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What Makes a Good Sermon?

by John Aquino on 01/16/19

It snowed in the Washington, D.C. area on Saturday and Sunday. The roads were terrible, and we watched the Archdiocese of Washington's "Sunday Mass" on television. And I found myself ruminating, once again, on what makes a good sermon, whether delivered by a priest, minister, rabbi or imam.

I am most familiar with sermons or homilies delivered at Sunday masses. There are television masses such as the one we heard broadcast around the country. My sister in Louisville told me that there it was called "The Mass on the Air," which her mother-in-law enjoyed watching. For years in Washington, the televised mass was called "The Mass for Shut-ins." Although some or much of the audience may indeed be elderly or ill, I always thought that the title that was restricting the mass to this group was misnamed because the audience could include the snow-bound. I also thought it was insulting to those who were getting up there in years to call them shut-ins. The name was changed not too long ago to "Sunday Mass." The mass is taped at the crypt church of the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculata Conception. It runs 30 minutes, no more, no less. 

The sermons for the televised "Sunday Mass" have to be short because of the limited time of the broadcast. I talked to the director of the program once, and he said that the priests who gives the sermon are told it must run no more than four minutes, otherwise the sermon will be cut off. 

If asked what makes a good sermon, some would say brevity. I remember my brother Jim said that the best sermon he ever heard was delivered on a hot July day. The priest said, "If you think it's hot now, be good." And that was it. Others come to Mass to receive communion and also to hear a thoughtful sermon. Ten to 15 minutes seems reasonable. At one mass my wife and I attended, the visiting priest giving the homily was using it to preview the all-day retreat that he would give that week. The mass started at 5:00 p.m. on a Saturday. The church bell chimes every Saturday at 4:55 to indicate mass is about to begin and at again at 6:00 when it is likely to be over. This retreat priest finished his sermon just as the 6:00 bell was chiming, which meant the rest of the mass was still to come. Some priests regularly give long sermons, and it is ususlly the case that they could be shorter. Some seem to take pride in speaking without notes, although this can mean the sermon will ramble  In the play Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis, a young deacon is warned by an older priest about the "cough test." If the congregation thinks that sermon is going on too long or the people do not understand it, the number of coughs will increase. In the staging, a cough is illustrated not only by the sound of coughing but by a colored spotlight. Half-way through his first sermon, the young deacon is bathed in the lights, which means he has produced a coughing congregation.

One's reaction to sermons is influenced by one's preferences and attention span. What is long for one person may not be long enough for another. This why the four-minute time restriction of "Sunday Mass" provides an interesting test. Can someone deliver a thoughtful and interesting sermon in just four minutes? The homily on Sunday was delivered by Rev. Peter A. Smith, pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.  The feast for the day was the Baptism of Jesus, and he noted that at the moment of Jesus' baptism the voice of God could be heard saying, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased." Father Smith then talked about pleasing God. He noted there are bracelets carrying the acronym and question we should ask ourselves, WWJD (What Would Jeasus Do?). He suggested instead the acronym and question, WWPG (What Would Please God?)." He quoted from the Thomas Merton prayer, which was a favorite of my mother's, that begins "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going," and continues, "But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you." Similarly, he quoted from the movie Chariots of Fire in which an Olympic runner says,  "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure." The key to pleasing God, Father Smith suggested, is not ability but availability.

As you can see, Father Smith put a great deal into that four minutes. What makes a good sermon? Preparation and focused thought. The sermon doesn't have to be brief. But, as Father Smith demonstrated, it can be.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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