My own experience as a priest powerfully underscores the role of congregation in helping to craft the preaching moment. I have served almost all of my 20 years in African American parishes. In these settings the congregation takes an active part in the preaching moment. Acclamations and affirmations such as “Amen!” “Go on!” “Make it plain preacher” “Hallelujah,” and the like are common. Hands are often raised in silent affirmation, nods of the head move through the congregation. Now all of this affects the preaching moment powerfully for me and helps it take shape and come to life.
There is also an air of expectation in the church as the Homily moment arrives. African American congregations want a good sermon and are eager to hear what the preacher will say. People expect to hear a word that will change them. I have heard some in the African American community refer to tangible energy in the room as “the hum.”
That there are high expectations of me is both encouraging and challenging. That I am expected to do well means I have to prepare, I have to pray, I have to summon my talent, memory for scripture and experience of culture and weave them into a homily that is from the heart but well prepared. High expectations encourage me to strive for sermons that are not just adequate but also aimed at the superlative. And the beauty is that it is not all up to me. The congregation knows its role and they pray and work with me when I preach and together we form a kind of partnership.
To be sure, I am the one who teaches with the authority that Holy Orders confers. But I am not alone, delivering a monologue of sorts to a largely passive audience. All this brings the preaching moment much more to life. There is an enthusiasm in the congregation that is contagious and leads me to enthusiasm for what I say.
A final observation here of mine would be the question of length. The usual length of a sermon in the African American Parishes is closer to a half an hour unlike the 10-12 minute lengths expected elsewhere. It is a great luxury to be able to spend a little more time preaching through the whole text of a gospel or epistle not just a thought or exhortation. Now I would never recommend to a priest that he preach a half an hour is he only has 10 minutes of material but my point is not that a sermon must be longer, but that congregations might relax a bit on the time concerns. Many of my brother priests feel very constrained by the expectation of a very brief sermon.
Two quotes to end with. One from recent times and one from antiquity. The first quote is from, the Scripture Scholar William Barclay who is commenting on how Jesus was expelled from the synagogue in Nazareth:
There can be no preaching in the wrong atmosphere. Our churches would be different places if congregations would only remember that they preach far more than half the sermon. In an atmosphere of expectancy the poorest effort can catch fire. In an atmosphere of critical coldness or bland indifference the most Spirit-packed utterance can fall lifeless to the ground. (The Gospel of Mark, p. 140)
The second quote is from Gregory the Great in his Homily on the Pastoral Office:
Pray then for us that we [preachers] may have strength to labor for you as we ought, that our tongue may not be slack to exhort, and that, having undertaken the office of preaching, our silence may not prove our condemnation at the tribunal of the just Judge. For oftentimes by reason of their own sins the tongue of preachers is tied, oftentimes on the other hand it is because of the sins of their people that the gift of eloquence is withheld from pastors. By reason of their own sins the tongue of preachers is tied, according to the words of the Psalmist, “ But to the sinner God hath said, Why dost thou declare My justices ? ” (Ps. xlix. 16.) And again, the voice of preachers is hindered because of the sins of the people, according to the words of the Lord to Ezekiel : “ I will make thy tongue stick fast to the roof of thy mouth, and thou shalt be dumb, and not as a man that reproveth, because they are an obstinate house ” (Ezec. iii. 26). As though He said expressly : The gift of eloquence is withdrawn from thee, because while the people offend Me by their sins they are not worthy to have the truth preached to them. Through whose fault it is that speech is withdrawn from the preacher is no easy matter to decide. But that the silence of the pastor is hurtful to himself sometimes, and to his flock at all times, is beyond all doubt. (Lib 2.4)
This video is an excerpt of a sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King “A Knock at Midnight.” Listen to the role that the congregations plays in the sermon. I realize that this sort of interaction with the preacher will not work in every congregation. Why in some suburban parishes if you started to “get happy” in Church the ushers might come to your side and give you the bum’s rush But even if this sort of response isn’t available to you the priest will know when you’re engaged and praying with him. Work with the preacher!