15 January 2010

More tips for writing homilies

Here are a few more heuristic exercises for homily composition to complement the ones I posted a few days ago. . .

Exercise One: Core vs. Core

Take what you think is the core statement/line/teaching of each reading and type them out. How are they connected? How do they differ? Do they say the same thing in different ways? Does one text set up a question that another text answers? A problem that another text solves? This works well because the lectionary readings are chosen to be thematically complementary. For example, the readings for yesterday's Mass:

1 Sam: “Why has the LORD permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines?”

Mark: “If you wish, you can make me clean.”

Connected: Preach on how sickness and illness can be understood as a kind of defeat. Where then is our victory?

Differ: God permits defeat yet He also makes clean. What is required of us to move from defeat to cleanliness?

Q&A: Why does the Lord permit defeat? Because He can make us clean. Are we being shown the need for proper humility?

Problem/Solution: What does it mean to say that the Lord permits us to be defeated? Our ultimate defeat is faithfulness and God will not force us to be faithful.

Notice that in each of these I've assumed that the texts from both 1 Sam and Mark address our contemporary concerns about disease, failure, health, and success.

Exercise Two: Random vs. random

Now, be truly daring. Rather than choosing two statements/lines/teachings from the text, randomly select them and ask the same questions. For example:

1 Sam: “Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods?”

Mark: “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.”

Connected: Both seek out the power of God to accomplish nearly impossible tasks.  How do the actors in each reading work with grace to achieve their ends?

Differ: 1 Sam is a despairing question asked before a final defeat. Mark comes after a victory over disease. What component of the faith is missing in the defeat that guarantees that the victory over illness will be preached?

Q&A: The question in 1 Sam is a faithless question, that is, a question that belies a lack of faith in God's power to bring victory. Mark answers the question by noting that the victory achieved by Christ is worthy of public notice. What exactly is this victory? Hint: it's not about physical healing!

Problem/Solution: 1 Sam sets up the problem of how we understand the power and purpose of “foreign gods,” or the power and reason for apparently random, capricious events. Do we give these gods of chance, destruction, etc. too much control over our faith when we despair of God's attention? Mark emphasizes the need for faith in achieving wellness, the need for trusting that all things work for the good that God has ordained will always be victorious.

Exercise: Word list

List the verbs in each reading. Pick out the ones that seem to be moving in the same direction, that is, that seem to be indicating a common action. Then, after considering the overall context of the readings, think about how these verbs help/hinder/expand/diminish the theme.

For example:

went out
drew up
fetched. . .and so on. . .

can make
do will
be made
made clean
dismissed. . .and so on. . .

From 1 Sam: gathered, camped, drew up, retired
From Mark: came, kneeling, touched, made clean

The verbs from 1 Sam indicate the action of the armies in readying themselves for battle.
The verbs from Mark indicate the action of both the leper and Christ.

Possible questions:

What do the Israeli army and the leper have in common? What are they both searching for? How do they approach their respective goals? Compare the actions of the army and the leper: how are they different? Why does one fail and the other succeed? How do both events proclaim the gospel? What role does faith/surrender play in these events?

Any of these exercises can be combined with another to increase the chances of discovering an intriguing question or topic for a homily.


  1. Father:

    You know what drives me nuts about that particular Gospel? This part: "After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, 'See that you say nothing to anyone'... But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word ..."

    So the leper is miraculously cleansed by the only Being in the Universe that can cleanse him. The leper may have a poor, perhaps incomplete, knowledge of the Ontological Nature of This [Supreme] Being, but when that Being makes a simple request -- don't talk about it -- you might have though the fellow could have taken a hint.

    Instead, the fellow does precisely the opposite from a direct command of God in the flesh. I dunno, that sounds like disobedience to me.

    Or am I completely off track?

  2. Human nature being what it is, if you had been blind for years, an outcast, forced to beg, be treated like dirt, unable to work, care for a family and then, suddenly, you were cured, you could see, then you might be so elated, so thrilled that you probably wouldn't even hear Jesus' words! I think the man was so thrilled that he just could not help himself. He probably couldn't understand why Jesus would not want him to tell everyone he had experienced a miracle. He wanted to share his news with everyone! We know, with the benefit of hindsight, why Jesus did not want too much publicity at that time, but the blind man would not know that.
    I know too there are times when I hear what Jesus is asking me to do, but I don't really listen and consider why he is asking me to do it. It's easy to just go ahead and do what I want to do, without always considering that I should obediently do what Jesus is asking me to do. It's easy to think only of ourselves and not the bigger picture!

  3. PMcG, here's my rather inconclusive stab at an answer:


  4. OK, I had a look at it, and it's good, and it concentrates on Christ, which is what a homily should do, but I still can't get that disobedient leper off my mind.

    Now, the Gospels don't record what happened to the leper afterward, and it would seem to be rather pointless to punish a leper that the Lord has miraculously cured, but, still, couldn't the leper, out of gratitude, follow a simple request asked by the Person who cleansed him of leprosy and allowed him to rejoin society?