Homilies are tough. You have 7-12 minutes to make a lasting impression, change someone’s life, teach doctrine, or address a social issue to a widely diverse group of 6 to 106-year-olds. And you have to tell a joke.
Burdened by this, many clergymen will end up preaching a lot of nothing: warm words and half-hearted paraphrases of the Gospel Reading that does not bring clarity or inspiration. Or the pendulum swings the other way and you get a list of doctrinal propositions, bending the homily into a college lecture. But the Church is not a classroom. The homily is not a lecture. And your 12 minutes are up!
Here are three points that I have used to help coach priests and deacons to give an evangelical homily that leads to life-change, and not just a quick nap in the pews!
Point One: Jesus Christ is the Center of the Word
It does not matter if you are focusing on the Old or New Testament Readings, make it all about Jesus Christ- who he is and what he accomplished for us. Too many sermons and homilies are about everything and anything else but Jesus. Put him back in the center of your homily. Maybe then your congregation will put him back in the center of their lives.
Point Two: The Paschal Mystery is the Center of Christ’s Mission
Jesus was the only man built to die. Death ended the teachings of Buddha and Mohammed, the prophecies of Delphi as well as Isaiah. Jesus basically told us we would not understand his teachings until his death and resurrection. St Paul constantly focused “on Christ and him crucified.” Look at the liturgical texts and ask yourself, “How does this demonstrate the cross and resurrection to my people?”
Point Three: Preach for Conversion, not Smiles and Handshakes
A priest once told me he was not seeing any conversions once he started preaching God’s love. I asked him, “Do you preach repentance?” I never did this until around 4 years ago. I would talk about sin, but neglected leading people into repentance. You cannot have conversion with “God is love.” Your hearers will reinterpret that in a non-challenging way, instead of the way that calls us, through mercy, into a new life. Confession is good for the soul, so lead people to confess Jesus as their Savior by confessing their guilt and giving it to him forever.
I was once asked to give a talk to teens on the minor prophet Nahum and show how he preaches Christ. Have you ever read Nahum? It is three chapters of a too-giddy prophet rejoicing over the destruction of Nineveh.
Using Nineveh as representative of satanic oppression, I showed how Yahweh’s liberation of Israel by destroying Nineveh prefigured our liberation through Christ the Victor conquering sin and the devil (first point). And yet Christ freed us, not by the shedding of the enemy’s blood, but by shedding his own blood for us (second point). Jesus is “the shatterer” of the oppression of sin, so all of us can have confidence in his victory not just over Sin, but over my sin, especially the big sins keeping me from freedom in Christ (third point). I ended by inviting the teens into a prayer of repentance, picking “that one sin” that they are really struggling with, and to give it to Christ the Victor, asking him to save them from it right here and now.
These three points can be applied to any sermon or homily for any occasion. If I can use Nahum to preach Christ, surely you can use the lectionary to do the same!