak eyes or dull eyes. There is a footnote in my version that tells me that the Hebrew meaning of the word is unclear. No kidding! Commentaries also tell you if there are text issues. Read the end of Mark’s Gospel. If your Bible is like mine you will have three different versions of the ending. Which one is closest to the original and why would there be more than one? That is a text issue. the commentaries then follow the text verse by verse giving valuable background information about the setting and the meaning of the terms used.

I usually try to have have four sources. Some are more scholarly than others. Some try to help with the transition to themes. Some of my favorites are Feasting on the Word, The New Interpreters Bible, The Interpretation Series and a  on-line commentary edited by Walter Brueggemann. I also use the Barclay series sometimes. It is not as academic as the others, but it is still very helpful. I also use specific work for some texts. I cannot preach one of the parables without referring to Ken Bailey’s work.

I take notes as I do this research.  A skill that I have developed with time is to write only the significant things about the text and leave out the trivial. This Part A will inform the development of Part B which we will examine next time.



The little boy was sitting in church during the sermon. He said to his dad, “What does it mean when the preacher looks at his watch?” His father responded, “Not a thing, son, not a thing,”


I have been on face book for years, but I rarely post anything. So for anyone who might care, here is an update on my life since 2014.

I was honorably retired from Newton Presbytery in June of 2014 where I had served as pastor of the New Vernon Presbyterian Church for seven years.

During that time, Prudy and I had a new home built in a 55+ community back in Mechanicsburg PA. In 2015, my mom passed away.

We love our house, but we would love to be closer to kids and grand kids in Pittsburgh.  So we are trying to sell our house here and move west.

After retiring and moving back to central PA, I accepted the job of interim pastor at a church in Dauphin PA. The Hope U. P. Church was a wonderful congregation. I really enjoyed my work with them until March of this year when they called a very talented young woman to be their shared pastor with another church nearby.

Here is what our kids have been up to.

Jason: Lives in Northumberland. He has twins named Ainsley and Jason who are 15

Jennifer: Lives in  Galloway New Jersey. She has two boys, Vincent, 11 and Lucas 9

Jill: Lives in Pittsburgh and has two boys, Alexander, 5 and Julius, 2

Kate: Lives in England. She has a daughter Juliet, 8 and Simon 7

Hope lives in Pittsburgh and has one daughter Eve, 6 months

Jill lives in Pittsburgh and will be married in 2018

Dalitso lives in Hummelstown and has one son, Josh, 9

You will have to forgive me if i got some of the ages wrong.  My memory is not as good as it once was and my memory is not as good as it once was.

Our grand children are the most precious gifts in our lives.

Prudy and I are well with the usual ailments of arthritis and other assorted age-related issues. We have done a lot of traveling since retirement and have really loved it.

We are both trying our hand at writing.  Prudy has written several children’s books. I have written a series of essays on ministry which we will self-publish soon. I have also written a series of short stories and I am working on a novel.  Don’t look for me on the New York Times best seller list just yet.


A minister was invited to dinner at the home of members of his church. When he arrived, the mother proudly told him that her 6 year old daughter had set the table by herself. When they sat down to eat, the mom noticed that there was no silverware at the pastor’s spot. “Honey, why didn’t you set silverware at the pastor’s place?”  “Well mommy I didn’t think he needed them. Daddy says he eats like a horse.”

What do you know, preacher?

The title of my collection of essays which will be published soon, is Wadda Ya Know Preacher?

The title is explained in the introduction for the essays. A retired funeral director named Mr. Stover greeted me the same way each time we met. Whadda ya know, preacher?  The essays are an attempt to answer that question. But I realize that I continue to learn and grow in spite of retirement.

You don’t learn how to be a pastor and a preacher in seminary. They give you some basic tools that will help you once you are in a local church. But you don’t really learn how to do this work until you are on the job.

I have served a variety of churches over the years.Some of them were small and some large. Some were urban and others were suburban or rural. Some of those churches were wealthy and some were very poor, And while the experiences vary from one church to another there are similarities in all of them. One cynical friend described it as “Different circus; same clowns,”

What I plan to do in this blog is to tell some of those stories in brief.  The stories are on topics such as:

  • The day the robin flew into the sanctuary and sat and listened to the whole sermon.
  • The moment of truth when I got a speeding ticket
  • The battle over the American flag
  • Everybody goes home from church barefoot

Some stories are funny. Others are sad. They are all true events that took place in my years of ministry.

I have developed a style of preaching that usually begins with a story or a joke that pertains to the theme of the sermon. From time to time, I will include some of those in case you want to borrow one for one of your sermons.



Hello, my name is Rick Sweeney

Hello! My name is Rick Sweeney. I have served as a Presbyterian pastor for the last forty years.  In this blog, I want to share some thoughts about ministry and life as I have experienced them.

Some of the things I will be sharing will have to do with preaching, pastoral care, church humor, staff issues and more.

I hope that you will follow as I recount the lessons I have learned and am still learning.

Look for information about a book that I am about to publish that is entitled Whadda Ya Know, Preacher?