What makes a great sermon? In some ways that is like asking what makes a great piece of music. One can talk about conventions in different genres, features of great compositions or performances, but there are no sure-fire recipes or formulae. At the same time, how we in the pews hear and respond to sermons varies greatly from day to day and individual to individual. Those sermons that have moved me most deeply have had more to do with my spiritual needs at the moment and God’s grace in delivering the right words through the mind and voice of the preacher who had no idea of my situation and most likely was delivering what he or she thought was a run-of-the mill effort.
With that as a caveat, here’s what I think. First, the sermon or homily should never be the focus of worship, at least in a Eucharistic-centered worship service. It should be composed and delivered with grace and humility and be designed to shed light on one facet of one of the scripture readings, most often the Gospel lesson. While theology and scholarship may, at times, offer insight into the reading, a sermon is not the place for an extended piece of scholarly analysis because a) it draws attention away from the rest of the service, elevating the preacher and the preaching to a level of importance that eclipses the Eucharist and b) to do in-depth analysis well requires the kind of time and effort on the part of all that only an Adult Forum, bible study, or Sunday School class can provide.
Second, while an inexperienced preacher cannot help but listen to the comments from the pews, and may, in fact, get some useful insights, over the long haul the preacher has to go with what he or she works out to be the best way to articulate his or her faith to others. In the beginning, it may help to try out different styles or suggestions from others. It also may help to get assistance from an expert in public speaking, which may not have been taught in seminary (I recall a seminarian intern whose sermons blossomed overnight after a few sessions with someone in the congregation who taught speech and communication at the local university). But in the end, the best sermons come from the mind and heart of a spiritually mature person, who speaks from his or her own wrestling with the meaning of scriptures in the context of personal life and public ministry, who is not trying to “move” the congregation as a whole or create a life-changing experience, but simply preaches the Gospel as he or she knows it and lets God take care of rest.
Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with John Chilton’s comments that sermons should not be the primary focus of any pastor. The reality is that few pastors are truly gifted preachers, and truly gifted preachers are not necessarily good pastors. While the “best” sermons I have heard were composed in writing and read, delivered in 8-12 minutes, had a clear point, beginning, middle and end, were theologically sound, well-informed, but not burdened with jargon, the best church experience I had was in a congregation lead by a pastor who gave sermons based on loose notes, that rambled, were heart-felt, a little too long, but he was someone who not only was a great pastor but was supported by a community of lay people who were the heart and soul of the church, laity who brought great gifts to bible study and other adult education programs, who worked hard on both mission and fellowship and who did not rely on the pastor to direct them in every endeavor. His gifts were in knowing and appreciating that community and ministering to its needs and those on the outside. Not all pastors find themselves in a congregation like that, but the best nurture the seeds wherever they find them, nurturing that requires more precious gifts than what it takes to deliver block-buster sermons.
[originally posted as comments to Susan Fawcett's article at Episcopal Café]