I am a layman, not a preacher. But I listen to plenty of preaching, teach seminarians preparing to preach, and study the theology that is supposed to give life to preachers. And one of the reasons I write Sunday reflections on this website is to help me appreciate the life of preaching that my teaching is supposed to support. So here are some thoughts on how to approach preaching, for the preachers who are reading:
1. Be clear about the heart of your preaching, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think the best summary of that Gospel is not just “God loves you,” which leaves a lot out, but “the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us” (Romans 5:5). Preach God’s love. Preach that we are not only to be loved, but ourselves to love with that love. Preach that God transforms us, by the Holy Spirit, that the ability for us to love is his gift to us. Preach the Holy Spirit, who is God’s love poured into our hearts. The theological name for all of that is “grace,” specifically “sanctifying grace”: God makes us holy by sharing his heart with us. But whatever you call it, keep it foremost in your mind. Too much preaching, liberal and conservative, sounds like God is completely passive, like we have to do it all ourselves—or like God expects nothing of us. That’s heresy, and it covers over the heart of the Gospel.
2. Preach Jesus Christ. It’s through him, only through him, that we receive God’s Spirit. It’s he who shows the Spirit and he who gives the Spirit. As JPII said, “contemplate the face of Christ.” Again, a bizarre amount of preaching hardly mentions Jesus. Talk about him!
3. Preach Scripture. Scripture is God’s Word, Jesus’s Word, the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets. It spells out the basic Gospel. The Gospel is simple: the love of God is poured into our hearts. But there’s a million applications of that. That’s why the Bible is so long. And the reason Jesus gives us the Bible is that it’s pretty hard to apply the Gospel right, pretty easy to apply it wrong. Pretty easy to preach what’s comfortable for the preacher instead of the actual consequences of the Gospel. Let Scripture call you out of yourself. Let Scripture show you what needs to be said. Let Scripture show you the multitude of things to be said: one week (or one day) one thing, but the next week, a different thing, because there are many different things that need to be said. If you’re left to your own resources, it’s going to be lousy. Preach God’s word, not your own. Make it a joy to be learning God’s word beside your congregation, instead of pretending that you’re Mr. Know-It-All, which you’re not.
4. Lean into the details of Scripture. To prepare a homily, read the readings and look for what is striking. Too much preaching sounds like the preacher had something he already wanted to say, and then he just used whatever miniscule part of the readings (if he used the readings at all) confirmed him in what he already wanted to say. Instead, look for where Scripture surprises you. When the word choice is weird, don’t ignore that, lean into it. When the progression of ideas is weird, think about that. When Scripture surprises you, let yourself be surprised, because that’s when you are being led out of your thinking into God’s thinking.
5. I highly recommend good Bible software. I love E-Sword (and I-Sword on my phone), a free program that makes it easy to look up the original languages. Look at where words come from, what word the original author is actually using. You don’t need to know the original languages (though it helps). I don’t know Hebrew, but when I’m curious what an English word in the translation means, I can still look up the definition of the Hebrew word, and find what words it’s derived from or related to, what pictures the word is evoking. Again, the point is to find out what Scripture is saying, not what you (or the translator) wants it to say.
6. Lean, too, into the connections. Read the readings together. See how one reading helps you understand the other. Scripture is all connected, ultimately all written by the same author. You understand one part better by looking at the others. And the Lectionary is a great gift the Church gives us, to help us think Biblically. The more you love the Lectionary, the more you teach your people to love the Lectionary, the more you think with the Church and teach your people to think with the Church, the more you help your people (and yourself) understand that all the details of our faith fit together.
7. Lead into the Creed. Right after you preach, on Sundays, comes the Creed. Love the Creed. Make it your own prayer. Pray it thoughtfully, carefully, every day in your rosary, or elsewhere in your prayer. Figure that the best judgment of whether you prayed a good homily is whether you’ve helped them understand the beauty and richness of the creed. That doesn’t mean that you have to talk about specific lines in the Creed—though it wouldn’t hurt. But it does mean you have to have them thinking about the central realities of our faith. (The same could be said about the Eucharist, and the other verbal prayers of the Mass: but the Creed is a good focal point.)
8. Finally, I ought to say something about your people. Talk to your people. Know your people. Love your people. Want your people to be holy, and to grow in Biblical, Catholic faith. My advice is to aim at the more serious parts of your congregation. You are not the only evangelizer in the parish. It is not your job to sink to the lowest common denominator, or to preach the thinnest gruel possible, so as to reach everyone. It is your job to build up saints in your community who can evangelize others. Respect the people in your parish who are trying to grow in holiness. Feed them. Show the others that holiness is real by talking about holiness with the people who believe in holiness; if you sound like you don’t expect anyone in your congregation to be serious about the faith, you send a horrible message to everyone. Don’t sink to the lowest common denominator. But do love your people, and try to speak to them.
That said, I think you do best not to focus on what you think those people need to hear, but on what Jesus is saying through Scripture in the readings at that Mass. Preach God’s Word, not your own.