Updated: Oct 19
What Makes a Sermon Good?
Preaching is an art form with no objective criteria for declaring what is good or bad. Joel Osteen has been named the best preacher in America by some observers. Yet, I can hardly listen to him without getting nauseated. The preachers that appeal to me aren’t nearly as sweet, smiling and slick as Pastor Joel.
One way I judge a sermon is by its divine proclamation of bad and good news. The gospel of our Lord, which we properly translate as “the good news of our Lord,” is only good news because it honestly names, confronts and offers a remedy for the bad news. The gospel of our Lord means that the sin and death woven into the fabric of our humanity has been met by the redemptive power of God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sin and evil are defeated in the self-giving love of God incarnate, Jesus in the flesh.
On the Feast Day of Saint Francis this year, October 4, Pope Francis gave an “apostolic exhortation.” That is a fancy way to say he gave a sermon; he preached the gospel. And it was a good one in my view. Like all sermons it had a title, a Latin title in this case, Laudate Deum, which is Latin for “Praise God.” This sermon was a sequel to a sermon he preached in 2015, Laudato Si’, which means “Praise to You.” His sermons in 2015 and 2013 are spiritual tours de force, moving proclamations of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are good news because they honestly confront bad news.
One of the many biblical texts used by Pope Francis in his sermon was Luke 12:6, where Jesus said, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.” Following his namesake, Francis of Assisi, the pope reflected on the sensitivity and love Jesus had for God’s creatures. He lifts up a sparrow as one known and loved by God. Not one of them falls to the ground without God knowing about it. It follows that God surely knows how his creation as a whole, is suffering today. So often our awareness of suffering is understandably focused exclusively on human suffering—the people of Israel and Palestine, for example. Yet, other creatures are suffering more than us. Indeed, Paul tells us “all creation is groaning” (Rom 8:22).
The Pope lays out in clear and convincing detail the scientific evidence of a world spiraling into peril. He notes how this scientific consensus and those who acknowledge it are derided and ridiculed with misinformation either deliberately or inadvertently. The deriders fail to see that we are not fundamentally facing a scientific or technological crisis. Rather it is a social and humanitarian crisis because we have treated God’s creation as something to be exploited for our immediate benefit, rather than recognizing it as a gift from God to be loved and cherished. The image that came to my mind at this point of the sermon, is our tendency to see the world as a set on a stage that we can move around freely and easily to accommodate our desires for entertainment. Instead, it would be helpful to see our interconnection with the world at every level. The world is not a series of props and grips to move around between scenes. It is more like a garden where we live in harmony with the land, so that we and the land can flourish. For if the land stops producing, we also die.
The penetrating critique of Pope Francis’ sermon comes in his exposing the power structures in place that keep us from addressing these problems. Powerful interests and powerful people make decisions and execute plans to benefit themselves rather than the masses. He says, “The mentality of maximum gain at minimal cost, disguised in terms of reasonableness, progress and illusory promises, makes impossible any sincere concern for our common home.” Those in power seldom act for the benefit of common people. Think of those small extreme religious zealots who stir up fear and act with ferocity to gain or maintain their power. They really do not have the interests of the common people in mind, when they are exercising violence over others, much less the interests of all God’s creation. In less obvious ways, powerful governments, religious bodies and global corporate entities give the appearance of providing services for their citizens, parishioners and clients, while, in reality, buttressing the wealth and power of a small minority of individuals.
Where is the good news in this litany of bad news? The good news is that God has created human beings with agency, the ability to act in a way that honors the dignity of humanity and the sacredness of God’s creation. We are capable of acting on behalf of the common good and future generations. However, to embrace this agency will require repentance, a radical change from our current path. It will require a new politics, a new mindset on global cooperation for the common good, and a new commitment to see creation as a gift rather than a commodity. The gospel brings us back to Jesus Christ again and again. Jesus Christ, who entered fully and completely into God’s creation, provides the model and means for the good life both now and forevermore, when all creatures will praise God in beautiful ways we have yet to imagine.
As all good sermons invite us into deeper fellowship with God, our neighbors and our neighborhoods, we are invited today to “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below.”
Can the Pope get an “Amen”?
The full text of Pope Francis’ sermon can be found at: https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/20231004-laudate-deum.html