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.
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