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Ethics and Religion Talk: Where do Sermons Come From?

Where do your ideas for sermons come from?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Rev. Salvatore Sapienza, the Senior Pastor at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ in Saugatuck/Douglas, responds:

I do not plan my sermons weeks in advance. Rather, I begin composing them just a few days prior to Sunday. Every Monday morning, I pray with the scripture readings from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary and see what words, phrases, or themes resonate with my mind and heart. Often, they speak to what’s happening in the world that very week, which reinforces the timeless nature of sacred scripture. 

Throughout the week, I continue to explore those themes and phrases through both theological research as well as in the silence of prayer and meditation. As I pay attention throughout the week, it’s not unusual for me to come across a quote on Facebook, an article in the local newspaper, or a song on the radio that speaks directly to this theme. I take these “coincidences” as Divine gifts and signs from Spirit. 

On Friday, I begin to put everything together in an outline of bullet points, hoping to engage, inspire, and challenge my parishioners to see the relevance of scripture in our lives today. I often conclude with some “homework” for the week related to incorporating this teaching in a practical way through both action and contemplation.

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

My ideas and inspiration for my weekly sermons come from the time I spend with God each week and from the life lessons He's teaching me. Yes, it is possible to meet with God and be inspired by Him. And it is possible to use the valuable lessons you're learning about life to help others grow. But, this demands that we remain vulnerable and humble, So, we must remember that we're not above anyone else.

I'm just another child of God trying to live a life that honors Him and God is more than willing to help me do that!       

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

As a Reformed Presbyterian minister, it was my duty to expound, explain, and apply the contents of Holy Scripture. The ideas came from God’s Word. Knowledge of the needs of my congregation; due regard for particular occasions in the life of the church; the days and seasons of the church year; and sometimes current events or issues of the day, informed the exposition and determined the application. Another line of preaching that I often followed was the serial exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism as a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture. By this means I sought to keep myself and my congregation firmly rooted in the rich soil of the Reformed faith, doctrinally and practically.

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

When I preach on Sunday, I begin the Monday before by studying the scripture readings. My ideas are the result of my life of prayer, my relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, my years of study and preparation to become a Catholic priest, the continued study of scripture, studying scripture commentaries, and my life experiences. Some ideas come from our societal struggles, movies, books, discussions with friends, and my work. Everything that is not confidential is potential fodder for a sermon.

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

My denomination recommends the Revised Common Lectionary. A reading from the psalms, the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian gospels and the Christian letters are all included in this three year cycle.  Preachers choose one or try to link all four together. Such a prescribed cycle brings benefits: a wide swath of scripture is heard over three years.  Wherever one travels, the same lessons will be read.  And, for some pastors, they don’t have this think about what to preach/teach next Sunday… it’s set out for them three years out!  The drawback to the lectionary is that even with four readings, over three years of Sundays, significant sections of scripture are not heard.

In my most recent pastorate I chose not to use the lectionary for my worship planning. A planned liturgical journey has integrity, however, so I planned a year out, usually offering a series of 4-6 sermons on a particular topic:  the life of Abraham and Sarah, psalms of lament, the Jesus’ parables, the beatitudes. This allowed me to delve deeper into some subjects or to address particular cultural issues relevant to my congregants.  This was not a perfect system either but it fit my style and my congregation’s flavor.

Sometimes sermon ides came to me while reading a novel, or watching a movie, or contemplating nature, or  listening to a parishioner.

Although not adhering strictly to the lectionary selections, during the festivals to the church year such as Advent/Christmas, Lent/Easter I did draw on the traditional readings for the season.

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

For the most part, a life lived. As mentioned recently, when leading Sunday service for my meditation group, I don’t deliver sermons, but simply share thoughts by reading from the vast treasure house of our wisdom tradition. But I am also asked to occasionally guest preach at certain liberal Christian churches that find much of the Hindu Dharma to be valuable. In those instances, I see what the scriptural readings are for that day and craft a sermon from that. Clearly, my take may be quite different from that of creedal Christianity, but the congregations appreciate learning another way to interpret what they’ve held for years.

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

Many of my sermons come from current events, what is in the news or happening in our community. Currently many Unitarian Universalist congregations are using a monthly theme. The theme is used in our sermons, religious education classes and small group ministry. This allows us to focus on one topic per monthly. March's theme is Vulnerability for example.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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