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There are times and places where sermons were, or even now still are, public entertainment and where and when, therefore, the length of the sermon was not much an issue. Lancelot Andrewes refers in several of his sermons to his hour glass running to an end, and his sermons certainly would have taken an hour to deliver. Much later, in rural, peasant cultures, with no television or internet and hard work during the week, church was a time for socializing and being entertained, as well as for worship. Such is certainly not now the case in the United States. I knew a priest once who preached sermons of 45 minutes in length and justified his practice by saying, ‘Sermonettes make Christianettes’. This priest failed to build his congregation. I am reminded of the French novelist who in a letter apologized for its length by explaining that he wrote in haste and therefore did not have time to write at less length. In fact a well-constructed, carefully thought out sermon will tend to be briefer rather than longer on account of its author’s care in preparation. Careful preparation will tend to eliminate time-consuming rambling and unhelpful repetition.
In current conditions a sermon of 10 or 12 minutes is ideal, a sermon of 15 minutes in duration is pushing matters, and a sermon of 20 minutes by anyone not a truly extraordinarily gifted preacher will verge on the counterproductive. One old rule is that ‘every minute above ten minutes forfeits ten percent of the effect’. In short, brevity is desirable and, in particular, lengthy rambling is to be avoided. A very learned and entertaining speaker can get away with a longer sermon. Most preachers are not very learned and entertaining.
It is desirable that the sermon comment on one of the lessons assigned for the day, though on occasion it might focus on the collect or on a feast day or a special occasion. In general, however, the preacher should discipline himself to comment on Scripture. Preachers who preach topically tend over time to fall into ruts, to address pet themes, and to repeat favored ideas. The discipline of preaching on the assigned texts compels the preacher at least on occasion to contemplate new ideas and themes, selected by tradition and the Church.
If a priest stops reading and studying himself, he will tend to run out of things to say in six or seven years. Bible study feeds preaching, and if the preacher stops studying, he will not be fed himself or have much to give to others after a time. Likewise, if the preacher is not himself cultivating his prayer life, he will have less to give to others.
Sermons should not seek to impose the private opinions (social, political, cultural) of the preacher. No matter how wise or prudent a preacher may be, his primary job is to proclaim the gospel and to convert the congregation, not to impose favored nostrums on secondary and tertiary concerns. People are willing to listen to clergymen on the assumption that the clergy are willing to discipline themselves to teach the mind of the Church, not their own private views. A priest who blathers on about his dubious political opinions deserves little attention, leaves his high office and proper sphere for that which is lower, and forfeits much of his claim to respect.
Sermons should reflect an understanding of Scripture that is aware of scholarly opinion and theological learning. The sermon, however, is not meant to display the learning of the preacher or even to teach a lesson in exegesis or theology, but rather is meant to proclaim the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. The sermon should be free from error, factual, historic, or theological, but its purpose is not to be a lesson in theology, history, or facts. I knew a priest once who was criticized by a learned parishioner for ‘putting Corinth on the wrong continent and Augustine in the wrong century’. The parishioner said, ‘If a priest is not reliable about such facts, why should I assume he is reliable about being saved?’ It was not an unreasonable question.
The sermon may be deeply felt and should certainly be sincere, but its primary purpose is not to display the preacher’s emotions or to elicit someone else’s. It may stir up feelings such as repentance, love, and exultation, but that should not be its direct purpose or goal. Rather the fundamental purpose of the sermon is, again, to proclaim the gospel of the Lord’s Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection. This purpose of proclamation is more important than even the purpose of education or instruction, though the sermon should also have these as secondary goals.
The sermon should be geared to the congregation and occasion. A sermon to a parish in a university town will differ from a sermon to a summer youth camp. A sermon to a Synod filled with clergy will differ from a sermon to a weekday congregation of six or seven. Simple or complex vocabulary, simplicity or complexity of argument, and use of allegory or high rhetorical devices all will change with the nature and capacity of the hearers. Few preachers will succeed well with everyone, because we seldom will have a uniform capacity in our congregation or an ability to address successfully everyone at every level. But in general, sincerity, adherence to the Biblical text, and soundness in purpose will tend to succeed with most people.
Sermon preparation should begin with several readings of the text. It is best that the preacher read his text long before he begins to write and that he give himself time to mull over the text. Often in a week events will occur, things will be read, occasions will arise that will bear on the text and on the sermon. Time and events often are God’s instruments in guiding the preacher. The sermon itself should not be written in haste, but might well begin in the middle of the week, with time to revise, reconsider, expand, and delete. A text of one verse is usually the best focus. Ideally the text will serve as an entrance into the whole lesson, which in turn often will involve commentary on the other lesson, on the collect, and on the general themes of the day or feast or occasion. The preacher should be fairly disciplined and focused, but free enough to permit God to shape his ideas and change his train of thought. Sometimes the preacher, by the time he writes, will be quite clear about what he is going to say. More often he will find that in the course of writing the text will come forth somewhat surprisingly. A measure of discipline should be combined with an element of openness.
In the Catholic tradition the sermon is secondary in that the objective grace offered by the sacramental system is greater and more reliable than the benefit of the varying and subjective abilities of clerical preachers. The priority of the sacraments, however, does not excuse lazy and slipshod preaching. Particularly in Acts and the Pastoral Epistles and in the Ordinal it is clear that the study, teaching, and preaching of Scripture are extremely important. A lazy preacher is failing in his duty.