Can I Get an Amen?: A Survey of Homiletic Strategies that Engage the Listener
“Did you see that?” “Did you notice the look on his face?” “Did you watch the news last night?” “I’ve never seen anything like this!”
What strikes the eye stays in the mind. So, what did your listener “see” in last Sunday’s homily? An Arab proverb states that the eloquent speaker turns the ear in an eye. That ancient advice is even more pertinent today when Facebook and YouTube are as likely to open a door to divine mysteries as a Byzantine icon. In a culture focused on visual media, preachers must communicate visually.
The Bible itself provides a strong argument for the power of image. In the Gospels, forgiveness is not discussed, it is demonstrated in a father’s embrace of a wayward son; betrayal is not analyzed, it depicted as a man weeping in an alley with the sound of a rooster crowing in the background; humility is not diagrammed, it is the sound of water falling across a dusty foot and into a basin of water.
Move on to the epistles and you’ll find that the sensory aspects of the divine Word take top billing in John’s homiletic strategy: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life (I John 1:1).
Show, Don’t Tell
Images employed in homiletic discourse are not the same as illustrations. In sermons, illustrations illustrate a point. In homilies, images are the point. Consider this example from a homily for the Easter season by Dr. Susan McGurgan of the Athenaeum of Ohio:
Jesus just keeps on appearing. On a street in the East End, where a desperate mother wages a private war, determined to keep her child free from drugs. Jesus just keeps on appearing. In a lonely room beside a frightened man held captive by plastic tubes and blinking lights. Jesus just keeps on appearing. In a dusty village where a silent child sits beside an empty bowl. Jesus just keeps on appearing.
And when it becomes too hard for us to walk with that mother, and hold the man’s hand, and offer the child a loaf of bread, well, fortunately for us, we are blessed with a God who just keeps on appearing. (1)
Reveal, Don’t Point
Symbols function at a deeper level than illustrations. Like sacraments, images do not point to something up ahead as a does a road sign. Rather, like a wedding ring, they reveal something deep within.
In the above excerpt, the multiple images do more than exemplify the hope of the Resurrection, they invite the listener to experience it. In a similar way, the ultimate goal of homiletic preaching isn’t to explain the teaching of Christ but to reveal his face.
An effective homilist, therefore, doesn’t go about ministry gathering examples to stash inside a preaching file. Rather, the homilist enters deeply into the Mystery—which we have looked at and our hands have touched—and beckons others to do the same.
(1) Dr. Susan McGurgan, April 15, 2007, www.mtsm.org