First person preaching is an approach that takes one of the characters from the Bible, from Church History, from the communion of Saints or from our imaginations and brings them to life. The preacher becomes that character to convey the theological or pastoral message of the homily.
A first person homily can take the form of:
Testimony or witness talk
“On the scene” report from someone who was there
Letter or diary
Document addressed to a contemporary
Monologue about the character by a third party
Direct conversation with the assembly
First person preaching is NOT:
A religious play
A cute gimmick
Something just for children
A re-telling of the Bible story
First Person preaching is a story with a theological point of view. The preacher can say things s/he would not ordinarily say, and preach from a different perspective and vantage point. First person homilies can provide a jolt of freshness and take people by surprise. Preachers find they can say a more “difficult” word because it is not them, but the character preaching. Familiar stories can be heard in new ways and viewed with new eyes. Done well and appropriately, first person can open up fresh vistas on the Gospel. It can allow the voices of people on the margins to speak and bring their perspective to life.
For the assembly, the novelty of first person preaching soon wears off, so if it is not done well, it will be damaging to the community and embarrassing to the preacher. It is not an easier way of preaching, but rather a riskier, more difficult, and more time consuming way. However, the rewards when well-done can be tremendous.
How to Begin?
Read the story and list all the characters in order of appearance.
Characters implied but not named
Characters that you could reasonably expect to encounter in the world of the text as either unnamed participants or observers. Do not go too far afield. The person must be realistic and believable. These characters could include people in the crowd, other disciples and followers you assume were present, but not specifically named in the text such as: wives of disciples, Pharisees, Roman soldiers, a medieval monk who copied the manuscript and thus preserving the story, a saint from the liturgical calendar, etc. Err on the conservative side. You do not want to write Scripture, you want to explore Scripture.
Who are you drawn to?
What do you want to say?
What theological issue or point do you wish to explore?
Who can preach that message?
Example: Prodigal son
Citizen of a far land who hires the younger son (or his wife)
Father’s servants, both male and female, who prepare the celebration
Characters who encountered the younger son while he wasted his money living wildly in a foreign land
Friends who attended the party described in the text
Friends of the older son
Mother of Prodigal
Disciples listening to the story
Tax collectors and Pharisees mentioned in the beginning of chapter 15.
Crowd gathered around Jesus listening to the parable
Example: Feeding of the Five Thousand: John 6
Boy with barley loaves
Family of the Boy with barley loaves, including mother and siblings
Medieval monk who re-copied this story from ancient text
Someone who heard this story from a Disciple after Jesus died
Beware of stretching the natural bounds of the story. The more Biblical information you have about a character, the more full and true your depiction can be. Sometimes you will want to choose a leading character, but sometimes it is helpful to choose a tangential character who is able to view the entire drama from a distance. Their voices can speak from the margins, from the outside of the scene adding a point of view that can be compelling and engaging.
All homiletic choices carry risk. Weigh the risk versus the gain in all preaching choices. Know that there is NO risk-free homiletic choices. Choosing a character that is not mentioned in the text can be risky. It takes you out of the Bible, and may lead you to re-create the story to suit your own purposes. First person narrative should never be used as an opportunity for creativity to overstep scriptural integrity. On the other hand, it may allow you to present a point of view that is seldom heard in Church and lead to new insights and understanding of the text.
First person preaching is fun and creative, but that should never come at the cost of the message that the scripture was written to impart.
Begin your exegesis with the Character:
What does this particular text say about the character?
Does this character appear elsewhere in Scripture? Look at those passages.
Who interacts with this person?
Where does this person live? Where is it on the map?
What are this person’s traits and history?
What is the social context of this character? (tax collector, leper, woman, disciple, zealot) What does society say about this person? What is his/her socio-economic class?
What is the larger historical setting?
Think about this character’s life outside of what we know from scripture. What does your imagination tell you? Where does it take you? What does a study of history tell us about this person’s life?
Put Yourself in the Character’s Situation
What does he/she see?
What does he/she feel? Want? Believe?
What internal conflict is present?
Where is this character’s faith challenged or nourished?
What is the encounter with God?
What questions do you want to ask this character?
What does this character want to tell you?
What can you learn from this character?
Some of your answers are in the Biblical text while others are not given. Pray and meditate on the passage and on the text. This is an exercise in empathy and theological reflection. Journal your questions, thoughts and reflections. Some of these entries may serve as the basis of the homily.
Define the Time and Place of the Preaching Moment
Where will your character exist in time—in his or her own time (Biblical time) or will your character interact in modern time?
When does this event, story, encounter take place? What is the moment in time?
Will you offer a linear story, a “live” unfolding of events as they happen, or will you begin at the end of the character’s story and then go back to tell the critical moment?
Define the Theological or Pastoral Focus of the Homily Clearly
What is your preaching goal? What do you hope to achieve?
What is your point? Your homiletic focus and function?
What theological, pastoral or catechetical issue do you want to explore?
This is not simply a storytelling opportunity. Do not simply re-tell the story from another point of view. First person homilies must be rooted in the teaching and theology of the Church.
First person homilies are by nature, narrative homilies. You are telling a story. It must have a beginning, middle and end, driven by conflict and resolution. Tell a story. It must have action, conflict, development, climax and resolution or denouement.
Structure of the storyline:
Introduction: Capture attention. Set the Scene, Let the community know who you are. Get the community off balance. Upset the equilibrium. Let them know where you are going. Do not introduce yourself as a Biblical character. Do not say, “Hello, I started off planning a traditional homily, but decided that it would be fun and different to pretend I am Moses. So, please forget that this is Fr. Paul, and imagine me in the desert, looking at a burning bush!”, OR, “You will never believe who I met while I was greeting people before Mass…St. Peter! I asked him to say a few words to us this morning…” Instead, construct your homily so that the realization that you are a biblical character emerges organically.
# # #
People often stop me at the well
or in the marketplace
even along the path…
And they ask me about those days.
They ask me about the time my husband Simon
Dropped his nets to follow Jesus.
They want me to point out that hillside
where it seemed the whole world was fed,
And they always ask,
Did your husband,
really try to walk on water?
Tell us what you saw,
Tell us what you know about Jesus,
Tell us what you witnessed…
Sometimes I don’t know where to begin,
because, you know…
it’s not easy
having Jesus for a friend….
Set the Scene: Next, set the scene. You could have the character address your community in present time, or take the listener back to Biblical times. My preference is for Biblical times, as I am not a fan of anachronisms. Create an image for the listeners. What sights and smells surround you? What do the buildings look like? Who is with you? Where are you standing?
Jesus was here that night,
and his Word filled the room.
The crowd spilled out
through the doorway
and blocked the path.
They filled the field and pressed up against the windows,
trying to come in….
Obstacles and Conflict Dramatic tension; What is the challenge, obstacle or problem to solve? What challenges or obstacles stand in the way of your character fulfilling his or her purpose or encountering God?
Work toward Resolution We long for resolution. Want to balance conflict and resolution. As you construct the homily, look for opportunities to use conflict and obstacle to tell the story.
Denouement: What is the point? What is the message?
Because when Jesus restored that young man’s legs,
he gave me a whole new set of eyes.
Now whenever people ask me about the night
someone took the roof off the house,
I can see all the closed doors and blocked paths that still surround us.
I see all of the barriers we build
and all of the walls we put up
to keep other people out.
And I see the faces of all those people who
pressed against the windows and door that night
wanting to get in
hoping to get in
needing to be healed.
And it makes me want to rip the roof off all the closed buildings
and open wide the doors
and let them all come home.
So when people ask me for stories about Jesus and Simon
and the day they tore the roof off the house,
I tell them,
these stories come with a warning.
Be careful now!
Look out! Are you ready?
Because everything change
when you have Jesus for a friend.
# # #
It helps in plotting and learning the homily to take a tip from actors and directors and storyboard the material. This is taking the homily “frame by frame” and telling the key movements of the story.
Presentation and Delivery
No matter what your usual style of preaching is, for first person preaching, you must preach without a manuscript or notes. Depending on the sight lines in your own church, you may or may not want to preach out of the pulpit. Preaching out of the pulpit gives you freedom of movement and the ability to stand and talk directly to the community, but you should check to insure that you are visible from the back of Church.
Do not use this style of preaching too often. Overused, this style becomes a gimmick. This form should be a welcome surprise, not a routine.
The form serves the message. If the form becomes the focus, it is time to re-examine using this.
The preacher should not be the focus, but rather the vehicle for the message.
Know where you are going. Have a theological, catechetical or pastoral purpose. This is NOT simply a re-telling of the story. It should lead somewhere.
Write like people talk. Oral style, conversational, evocative. Depth language. Pick your words carefully and with economy.
Do not use a manuscript. First person homilies are an exception to my rule that preachers can preach effectively with or without a manuscript.
Remain in character. Always move, act, speak and feel as the character. Never leave the dramatic boundaries of time and place.
Do not introduce yourself. “Hello, I am Pontius Pilate, here to share a thought with you today” Go directly into character. Trust the story and the words you have crafted.
Weave in biblical language and word usage. If appropriate, use lines directly from the text. Include Biblical dialogue if possible.
Block the scene. Know where you are standing, what is around you, and who is with you. Mentally paint a picture.
Do not use props or costumes. We rarely have the time, money or resources for the best professional props. Costumes and props hold tremendous visual power. Listeners are used to sophisticated props in movies, television and theater. The kind used in church are often awkward or embarrassing. This is not to say you cannot use a prop in a homily, but in first person preaching you are already pushing the envelope.
Get into character with body language, word choice, speech patterns
Pay attention to volume, pacing, pauses, and silence to convey mood, thoughts and character and to shift to another scene or moment.
Movement and gesture should fit the situation in an organic and natural way. Watch for nervous energy and random pacing. It is distracting. If you move, it should be because your character has a purpose in moving. Gestures should begin with the impetus of the thought and conclude with the end of the thought. Finish off gestures.
Be very careful if you decide to use anachronisms or to set the Biblical story in modern times. This can become cloying and embarrassing very quickly. Do you really want Jesus on a cell phone? Mary listening to an iPod while she travels to Jerusalem? Pontius Pilate reading the Wall Street Journal? Some anachronisms are cringe-worthy for a reason. Do not confuse creativity with kitsch.
Taking risks in preaching invites us to see both the texts for preaching and the listeners before us with fresh eyes. It holds up a mirror to our own fears and habits, reminding us that effective preaching can emerge from many starting points. My first homiletics professor reminded us that if we always begin at the same place, we will always travel down the same road. Sometimes, it is worth starting in a different place.