Having heard the Holy Gospel, we are now ready for the preacher to explain the meaning of the holy words which were just uttered. In our holy Faith, the role of preaching is the fundamental way in which faith is stimulated in the hearts of those who hear. St Paul said, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing from the Word of God” (Romans 10).
The authorized preacher is the priest or deacon, and the permitted themes for the sermon are the appointed scripture lessons and spiritual commemoration of the day. Sometimes the bishop gives special instruction concerning what is read or said “from the pulpit.” In any event, the homily or sermon (both words, from the Greek and Latin languages, respectively, mean simply “a talk”) provides the hearers with a more clear understanding of the sacred words they have heard and the meaning of the specific teachings conveyed by the day’s commemoration.
In many other Christian gatherings, the sermon becomes the center-piece for the assembly. For Orthodox Christians, the sermon, although far too often undervalued and even in some places woefully neglected, remains an important but integral ingredient to the whole of divine worship. We do not break up the liturgy into segments, but rather take it as a uniform and spiritually enriching whole. The sermon provides its unique and very specific function, perhaps the part of the liturgy where the personal impress of the celebrant is most clearly stamped. For example, we know so much about St John Chrysostom, simply because of all the sermons he had recorded and left to posterity. God speaks through men, and men differ in idiosyncrasy of character and personality.
We must keep in mind, however, that the sermon plays a much less prominent role in Orthodox Christian worship than it does in Protestant assemblies. The reason for this is simple. Our purpose for gathering in the church temple is not to hear what the priest may happen to say on any given occasion, but rather to offer our “sacrifice of praise” to the Lord. There are, of course, times when the sermon is longed-for: times of personal or civil distress, or at the cusp of some important ecclesiastical event.
The role of the laity during the preaching of the sermon is to listen carefully and to take to heart those elements from the homily which “strike home.” Our homilies are usually quite short; frequently the Orthodox homily is no more than 15 minutes long. Therefore, even small children can learn to listen with care. If the priest as preacher tends to speak too long, the laity have a responsibility to let him know so that he can learn to perfect the art of preaching. Elder Zacharias of Essex says that the core of a good sermon is “one simple thought, deeply expounded.”