He knew it wasn’t his best sermon. He wandered, gave too much information, and few got his hilarious joke.
He failed to read the room and lost most listeners before he got halfway.
Greeting people as they left church, he noticed that some avoided him completely. Many who did come through the line were half-hearted in their pleasantries. He was feeling defeated by his poor pulpit performance until a visitor came up and enthusiastically thanked him for the service.
“Your homily,” she added, “was full of the peace and mercy of God.”
Feeling better, he fished for more affirmation.
“How so?” he asked.
“Well, like the peace of God, it surpassed all understanding. Like God’s mercy, it seemed to endure forever.”
We’ve all heard good homilists — those who could tell a story, bring the Word alive, and speak from a profound personal depth.
The good ones were not all silver-tongued orators. Not all have this gift, but the good preachers who don’t have it ably compensate with a singular focus, an intentional brevity, and a humble authenticity.
But even the good ones have off days. Like an all-star hitter, they can get in a slump. They can have a hectic week, interrupting preparation.
There can be family or other personal issues that distract them. They, too, can hit a spiritual dry patch.
I demand a lot of preaching. I want to be inspired and moved. I want to see a scriptural passage in a different way and be challenged to act differently because of it.
That is not going to happen every week, but I am learning that there are ways to increase the odds.
First, I read the readings beforehand, and then listen attentively when they are proclaimed. Some of the burden for finding something new falls on my shoulders, as well.
In three readings and a Psalm on Sunday, there is always at least one that is familiar. I try to recall how I have changed since I last heard it and how it is speaking to me differently now because of that change.
I can take a phrase or image from one of the readings, or an accidental nugget from a meandering sermon, and reflect on it.
And, if I am still tempted to judge the preaching, I can ponder how I would lead others through the labyrinth of meaning in any given passage.
Turns out that good preaching, just like faith itself, is a community effort.