03 February 2008

Proclaiming the Word: Introduction to Homiletics

Saint Paul preaching at the Areopagos in Athens: a panel from the pulpit erected in Carlow Cathedral in memory of Bishop Michael Comerford who died in 1895

By Patrick Comerford

Part 1: Foundations:

Why preaching:

Some of you are already preaching, some of you are looking forward to it, and many of you are looking forward to preaching with a mixture of excited anticipation and trepidation.

We are a Church of Word of Sacrament, and a complete liturgy includes both word and sacrament: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered …” (Article 19).

When we read Scripture privately, most of us are used to letting it speak to us in our hearts. But when we read Scripture publicly, in Church, we must be prepared to let it speak to us not just individually but collectively too.

Preaching is about bringing Scripture to life. Just as in the Sacrament the bread and wine become life-giving, not for us one-by-one but collectively, as the gathered Church, as the Body of Christ, so in our preaching the Word becomes life-giving, not just for me individually, but for us collectively, as the gathered Church, as the Body of Christ.

Through preaching, our parishes as worshiping communities come to be engaged by the Bible so that we can be comforted, challenged, inspired, become more knowledgeable, and learn to live out the Good News in a life of discipleship and to engage prophetically with the world.

Some vocabulary and definitions:

Before going further, a few words about vocabulary may be helpful.

Sermon: The word “sermon” comes from a Middle English word which was derived from an Old French term, which in turn came from the Latin word sermō, meaning a discourse or conversation, for, of course, the early sermons were delivered in the form of question and answer. It’s only a later development that we came to accept sermons as a monologue.

In a more pejorative way people can use the words "sermon" and “preaching” to denigrate a lengthy or tedious speech, delivered perhaps with a self-righteous tone. How often do people say: “I didn’t ask for a sermon” or “Don’t preach at me”?

Homily: Since the 19th century, homiletics has taken its place, especially in Germany, as a branch of pastoral theology. The word homiletics (Greek, homiletikos, from homilos, to assemble together) means the application of the general principles of rhetoric to the specific department of public preaching. The person who practices or studies homiletics is called a homilist, and what we produce is the homily.

Homiletics is the study of the composition and delivery of a sermon or similar discourse. In the theological curriculum, this subject includes all forms of preaching, including the sermon, the homily and catechetical instruction, usually with the analysis, classification, preparation, composition, delivery and critique of sermons.

Catechesis: The word catechesis is a very old term for preaching and comes from the words kata and heche, implying the instruction that was given by word of mouth to the catechumens.

Part 2: The Biblical and historical background:

Christ’s preaching

The most famous sermon must be the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1 – 7:29; Luke 6: 17-49), delivered on the north edge of the Sea of Galilee, near Capernaum, and laying out many of the core principles of Christianity.

Christ’s preaching included two forms of sermon, the missionary and the ministerial. The missionary sermon was to unbelievers, the ministerial preaching was to those already in the Christian fold (for example, see the Great Discourse in John 14-16).

Christ sent the Disciples to preach (Matthew 10: 7-10; Matthew 28: 19; Mark 3: 14; Mark 16: 15; Luke 9: 2).

The early preachers in the Apostolic Church include Peter (see especially Acts 2: 14b - 36), Stephen (Acts 7: 1b - 53) and Paul. The sermons of the Apostle Paul are in many cases replete with oratory, for example his sermon on the Areopagos (Acts 17: 16-34). Yet he says: “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Corinthians 2: 4).

What sort of sermon does the Apostle Paul preach in Acts 20: 7-11? Did it really last until midnight?

Preaching in the Early Church:

At an early stage, sermons were used to spread Christianity across Asia Minor and Europe.

We still know of preaching in the early church by Justin Martyr, who preached and taught wearing his philosopher’s cloak; and by Tertullian.

As soon as the Church received freedom under Constantine, preaching developed very much, and the art of oratory was applied to preaching, especially by Saint Gregory Nazianzus. Saint Basil, the two Gregorys, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine and Saint Hilary were all noted orators.

We have lasting sermons from John Chrysostom, whose Homily on the Resurrection is still preached every Easter in Orthodox churches; and from Gregory Nazianzus, whose homily On the Theophany, or Birthday of Christ is preached every Christmas in Orthodox churches. John Chrysostom's homilies were models of simplicity, and he frequently interrupted his sermons to put questions in order to make sure that he was understood.

Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo made use of rhetoric in preaching. Yet Gregory of Nazianzus censured the use in the pulpit of the eloquence and pronunciation of the theatre.

On the other hand there were those who preached for entertainment and profit: by some accounts Syrian bishops, Antiochus and Severianus, went to Constantinople to preach because they were more interested in the money they would be paid for preaching than in the spiritual welfare of those who were listening to them.

Eastern writers claim that there was no custom of preaching in Rome until the time of Pope Leo. The exception often quoted is the address on virginity by Pope Liberius to Marcellina, sister of Saint Ambrose, when she took the veil, although others regard this as a private discourse.

Certainly, preaching went into a decline in the West, partly because of the decay of Latin, and in the East, owing to the controversies over the great heresies.

The office of preaching

At an early stage in the church’s history, the office of preaching belonged to bishops, and priests preached only with their permission. For example, when Saint Augustine and Saint John Chrysostom preached, as priests, they did so only when they had been commissioned by their bishops. Origen as a layman expounded the Scriptures, but only by special permission. Priests were forbidden to preach in Alexandria, because of the Arian controversy. But even during the time of the prohibition in Alexandria, priests, as we know from Socrates and Sozomen, interpreted the Scriptures publicly in Cæsarea, Cappadocia and Cyprus.

The Synod of Trullo ruled that bishops should preach on all days, especially on Sundays. In the year 813, at the Council of Arles bishops were strongly exhorted to preach, at the Council of Mainz bishops were instructed to preach on Sundays and feast days, at the Second Council of Rheims bishops were told to preach so that all could understand.

Charlemagne went so far as to appoint a special day, and any bishop who failed to preach in his cathedral before that day was to be deposed. Later, Pope Urban II began the First Crusade in 1095 at the Council of Clermont in France, when he preached to the French knights, urging them to retake the Holy Land.

During the Middle Ages, sermons inspired the beginnings of new religious orders. Through their preaching, Dominic founded the Dominicans and Francis of Assisi the Franciscans. Scholastics such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventure were Dominicans who were also noted preachers.

Post-Reformation preaching and sermons:

As the Reformers emphasised salvation by grace through faith, convincing people to believe the Gospel and to place trust in God was the decisive step. In many traditions, the sermon and “hymn sandwich” supplanted the Eucharist as the central act of worship, as churchgoers were called to deeper faith.

Martin Luther began a tradition of publishing sermons (Hauspostille) on the Sunday lessons for the edification of readers.

The great figures of early Anglicanism are often remembered today for their sermons, including Lancelot Andrewes, who is better remembered for his sermons than for his role in producing the Authorised Version of the Bible.

But there can be too much Protestant pride about the place of preaching in our traditions. The Council of Trent pronounced that the primary duty of preaching devolved on bishops, and ordered them to preach in person in their own church. At the same time, Bishop Valerio of Verona, wrote a systematic treatise on homiletics, Rhetorica Ecclesiastica (1575), in which he emphasises that the two principal objects of the preacher are to teach and to move (docere et commovere).

Later, John Wesley spread Methodism mainly through his preaching. His 53 Standard Sermons are foundational for understanding Methodism.

During the Great Awakening in the 18th and 19th centuries, sermons at revivals were especially popular in the US. These “fire-and-brimstone” sermons are typified by Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” For many of these preachers, the wrath of God was clearly to be feared.

Part 3:

Introduction to the practice of preaching

Some of you may have found the prospect of preaching your first sermons daunting.

Were you worried that you would preach poorly? Or when you were first told you were preaching, did you find yourself worrying that you would not know what to preach on?

Types of sermons

A variety in approaches to and styles of preaching helps to maintain the focus of the congregation, and there is a number of different types of sermons and ways of preaching.

Preaching styles depend both on the subject of the sermon and on the make-up of the congregation or those who are listening. Not all types of preaching are within the gift of every preacher. The different types of preaching and sermon include:

Topical preaching is concerned with a particular subject: harvest, remembrance, mission and Bible Sunday are well-known examples. The lectionary in the Alternative Prayer Book tried to encourage this type of preaching.

Biographical preaching traces the story of a particular biblical character or important figure in the life of the Church: you may have heard preachers taken a different character from the passion narratives each night during a series of Holy Week sermons.

Evangelistic preaching seeks to convert people in the congregation or bring them back to previous faith.

Expository preaching or exegesis is preaching from a text and seeking to expound its meaning.

Redemptive or historical preaching considers the context of a given text within the broader history of salvation.

Thematic preaching might take a series of topics as recorded in the canon of the bible.


What sort of preaching is encouraged by the Revised Common Lectionary?

What sort of sermon was appropriate for yesterday’s celebration in the chapel of the Feast of the Presentation (Candelmas)? Was it:

* topical (the relevance of a Great Feast in the Church Calendar or in our lives today);
* biographical (the role of Mary or Simeon in pointing to Salvation);
* evangelistic (seeking to bring us to the incarnate and risen Christ);
* redemptive or historical (placing the Presentation and Candelmas within the context of the Church’s use of an event in the life of Christ or placing it within the unfolding of the salvific story);
* thematic (looking at one theme or topic).

Do all sermons have to be written, in writing?

This depends on the amount of time and effort used to prepare a sermon. You can spend so much time typing and correcting a sermon, that the end result is you are impressed by the quality and how it looks on paper, but it goes down flat with the congregation.

We all need to be prepared, but over-preparation on the on-paper presentation can detract from my potential to engage with the congregation I am addressing, and can leave me inflexible as my mind continues to think and pray about a topic long after it’s been printed from my PC with the right margins and typeface.

On the other hand, I’m short-sighted and I need to have everything in front of me, and I’m inclined to lose the run of myself, so a well-prepared sermon saves me from losing the run of myself, from losing my focus and direction and from being too long-winded.

Opting for extemporaneous preaching, without overly detailed notes, should never be an excuse for preaching without preparation. This approach allows a preacher to be flexible, to engage with a congregation, to move about freely, to respond to signs of response and emotion within the congregation, even to be interrupted or heckled.

But this style of preaching still needs solid preparation. For this type of sermon I still need a basic outline, scriptural references, lists of key topics to be covered, lists of key references or illustrations to be used. I’m 56, I can’t rely on my own memory.

And I’m prone to saying too much. Sometimes I ask a friend or family member, or another member of the clergy team, to act like a silent bidder at an auction and to remind me of the way time is ticking by, so I don’t either constantly look at the clock instead of people’s faces, or go on for too long.

Some of our parishioners think only the clergy should preach, they feel short-changed if the rector, or at a push, the curate doesn’t preach each Sunday. But it is not only the clergy who can preach?

When we are ordained, we are ordained to a ministry of word and sacrament. As priests we are called to take on the extra preparation and responsibility necessary for regular preaching. But the majority of readers and many of the laity, given the right preparation, encouragement and help are capable of delivering a good sermon.

We need to trust that God will help us and we need to be able to take the risk to try preaching.

Part 4:

There were really only three steps to preaching.

1. Teaching: Explaining information in the text to those who are listening.

2. Struggling: Wondering aloud about the strange parts of the text.

3. Applying: How does the text comfort us and or challenge us to change in light of God's reign in Christ?


There are a few other small steps that will help the beginner preach a good sermon.

1. Start one week before: Give yourself the time you need to reflect upon the scripture text, and the time the text and your listeners deserve too. Read the text, and read it in the context of last week’s readings and next week’s readings. It is good to make connections and have continuity.

2. Chose from the scripture readings thoughtfully: The lectionary provides at least four texts to preach on: the Old Testament, the Psalm, a reading from Acts, an Epistle or the Book of Revelation, and the Gospel. Choose the one which seems easiest for you. When did you last hear a sermon on the Old Testament reading or, less likely, on the Psalm? It doesn’t always have to be on the Gospel.

Sometimes there’s a very real link between the lessons, and you might like to make that link by drawing them together.

3. Pray: Ask for God's help and guidance before preparing for the sermon. Look for God's guidance throughout the week, at work, and at rest, listen for God's voice in the daily tasks of living.

4. Read and listen: Read through the texts then choose one to preach on. It need not necessarily be the Gospel reading. Pick the one that speaks the strongest to you and that is likely to be most relevant to the congregation. Read over the reading a number of times. Read it out loud and listen to the text. Even if it is familiar, let the words speak anew to you.

5. Question the text: Using a notebook, read through the lesson and write down any questions you have about the text. This will help the text speak to you. Some of the questions you will know the answer to but this exercise will bring up questions that you can investigate.

We can use as an example the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.

Who are the principal characters in this story?

Who are the people on the margins?

Who makes the first move?

Who opens the conversation?

Who was this woman?

Has she a name?

What is a Samaritan?

What did they believe?

Why should she not use the same well as Jesus?

Should Jesus be talking to her?

Did Jesus understand her place in her society?

What is the significance of her being at the well for water?

What tone of voice does Jesus use in his conversation with her?

What did Jesus promise her?

Where are the disciples?

What have they been sent for?

Did they bring it back?

What is the first thing they do when they get back?

What are the consequences of the disciples returning from the town they have been visiting?

Where does the woman go after her conversation with Jesus?

What are the consequences of her returning to her village?

What does Jesus do?

6. Research: Use a good Bible, a good Bible dictionary and a good commentary to help find the answers to these questions. These books are easily available through shops like the Good Book Shop in Belfast, the Resource Centre in Rathmines, Bestseller and Cathedral Books in Dublin, and Veritas bookshops throughout the country. Your rector should have some, and you will find them in a good library too. But make sure the books you buy or borrow have good scholarship and appeal to more than one tradition in the Church.

7. What are the concerns of the text? What is the text concerned about? What do you think the main concerns of the text are? Look at your questions and try to determine what the most important questions are and how they might speak to the main concerns about the text.

This may seem subjective, but use your best judgment.

Using John 4: 3-42 again as an example:

Jesus was tired and sat down by a well.

A Samaritan woman came to the well and got into a deep conversation with Jesus … so deep that she was startled by what he said to her.

The disciples had been sent off shopping. They came back with nothing. When they saw what was going on, they muttered in the background but didn’t join in the conversation.

In contrast to the disciples who returned from the city with nothing, the woman returned from the well with a heart full of faith.

She told all her neighbours.

The disciples continued to mutter, and to press on Jesus the need for food (note the contrast between eating and drinking).

The Samaritans in the city, meanwhile, came to Jesus, asked him to come into their lives, and came to full faith themselves.

8. Pulling it together: At this point you should have enough material to accomplish Step 1 and Step 2 of the sermon – teaching and struggling. Now you need to think of applying the teaching and how you have struggled with it...

9. How does the text comfort us or challenge us? As a preacher, I must risk bringing the text to the people. I must be willing to ask how God might want us as Christians to change in light of the text.

Return to your initial list of questions and concerns. Ask: "Where is this concern or question being expressed today?" Use your imagination and switch some of the words around. Use a notepad for this exercise.

From this one concern from the example we have been studying in John 4: 3-42, let us try to apply it:

Concern: Jesus is tired and wants a drink of water. A Samaritan woman wanted water and went to the well.

There are imaginative switches at play here. Application: A woman wanted the basics of life and is given the hope of real life in Christ. Those who are on the margins and who are outcasts can turn to Jesus for the help they need.

The church needs to be aware of the needs, both physical and spiritual of those on the margins, and will be surprised by the consequences of those needs being met in the love of Christ, whether or not we are involved in that encounter. There are people on the margins who need Jesus has to offer. Is the Church listening to their needs and to what Christ has to say to them and about them?

Where are these concern and question being expressed and asked today?

Applications: People on the margins seek help from God?

As with the Samaritan woman who comes to the well and who therefore comes to Jesus, there are women who feel marginalised and not listened to, people marginalised because of their sexuality, and people on the margins of our society because of their ethnic or religious difference who seek God’s help, even when we are not prepared to hear them asking for it.

When people on the margins realise what new life in Christ means for them, their conversations with others can be faith-infectious. Everyone needs to be refreshed with the Good News that Christ proclaims.

Try to list as many of these applications as possible. Do not worry at this point if they are the best applications. You will pare down the list to the best one, two or three applications. In Ireland we are easily tempted to focus on individual concerns, so you will need to work hard on focussing on a church or community application. Even when you do take a church focus, people in the pews still tend to be so individualistic that many will hear things individualistically anyway.

Faithful preaching

This final task of applying the Good News requires some risk, but two important points will help the preaching to be faithful.

1. Look for the Good News. Find the applications that speak a word of Good News. If the message is one of Bad News or negativity then more work needs to be done. Good preaching will always have a strong theme of Good News, even if the sermon is one that is "challenging".

2. Trust in God's saving grace. Preaching requires risking preaching the Good News. This can be a scary task since we worry about being wrong, but we need to risk preaching the Good News even if we occasionally miss the mark.

Remember that God’s grace is always at work, even when we think we have messed things up in the pulpit.

If I miss the mark in my sermon, God will not strike me dead or put a black mark beside my name in the book of life. The Church of Ireland has suffered many poor or jumbled sermons. Keep your fear of failure in perspective. It is always better to risk and fail, than to run away. Don’t be afraid.

Final Steps

1, Writing:

Split the sermon into the three blocks. Write out in clear English what the text says. Then in a second block write out how the text challenges you or comforts you. In the third block have sub-sections for each of the applications that are going to be addressed. Choose no more than one to three applications. If one of the applications is of particular importance then focus just on it. Don't try preaching three sermons in one. You’ll have another chance to preach a different sermon in three years time when Year A comes around again in the Lectionary.

Consider very carefully whether you should use sermon illustrations. Let the text be the focus, not the sermon illustrations. A simple sermon is better than a canned story with too much spilling out. Some stories are good, but how often have we heard the same story from the same preacher in different locations and parishes. As a beginner, it’s a good idea to try simply explaining the text!

2, Length.

Beginner sermons should be about 5-8 minutes long. In this part of the Church of Ireland sermons are usually about 10 to 12 minutes. The expectations in other parishes may be one of longer sermons. Respect local tradition and custom. Don’t short change those who expect a good preaching, but don’t bore those who are used to something shorter. Time yourself by reading the sermon out loud.

3, Practice.

Read through the sermon a number of times out loud. If something sounds confusing to you then change it. Read the sermon to a friendly critic and get their impression of whether it is clear. Try to practice enough so that you are not just reading it. You need to be able to look at the people at times during the sermon.

Preaching the sermon

1. Pray: Ask for God's help so you can give the best sermon you can give at this time.

2. Breathe: It is OK to be nervous. If you weren't nervous you would not be taking preaching seriously. Remembering to breathe slowly will help with the nervousness. Before preaching if one is nervous, breathe through your nose and out through your mouth slowly.

3. Speak slowly but with a good pace: If you speak too quickly people will not hear what you are saying. Speak slowly! Speak slowly! Remember the older parishioners who have trouble hearing, the younger people who have trouble unpacking big words and big concepts. Remember the people for whom English is their second language.

4, Feedback: There is always something we can do better for next time. Have a friendly critic give you feedback on what went well and what needs improvement. With time you will become more skilled and confident in your preaching. Once you become proficient with this method you may think it is time to abandon it and seek other methods of preaching.

Remain open to feedback and criticism. As I was standing in a church porch after preaching for harvest in another parish for harvest recently, most of the parishioners leaving were polite, with comments like “nice sermon,” or “congratulations,” or “I read you regularly in the Church Review … the Church of Ireland GazetteThe Irish Times … or whatever.”

However, one woman looked decidedly uncomfortable, and she was very frank with her comments. I thought I had been prophetic in tone, but she said I had been too depressing and that she had come to the Harvest Service, as she did to Christmas and Easter services, for good news. She let me know that, in her opinion, I should have kept those ideas for another place and another time.

The rector noticed but hadn’t heard the exchange, and asked me what her parishioner had said. When I told her, she apologised and asked me how I felt. I replied: “At least she was listening.”

If we ask people to listen, then let them ask us to listen too. The origins of the word sermon imply dialogue. Honest feedback is worth listening too, and is often worth taking account of. Don’t be afraid of it. But be confident: remember that practice may not make perfect preaching, but it makes for better preaching.

Part 5: Conclusion

What we have shared this morning doesn’t answer all your questions. It is likely you will have some questions still on your mind. There are many good books to help you in growing to preach more faithfully. Trust that in time, and with God’s help, you will grow as a preacher.

Do not be disheartened. Paul’s preaching at the Areopagos in Athens had little initial impact. If it did, we might have his first and second Letter to the Athenians in the canon of the New Testament. His preaching in Ephesus led to riots, and his preaching led to his imprisonment. Don’t let popularity be the measure of how good or bad your sermons are. On the other had, don’t leave your congregation or your parish behind you.

Francis of Assisi told his first friars that their task was to preach, “using words if necessary,” but declaring the love of God in Christ by word and in action.

Remember that preaching is not confined to the Sunday sermon. Once you are ordained, you will find that people watch your lifestyle and your actions, to see if your discipleship and example match your words. Preach, and if it is necessary to preach with words, then remember to pray, to prepare and to be confident.

Online resources:

You can access many of my sermons and some of my lecture notes on this blog. Trinity Wall Street offers sermons in video and audio. A number of recent sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, are available online. And a good link to online resources can be found at: http://anglicansonline.org/resources/preaching.html

Geranium Farm:

Down-to earth support for living can be found at the Revd Barbara Crafton’s eMo (Almost Daily Electronic Meditation) website: “If you want a closer walk with God, and help along the way, you've come to the right place. You don’t have to stay long, and you can always come back.” She is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, author, and former Rector of Saint Clement's Church in Manhattan's Theatre district: http://www.geraniumfarm.org/home.cfm


This is preaching podcast by seminarians in the Diocese of New Westminster, Canada. They say: “We are a group of Anglican seminary students on the road to Anglican ordination who preach weekly podcasts based on the Revised Common Lectionary. Occasionally we have guest preachers from around the diocese. Our goal is to be voices in an age of internet, and to explore the medium of the sermon as a catalyst for theological engagement and Anglican renewal.”


The Living Pulpit:

“An ecumenical conversation about the importance of preaching. Each issue of the journal focuses on an important issue and then explores that issue in depth utilising the viewpoints of different voices for the sake of new understanding. It is our view that preachers have enough ‘how to’ journals available on preaching but not too much available at the level of the ‘so what’ of preaching. Our hope is to deepen and explore the question of the ‘so what’.”


Mere Christian:

A blog by the Revd J. Barry Vaughn, a US Episcopal priest who also teaches at the University of Alabama. “It is a collection of comments on scripture (usually the Sunday lectionary readings), sermons, and completely random thoughts. Most weeks it includes simple psalm settings and (less frequently) prayers and litanies keyed to the Revised Common Lectionary”: http://www.merechristian.org/

The Church of England Readers:

A site supporting the lay ministry of Readers in the Church of England. They publish the Reader Magazine. All issues are available as PDF downloads and at no charge: http://readers.cofe.anglican.org/magazine/home.htm

The Revised Common Lectionary:

Part of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library online resources, with links to an amazing collection of art related to the lectionary readings: http://divinity.library.vanderbilt.edu/lectionary/

Sarah Laughed:

An interesting and well-designed blog by the Biblical scholar, Sarah Dylan Breuer of Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, who offers reflections on readings for the coming Sunday in the lectionary of the US Episcopal Church: http://www.sarahlaughed.net/

Worship that Works: selected sermons:

When you find yourself stuck trying to relate the lectionary readings to real life, or to some calendar celebration, this site provides notes and sermon examples to get you to start thinking:


Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College. These notes were first used in a worskshop/seminar with the Year I NSM students on the weekend 1-3 February 2008.

No comments: