Preaching is something of an anomaly in the context of the liturgy. While routinely part of the service, the sermon is unlike the other component parts, in that wording is not provided by the ages. Like music, a sermon can be as creative as a chorus and as individual as a solo, but it is clearly not music except perhaps for the mind. If the sermon has a close companion in liturgy it would be the dismissal, in that both urge us to apply the ancient truths to contemporary life.
While much is rightly said in these pages and other venues about the theologies of liturgy and of music, homiletics enjoys a unique relationship to the ultimate theological question which is: So what? If God is merciful, if Jesus died for our sins, if the Eucharist is a gift, if praise rises from the faithful—so what? How do those truths manifest themselves in our lives? Without consideration of the So what? question, liturgy and music by themselves are in danger of being reduced to performance, stirring appreciation without application, piety without purpose, and substance without stewardship.
For these reasons and more, the sermon plays a key role in liturgy. The issue for the preacher is how to best fulfill that role. Homiletics is hardly a gnostic art. Volumes have been written about its roots, branches and fruits. What follows is not intended to add anything of substance to those studies but, rather, to suggest to the practitioner some principles that most people know and often forget.
The most basic point is that during the sermon event there are always more people listening than there are speaking. Consequently, good preachers not only know how to speak but also know how people listen. Believe it or not, teenagers listen but they do it differently from their elders. Neither teens nor adults listen to every word or follow every step of a logical argument, because the mind is full of distractions. A sermon geared to listeners will provide many opportunities for the wandering mind to return to the stream of thought.
The most important sermon is the one people preach to themselves when the preacher sits down. A question or possibility, a new avenue of understanding or perception, an affirmation of something in danger of being forgotten, or a commitment to action no matter how embryonic are all the fruits of good preaching. Most of the time, the preacher has no idea what fruit is budding, but a good eye and ear after church will let one know if it is happening or not.
Jesus was a scholar of the ordinary, and good modern preachers are too. Jesus set his message in the context of everyday life—coins and sheep, planting and reaping, wine and bread. He made his point by beginning with something everybody knew, which left only one step to connect with the Good News. The scholarly preacher who spends long hours parsing Hebrew verbs often feels the people in the pews would benefit from a similar exposure. That is almost always wrong and serves the clerical ego more than the lay mind. It leaves the listener wandering in a swamp of academic growth where the waters seldom, if ever, part. Modern life is made up of kids and jobs, pressures and treasures, relationships and losses. The reason the ordinary is ordinary is because God likes it and made a lot of it. It is not hard to connect the ordinary to the Gospel but, if that connection is not made, we fail to address the ultimate So what? question.
Phillips Brooks once characterized preaching as “truth mediated through personality.” That wisdom is too often turned on its head by preachers who try to root their homily in their own daily life versus everyone else’s as Jesus did. The error often becomes “personality mediated through truth.” A long story about what you did on vacation or, what is worse, your personal political conclusions is rarely a good instrument for making a sermon happen in people’s minds. There is nothing wrong with personal stories, but they are supposed to serve as illustrations, illuminating something else. What happens more often than is helpful is a “Fido illustration.” The better books on preaching do not use that term but think for a moment about what happens when you try to point out something to your dog (undoubtedly named Fido). You see a squirrel and want Fido to see it. You point and say, “Look Fido!” Fido of course looks at your finger instead of the squirrel and misses the point. Poor illustrations do the same thing—they illumine themselves, not the Gospel. If you tell a story about your visit to Seattle as an illustration and after church people tell you they have been to Seattle too, you have committed a Fido illustration and have let Phillips Brooks’s wisdom reverse itself.
Finally, be aware of freestanding platitudes. There are phrases in church life that have lost any connection to the great So what? we are called to address. Of course the reasons platitudes become platitudes is that they contain great truth with wide application, but we use them so much we forget the truth that is in them. Consider the phrase “God is with you” that is standard in wedding and funeral homilies. God is with you. That is nice but so is the Devil. For that matter so is dandruff. What does it mean to have God with us? The classic answer is strength and guidance but most of us have forgotten that. Another worn out phrase is “God loves you.” Is it the way Grandma loves me? Or the way Fido loves me? Or perhaps it is the way I love chocolate? Again the classic answer involves God taking us very seriously, that God is heavily invested in us, that God is patient but unremitting in God’s expectations of us, and more. The time we have in the pulpit is way too short and precious to waste on empty phrases no matter how rich those phrases used to be.
Over the years, liturgy has been enriched by studies, ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and experimentation. Similarly, music—like science—continues to build on the past while expanding into every possible corner of the future. Preaching, alas, has not kept pace. In spite of holding a key position in the worship experience, sermons consistently fail to address the ultimate question of So what? The incarnational truth that God’s Word dwells among us is as true today as it was in Bethlehem or Galilee. Pointing out that fact has ever and always been a first responsibility of God’s people and a particular responsibility of God’s preachers.
The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade is currently Interim Associate Dean of Students at Virginia Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of The Citadel and the Virginia Theological Seminary who has served as an Episcopal priest since 1966. After serving congregations in his native West Virginia for seventeen years, he was called as Rector of St. Alban’s Parish on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. He served that congregation from 1983 until his retirement in 2005. His sermons have been published in a variety of anthologies. His meditations as Chaplain to the House of Deputies at the 2000 General Convention of the Episcopal Church were published by Forward Movement Press and recorded by The Episcopal Media Center under the title Jubilee People, Jubilee Lives. A book on tape and CD by Dr. Wade titled The Art of Being Together: Common Sense About Lifelong Relationships was released by Episcopal Media Center. The Forward Movement Press edition of the book is in its third printing. Church Publishing Company released his second book, Transforming Scripture, in 2008. He is a frequent contributor to Forward Movement publications including Forward Day by Day. In 2006 after serving on the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, he served as co-chair for the General Convention special committee focusing on Episcopal–Anglican relations. The 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church was his twelfth as a deputy and he once again served as Chaplain. He is an adjunct faculty member at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria and has taught Pastoral Theology at both General and Virginia Seminaries. In 2012 Wade served as Interim Dean of Washington National Cathedral. In 2013 he received an honorary doctorate from The Virginia Seminary. He continues to serve as a consultant to a variety of congregations and church institutions.