I received an interesting e-mail the other day that began: Dear Preacher. While most of the spamvertisemets I get make promises along the lines of "finally get that college degree", "refinance your home with the lowest possible interest rates", or "enhance your manhood with this guaranteed product" (always forwarded on to Saint Paul) this one offered "hundreds of free sermons". Now I'm not in the business of delivering sermons (unless you count those late night diatribes at bar closing time that usually begin with a slurred "Let me tell ya how things outta be...") but since I do attend church on a fairly regular basis I am a consumer of sermons or more specifically homilies since I'm of the Catholic persuasion. And it's been my experience that for the most part priests, ministers, pastors, or whatever you wanna call them fail miserably to deliver decent ones.
I realize that it's not an easy task to come up with a compelling message every week. But think about it. If you're a cleric you've got hundreds if not thousands of people willing to give you the pulpit (literally) for ten to fifteen minutes to speak to them on some of the most important topics in their lives. And yet how many times do you actually hear a homily or sermon that really delivers? Not often enough in my view.
The rest of the mass is pretty much the same thing week in or week out. Sure the readings are different each week but if you grew up attending church and Catholic school you've heard every one of them many times over. The Gospel is where the real meaningful message can be found and it's the homily that should explain the Gospel and give it context.
I am very fortunate in that the priest at the church I now attend usually offers up good homilies and has even delivered a few that I considered excellent. It was these killer homilies that I found myself thinking about and discussing long after I had left church for the day that made me realize how rare they were and how many crappy homilies I had endured in my life.
And so in the spirit of self-improvement (for the clergy) I offer up a few tips for a successful homily:
1. Make it relevant to today: Many of the Gospel readings have rather vague or unclear messages that need to be explained in the homily and we need to know how to apply these lessons to our lives now. And sometimes the message can seem so overwhelming or unattainable that people tend to turn off completely. Explain to us how we can incorporate it into our lives on a scale that is realistic. Don’t be afraid to talk about events of the day, September 11th, sexual abuse scandals in the church, the economy, etc., which impact our lives and how we should view these events as Christians.
2. Keep it simple: One of the big problems that I have noticed is that priests start on one topic and fifteen minutes later have taken us through a contorted manic reasoning process which covers so many other issues that by the time they’re done your head is spinning and you have no idea where it began. Focus on a message and stay on it.
3. Along with number 2 heed the advice that Steve Martin offered in Planes, Trains and Automobiles “Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting to the listener.” I don’t know how many times I’ve reached the end of a homily just to find myself scratching my head wondering what the heck that was all about. Put some forethought into your message. Start with a introduction that previews your main point and wrap it up by summarizing it. The kind of thing that you should learn in Speech 101.
I come to church waiting and hoping for a good homily each and every week and I think I have a right to expect one. Challenge me. Make me think. I’m ready and I’m listening. Let her rip padre.