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Preaching from Year B, May to July 2024

By Duncan Macpherson

Features Editor, Catholic Permanent Deacon and retired Principal Lecturer in Theology at Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham.

Leonardo DiCaprio turned down the role of Robin in the 1995 film Batman Forever as did Warren Beatty for the part of Superman in Superman: The Movie (1978). A good actor prefers a good script. Whether this maxim explains why these film stars refused these roles I leave to the judgements of film critics, but there is a lesson here for the preacher. Good preaching performance is helped by a powerfully dramatic content to the sermon. Readers of the sermons that follow in this section cannot judge the performance of the preacher, but they can assess the dramatic potential of the text.

Dramatic Potential for Performance

In the Liturgy both preachers and readers proclaim the Word so as to awaken the listener into a response. Although not an interpretive tool for dramatic ability, their own faith should show through unambiguously, but this does not mean forgetting considerations of performance. These include the need to develop poise and presence, attention to eye contact and gesture, making good use of pauses, and an awareness of whether they have the full attention of the congregation.

Three elements are all-important for any preaching technique. These are the words, the use of imagination, and the deployment of living symbols. Two concerns should underpin these elements, namely: ‘this’ liturgy and ‘this’ people. The essential meaning of the word must be grasped, analysed, and then connected to the Paschal Mystery. Dramatic performance can play an important part in transforming the hearts, the minds, and the lives of a congregation.

Carrying Forward

One example of powerful potential for such dramatic performance in this issue, can be found in Michael Kane’s sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. In it he shows how comedic preaching can carry a congregation forward to an openness to a serious message about the nature of Christian love: ‘Don’t you hate it when you are misquoted or misheard? Has that ever happened to you? It can be a funny thing. Like the time when comedian Rich Hall was introduced to (the then) Prince Charles after the Royal Variety Performance. Rich Hall politely said, ‘I’m a comedian’, to which the future King Charles said, ‘a Canadian? Oh dear!’

But Michael warns us not to make the mistake of thinking that ‘this love is static, stationary, or passive’… ‘Christ will go on to say in John 15 that this love bears fruit.’ With words that lend themselves to the use of emphasis and dramatic pause to elicit response, he goes on, ‘This love looks like something. This love acts. This love does. This love obeys. This love sacrifices, even unto death. This love serves. This love shares everything with friends.’

Grief to Grace

Another example can be seen in Nathanael A. Hayler’s Ascension Day sermon which makes excellent use of pathos, taking his listeners from ‘grief to grace’ so that one can almost hear the pain in the preacher’s voice as he explores the sadness of parting: ‘We have grieved with Mary, been awestruck with Thomas, and walked on the Emmaus Road with the risen Christ himself. And suddenly, we are left, again… There is almost a cruelty in Jesus’ departure, done in plain sight and with such dramatic effect.’ And in his conclusion to the sermon, we recognise the potential for a triumphant voicing of the good news: ‘Jesus’ ascension is not about his absence but about his presence. It is not about his leaving, but about the “fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). It is not about grief; it is about abundant grace.

‘The Spirit is here!’

Turning to the sermon for Pentecost, we can almost hear the exuberance in Joe Aldred’s celebration of the challenge to ‘the generosity of our understanding of the boundless width, length, height, and depth of the working of God’s Spirit among us’. And it is easy too, to imagine the raising of Joe’s voice as he ends his sermon with powerful words urging his congregation to ‘allow the Holy Spirit to blow your way. Take down your umbrella of doubt and let the Day of Pentecost be every day; let our valley of dry bones come together bone upon bone, sinew upon sinew, flesh upon flesh, all given life by the Spirit of God. The Spirit is here!’

In the call-response tradition of Pentecostal worship, we all want to shout out, ‘Amen! Praise the Lord!’

The Joy of the Gospel

One final example of the many sermons that provide evident potential for dramatic performance can be found in Adrian Cullen’s homily on the readings for the ninth of June (Genesis 3:9-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35). Aptly entitled ‘Walking with Joy’, the text moves like a musical counterpoint between contrasting motifs of disappointment and of joy.

The negative motif includes references to the ‘routine and mundane’, to being ‘overwhelmed by the worries of the world’ and finding that ‘life moves quicker that we might like’.

In contrast, the joy of Gospel - a joy seen richer than mere happiness — is underlined by ‘the joy of knowing how close we are to Jesus’. We are urged to strive ‘with joy and with confidenc … sharing the Good News in word and deed, knowing that God is always with us’ and, in the words of Pope Francis that ‘either we proclaim Jesus with joy, or we do not proclaim him’.

Good preaching performance is helped by a powerfully dramatic content and good preaching performance can help to awaken the listener into a response by interpreting words that proclaim Jesus with joy, as in the triumphant finale to Adrian’s sermon, when we hear God calling us, let us, answer with the joy, ‘Father, I am here with the new man, your Son Jesus, and with joy I am filled with the Holy Spirit, ever ready to do your will.’

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