A ‘Personal’ Theory of Homiletics

Most laypersons and many so-called clergy have no clue what the difference is between a sermon and a homily. Many clergy are only poorly trained in liturgical preaching and receive practically no training is special forms of homiletics, much less the special techniques involved in developing a special-purpose homily. This article provides some personal insights relating to my personal practices in homiletics and spiritual care.

open Bible pen & glassesWhat is a Sermon, a Homily?

In Christianity, a sermon is typically identified as an address or discourse delivered to an assembly of Christians, typically containing theological or moral instruction. It is often synonymous with a homily, but where there is a distinction the sermon is likely to be longer, more formal, and contain more theological content.

The word homily is derived from the Greek word ὁμιλία homilia (from ὁμιλεῖν homilein), which means to have communion or hold verbal intercourse with a person. In this sense homilia is used in 1 Corinthians 15:33. In Luke 24:14, we find the word homiloun, and in Acts 24:26, homilei, both used in the sense of “speaking with”. Origen was the first to distinguish between logos (sermo) and homilia (tractatus). Since Origen’s time homily has meant, and still means, a commentary, without formal introduction, division, or conclusion, on some part of Sacred Scripture, the aim being to explain the literal, and evolve the spiritual, meaning of the sacred text. The latter, as a rule, is the more important; but if, as in the case of Origen, more attention be paid to the former, the homily will be called expository rather than moral or hortatory. It is the oldest form of Christian preaching. (Source: Wikipedia, Sermon)

Paragraph 29 of the Roman Catholic General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM) reads:

“When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his own word, proclaims the Gospel. Therefore, all must listen with reverence to the readings from God’s word, for they make up an element of greatest importance in the Liturgy. Although in the readings from Sacred Scripture God’s word is addressed to all people of every era and is understandable to them, nevertheless, a fuller understanding and a greater effectiveness of the word is fostered by a living commentary on the word, that is, the homily, as part of the liturgical action.” [emphasis provided]

Contemporary clergy often use the term ‘homily’ to describe a short sermon (sermonette) such as one created for a wedding or funeral.

Since most of my homilies are delivered at funerals or memorial services, less frequently at marriage celebrations, I’d like to expand on the notion of the homily as a bringing together of the readings from Sacred Scripture and the life of the deceased to create a connection, and meaning from that connection. In other words, it is my practice to select readings that correspond in some way to the life of the deceased, then to develop around the two themes of Holy Scripture and the deceased’s life, a common message to and meaning for the mourners, which the mourners can take home and incorporate into their lives, transforming the lived meaning of the deceased in a special meaningful way to nurture the spiritual growth of the survivors.

While the best–case scenario is that of a long life, well lived ending in a good death, surrounded by a large and loving family; that is regrettably not always the case. Life is life and we have to work with what we are handed. This applies also to the design of my funeral and memorial services, and especially so to the selections of readings and music, but most importantly to the composition of my homilies, which necessarily incorporate the design of the rites, the music selections, the readings, and elements of the deceased’s life. In other words, the homily as I conceive it is not only a theological and spiritual teaching moment, it is also a form of psychotherapy, even counseling, which must address the mourners as an assembly as well as individually.
If that sounds like a daunting task, it is.

Writing my homilies not only requires an intimacy with Holy Scripture and various genres of liturgical and popular music, an appreciation of liturgy and liturgical leadership, it also requires the establishment of a special trust relationship between me an the family. Often this has to be done without even the advantage of meeting the family in an initial face–to–face, and must be done by telephone. This is a case where the Holy Spirit is indubitably involved in inaugurating the contact and fueling both sides in a productive dialogue.

This initial discussion is very therapeutic for the bereaved survivors because it gives them the opportunity to freely talk about the deceased in a quasi–guided interview with a trusted person, the chaplain. Of course, much of what is discussed is sensitive and confidential, and as a trained listener I have to screen a lot of what’s said to determine what is appropriate or inappropriate for proclamation in a homily. But as far as the conversation is concerned, I do encourage my conversation partner to free–associate as much as possible for therapeutic reasons; I will sort out the material later.

The family interview is the first essential step after being contacted by the funeral director. Only after the interview can I make any reasonable attempt at filling in the ritual design, or selecting readings and music. The whole, comprised of the overall design as the packaging, the active participation of the mourners, selection of the music and the readings, and the centerpiece homily, can take form only after the initial interview.

I must be present, unprejudiced and unbiased, and totally nonjudgmental.

The layperson can be as self–righteous and judgmental as she or he likes but as a spiritual care provider, as a chaplain, I must be present, unprejudiced and unbiased, and totally nonjudgmental. This does not mean that I have to betray my own principles or violate professional boundaries. In fact, if a case is particularly challenging, it may be wise simply to recuse myself and ask that it be referred to another clergyperson. Thanks to my personality and spirituality, however, that has never happened but there’s still time. Authenticity is paramount in this work.

It should also be mentioned that while mine is a professional activity and I do make a modest living doing it as would any clergyperson, it is not a profession where one will get rich by any conventional definition of rich but one can become extraordinarily wealthy. At the same time, I do not discuss my honorarium with the family and leave that discussion to the funeral director and the person making the arrangements. I provide the funeral homes with whom I work with a detailed description of services and suggested honoraria, which are adjustable downward based on the financial status of the family, pro bono being the lower end of the scale. I believe everyone deserves a dignified, caring celebration of her or his life regardless of their socioeconomic status. At times, we provide in death what the deceased and her/his family may never have been able to have in life. Moreover, I would never want to wittingly or unwittingly bind my vocation and ministry to the mourners’ ability to pay for my presence.

Bearing in mind all of the above, we need to keep in mind that everyone has at least the following set of possessions:

  • Value
  • A name he or she prefers
  • Feelings
  • A spirit or spirituality
  • A life story
  • The present moment

I aim to honor all of these in my homilies.

There is little more rewarding when delivering a homily before mourners than to hear someone in the assembly voice an Amen! or to see smiles appear on faces or even to get a laugh or two. That means someone is getting the message and inspires the others to listen more closely should they have missed something. Even getting tears to flow can be a good sign because tears wash away a lot of things, they’re cathartic.

This means being very finely attuned to your audience, after all, it is about them, not about me or what I have to say. From the lectern or from the pulpit I can see everything that is going on. That means paying attention to faces, posturing, body language, etc. I can be either an inspiration and a comfort through my homily or I can be a painful toothache. That’s why my homilies are written in modular form.

You’re not going to get another chance at this.

What I mean by “modular form” is this: My homilies run about 8 – 10 minutes long (about 7-8 double – spaced, 16 – point font, word-processed pages.), long by some denominations’ standards where a 5-minute homily is the ideal. My belief is that this is it, you’re not going to get another chance at this so we’d better get it said and delivered. It’s not like we’re going to all get together again next Sunday.

But again, I have to be sensitive to the intellectual level, the mindset, and the attention span of my audience. They may be poor but hungry for compassion and comfort and ritual; they may be well–off and totally irreligious; or they may be churched and inquisitive, looking for new meanings and able to implement new interpretations. Some can handle abstracts; some will be very familiar with Holy Scripture; some will benefit greatly from real–life examples and colorful metaphors.

Regardless, of all of this, if they appear to be getting restless, I have to do something or lose them. I achieve this by modularizing my homilies, that is, I write them in segments that fit neatly together but if one section needs to be taken out the homily does not lose any of its contiguity, and it still has unity. This takes practice but once the technique is developed, it comes fairly easily.

Seminary students aren’t taught to think out of the box.

Entire books have been written on how to prepare a homily. And there are as many models as there are book about them. Entire courses are available in divinity schools and seminaries. But judging by the majority of the sermons and homilies I’ve heard over the years, they aren’t working very well because the students aren’t taught to think out of the box and attempt to rigidly apply those models. That simply does not work.

There is no better how–to than experience. Rather than spend time developing a fail–safe outline, as recommended by many writers, I stick to my journey way-points. Based on my notes from the family interview, I set a starting point and a number of way-points and aim for the destination. A single sentence description of the entire homily should be possible as the result. Once I’ve done this, I have a good idea of what Holy Scripture readings will highlight the deceased’s life while providing a message for the mourners. I do ask if the deceased had a special Psalm or bible reading and, if so, I tend to make a special effort to reflect on that because it obviously had a special meaning for the deceased. Or, if we don’t have that, the family might appreciate being asked to discuss Scripture readings and to select one or two that they feel would be meaningful. I apply the same process to hymn selection, too.

So by this point in the process, I have my notes from the family interview, Scripture passages, hymns and I can start writing.

There is frequently very little lead time between being requested to officiate and the service.

This is not a seminary lecture course based on a required textbook so I have to write from the heart. If I am not in a position to devote my entire time and attention to the writing I postpone it until I do. Mind you, there is frequently very little lead time between being requested to officiate and the service, sometimes as little as 2 days, so you either have a technique or you don’t. If I’m in a period of aridity, I try to stick closely to basic beliefs and the faith tradition of the mourners; if I’m in an arid period, I’d best not to try to be unconvincingly creative but to stick to being convincingly compassionate. It may sound sappy, but one way I know I’ve got it right is when it chokes me up reading it. Really! If it moves me, I know that my delivery will not be superficial or mechanical. Believe me, you’re not going to pull anything over mourner’s eyes; they are already in a highly sensitized state and they tend to pick up on a lot of cues, especially those relating to empathy, compassion and authenticity.

At all costs avoid mechanical delivery! Be soft (but not inaudible), loud (but not shouting), emphatic (but not whining), tender (but not sappy), humorous (but not comedic), and not excessively animated (it’s not a gymnastics competition) in delivery, however. All ritual gestures and actions, including even the “ritual action” of page turning, pauses, etc. should be done in dignified slow motion, unhurried.

The assembly is receiving only sounds from my throat so I have to provide the italics, the boldface, the CAPs, the underscores in my delivery—I have them in my script but the assembly can’t see them.

I need to keep in mind that some of the characteristic emotions in bereavement and grief are fatigue, tiredness, inability to concentrate, confusion. This is no time for me, the homilist to start demanding higher intellectual faculties or critically focused listening skills to make sense out of a homily that’s supposed to provide comfort and spiritual healing. Again, be sensitive to the audience; develop a method of circumspection where you can make yourself aware of what’s going on in the room without noticeably focusing on one point. One exception to this rule, if you prefer, is directly addressing different persons in the room by capturing their attention with a thoughtful gaze capturing theirs for an instant at a poignant phrase or word in the homily. I’m always amazed that people notice almost instantly when you are looking at them, and you’ve instantly gotten their attention—at least for that instant. They then know they are included in what’s going on and that’s an important point.

This blog is not intended to be a mini or a complete course on homiletics. I do intend to provide only a minimum of helpful, practical thoughts and insights about homilies and how to craft them to provide a maximum of benefit to the assembly. My method for accomplishing this will be to publish my homilies with introductory remarks to accompany the complete homily in its “presentation” form.

Homiletics is an ongoing learning experience and I invite comments, recommendations and critiques from both my clergy readers and from laypersons. Only by humbly and gratefully accepting such critique will I be able to improve my craft and better serve my families.

Peace and blessings!
Second Sunday of Advent 2015
Chaplain Harold