“A good sermon is substantial. Our people need solid content, doctrinal meat, scriptural lessons and moral instruction.” – Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
Good Sermons are veritable sources of spiritual nourishment and fountains of inspiration for all Christians and people of goodwill in general in their journey of faith on earth and attempt to be virtuous in this passing world. As we know, ordained ministers use sermons to explain the word of God after its proclamation from the sacred scriptures during liturgical celebrations.
The duty of the preacher is to use his skill and acquired knowledge to interpret the Bible passages proclaimed by way of exegetical analysis, illustrations and pastoral application to reality and daily experiences of the faithful. As Archbishop Dolan righty pointed out, a preacher should transform the proclaimed word of God to “doctrinal meat,” draw “scriptural lessons” from them and by way of pastoral application give “moral instruction” to guide the faithful.
From our collective experiences, we have all listened to highly inspiring sermons before with power and authority behind the spoken word. Such have the characteristics of evoking emotions of sorrow for sins committed, joy and peace of mind for virtuous living and the desire to effect the necessary behavioral spiritual or ethical change in our personal conduct as the case may be.
Similarly, we have heard boring, lifeless and uninspiring sermons before. During such we probably felt like walking out quietly or we simply took a short nap while it lasted. Some probably used the time to read newspapers and others simply looked on and prayed silently that the preacher would stop as soon as possible so that the liturgy of the Eucharist can fill the vacuum created by the uninspiring sermon.
Directly opposite the boring sermon without substance is the one that is full of theatrical innovations in the form of endless singing of choruses, intermittent interjections of unnecessary familiar religious phrases, windy and careless analyses of secular news items without thematic relevance to the scriptural readings selected for the liturgy or spirituality. The worst of them all is the sermon preached to attack real and imaginary persons not on the side of the preacher in the community. Such sermons are usually abusive, ungodly and at times downright libelous vacuous verbiage.
The liturgy of the word of which the sermon is a major component is sacred, the homilist or preacher must therefore handle it with reverential fear and adequate prayerful preparation. Careless handling, care free usage of language and rude presentation of facts without finesse do not befit a man who is the bearer of important message from God to fellow human beings. The preacher is expected to reap maximum benefit from his sermon himself, the physician must heal himself.
Prophet Jeremiah comes across as a paradigm in the Old Testament among others; he neither preached to insult or placates anyone nor preached to entertain people. He preached the word of God in such a way that he became “a laughing stock all day long,” and his people made fun of him. The prophet spoke up about his ministry in despair thus: “For me, Yahweh’s word has been the cause of insult and derision all day long. I would say to myself, ‘I will not think about him, I will not speak in his name anymore, but then there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me,’ I could not do it. I heard so many disparaging me; ‘Terror on every side! Denounce him! Let us denounce him! All those who were on good terms with me watched for my downfall, ‘perhaps he will be seduced into error. Then we shall get the better of him and take our revenge.” Cf. Jer. 20: 8 - 10.
If prophet Jeremiah had preached to entertain the people nobody would have taken his messages seriously, they would have had a good laugh and forget about his message and what he stood for. If he had insulted the people, he would have been dismissed as a rude individual with bad manners. More importantly, if his message was boring and ludicrous, he would have been passed by without interest; nobody would have harassed him or thought of setting him up for punishment. It was Tryon Edwards who once enthused that: “Abuse of anyone generally shows that he has marked traits of character. The stupid and indifferent are passed by in silence.”
The sacred scripture is full of competent and fearless preachers. In our age that people preach to please the listeners with the intention to capture their pockets and not their souls for Christ. St. Paul remains an excellent role model among others. In his first letter to the Thessalonians he submits without equivocation: “Our encouragement to you does not come from any delusion or impure motives or trickery. No, God has approved us to be entrusted with the gospel, and this is how we preach, seeking to please not human beings but God who tests our hearts. Indeed, we have never acted with the thought of flattering anyone, as you know, nor as an excuse for greed, God is our witness; nor have we ever looked for honour from human beings, either from you or anybody else…” cf. 1 Theses 2: 3-6.
Obviously, we must not confuse excellence for perfection, only God is perfect, ordinary mortals can only strive for excellence. The perfect model for all preachers is our Lord Jesus Christ, whose preaching evoked genuine need for repentance from his listeners, conversion from sin to virtue, gratitude for favours received, sorrow and even hatred for him, for instance, after preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth where he grew up the people “sprang to their feet and hustled him out of the town; and they took him up to the brow of the hill their town was built on, intending to throw him of the cliff.”cf. Lk 4: 28- 29. Remarkably when he got to Capernaum another Galilean town his preaching made “a deep impression on them because his word carried authority” cf. Lk 4:31-32.
Besides solid doctrinal content, accurate scriptural analysis and moral instruction in homilies, the method of communication is highly essential because, “talking and eloquence are not the same. To speak and to speak well are two things. A fool may talk, but a wise man speaks,” says Benjamin Johnson.
A preacher should be able to listen to the truth he has preached and stand by it even when he stands alone. To stand for something is to stand against a lot of other things and when the lines are drawn up, there will usually be a lot of familiar faces on the other side. A preacher must therefore be the change he wants to see in his listeners. He who is to move the world must first move himself, says Socrates a Greek philosopher.
Finally, the great Jewish historian, Herodotus declares that: “We are less convinced by what we hear than what we see.” Archbishop Fulton Sheen corroborates the above opinion of Herodotus when he admonishes all preachers thus: “Unless the world sees a difference in the places we frequent, in our activities, in the pleasures in which we indulge, in the language we use and in our dress, it will not respect our testimony. Separated from the world, separated unto God - these are the negative and positive sides of our priesthood.”
Rev. Fr Peter Adeyemi, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Oroki Housing Estate, Osogbo, Osun State, Nigeria.
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