How to Really Give a Good Sermon

This week, via video, an America Magazine commentator plugs Fr. Roy Shelly’s formula for a good sermon. It should take up no more than eight minutes, and have a point condensable to a single sentence on an index card.

I’m sure there’s plenty of merit in that, but still the idea tends to put my back up. I hate the very idea of reducing anything to an assembly-line process. Berry Gordy tried this with pop music, and it made him a rich man, but it also ensured that the most daring artists of his day treated Motown as though it were a leper colony.

The eight-minutes-on-an-index-card approach leaves no room for dialectic — none of Tevye’s “On one hand…on the other hand” that forces listeners to think their way through the twists and turns of a complex problem. What it does leave room for ends up sounding like a sales pitch, in which listeners are driven like cattle — fifty-dollar adjectives serving as the whips — toward a certain paddock of a conclusion. As you might gather from the metaphor, that sort of thing has always left me feeling manipulated at best, harassed at worst.

Some of the finest homilies I’ve ever heard were long, digressive, or even downright bizarre. It was the strangeness that moved me. Though I’d never heard of Fr. Roy Shelly, much less his style guidelines, common sense told me that someone, somewhere, had established a box for homiletics, and that these guys had stepped out of it. Here are some qualities that, though harder to achieve than a particular duration or a standard of simplicity, can render any rhetorical or theatrical sin forgivable:

Be knee-slappingly funny. Any preacher — any public speaker — can throw out a line or two good enough for a chuckle or a golf clap, but it takes preparation and timing to build up to the kind of punch line that forces him to pause until the audience has resumed normal breathing. The best homily I ever heard was delivered a priest who stood about five-three in Crocs. His appearance was almost absurdly youthful; indeed, there was little to distinguish him from an elf. One Sunday, he told the story of how, while studying in a Dominican seminary, he was dispatched to serve in a parish in Anchorage. Finding the pastor in the sacristy, with his back turned, he introduced himself as Brother So-and-So. The man turned around and gasped in — presumably mock — horror: “MY GOD, THEY’VE SENT ME THE INFANT OF PRAGUE!”

That guy — Fr. Keebler, I’ll call him — has since left my parish, and from what I’ve been told, the priesthood. But by planting that image in my head, he made sure I’ll never forget him.

Tear-jerking personal recollections always welcome. Emotions are contagious — grief no less than hilarity. Provided a preacher has a sense of taste and discretion — that is, as long as he knows how not to make his listeners feel squeezed like a sponge — a few cleansing tears can carry any point. When the father of one priest I knew was diagnosed with a particularly awful form of cancer, he made the man’s illness, and his heroism in the face of it, the subject of a series of homilies. Wisely, he didn’t invite us to his father’s deathbed every single week. Rather, he addressed the subject often enough to keep us tuned in, but seldom enough to keep us in suspense. In short, the effect was less like a soap opera than like a novel that had been serialized in a monthly magazine.

Once after Mass I felt moved to accost the priest on the steps of the Church and tell him, “It sounds like your father was a really great guy.”

He answered, a little coldly, “My father still is a really great guy.” I felt like flushing myself right down the john.

Even if it’s all about you, it ain’t all about you. Speaking as a writer who often relates personal experience, I take care, for the sake of humility and good taste, to depict myself in the character of confused schmuck far more often than in that of hero. Indeed, this demands hardly any effort at all. Most of the preachers I’ve known seem to internalized this lesson thoroughly. As we’ve seen, Fr. Keebler told his best joke on himself, and the other priest made his father the most compelling figure in his anecdotes. A third priest at our parish took the cake when he told of accidentally tearing off his shorts, along with his warm-up pants, at a high school track meet. Blaming the faux pas on his youthful nerves, he used the incident to explicate the clause in the liturgy that goes “keep us free from all anxiety.” He delivered this homily over four-and-a-half years ago, and yet I remember both the story and the takeaway.

One exceptional case, however, haunts me to this day. I wish I’d recorded it, somehow, so I could send it to Fr. Shelly in the hope he’d present it to seminarians as a lesson on what not to do.

The gist was this: Whenever this particular priest visit’s a college campus, he makes a point of marching up and down the campus, praying the rosary out loud. One on occasion, while passing a bunch of skater types, one made a crack about pedophilia. Hinting broadly he’d have started swinging under normal circumstances, he explained his forbearance with what he called “the Grace of the Mother of God.”

In other words, he was desperate to remind us all that he was a tough guy. He sounded like a high-school kid telling his buddies, of his girlfriend, “Yeah, man, I’d have done it with her, only it was her time of the month.” A cad will blame a woman for anything.

  • Martin T

    First, two words, Archbishop Sheen.

  • Patrick O’Neal

    One should preach Christ Crucified first and all else second.

  • Anonymous

    The whole emphasis on time comes close, but then misses the point. The point being that if you’ve got something to say, we’ll listen to 15 or 20 minutes and swear afterwards that no way did you talk for more than 10. Whereas if you’ve got nothing to say, a 5-minute homily is interminable!

    Which I suppose is not inconsistent with Martin T’s comment — Archbishop Sheen always had something to say.

  • Anonymous

    He did, but I never really dug the guy (except his hair). Is that like hating the Beatles?


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