A High-Wire Act

Because the word of God is what a preacher wrestles with in the pulpit, and because it is a living word, every sermon is God’s creation as well as the creation of the preacher and the congregation. All three participate, with the preacher as the designated voice. It is a delicate job for the one in the pulpit. … If the preacher leans too far one way, he will side with the text against the congregation and deliver a finger-pointing sermon from on high. If the preacher leans too far the other way, she will side with the congregation against the text and deliver a sermon that stops short of encountering God. (The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor, 1993)

It has been well over 20 years that Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the best preachers in the US, penned these words. By now a veteran preacher myself, I know exactly what she’s talking about. Preaching is definitely a high-wire act and not for the faint-hearted. Hard and demanding as it is, however, the work of engaging the Word of God for preaching purposes is both exhilarating and immensely life-giving. You’d think that professional preachers, e.g. priests–ministers–pastors, would gladly take this task to heart every time it’s their turn to break open God’s Word to offer the community a morsel of divine sustenance for the soul.

Curiously, that does not seem to be the case. In his 2013 encyclical The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis devotes 25 paragraphs, or a whopping 20 pages, to the importance of the homily and how to prepare properly. My hunch is that he wouldn’t have seen the need to spill so much ink over this subject if the quality of preaching was up to Gospel standards.

Back in 2001, when publishing my book on preaching, I wrote:

Soon the preaching course moved beyond my comfort zone. It did not take long before I needed to risk the security of knowing who I was and who I was called to be. The paradox of learning more, and learning more deeply, became apparent. Gaining greater insight into the task of good preaching did not make my listening to Sunday homilies any easier. Developing a critical ear started to spell despair. More often than I care to admit I heard big gaps in Sunday homilies: those featuring the preacher more than God’s Word, those that  kept things too “nice” so as not to offend the listeners, those that divided people easily in “them” and “us” camps, , those that perpetuated gender stereotypes, those that excluded by sheer omission and silence, those used for spreading personal agendas, those that even left God’s Word untouched altogether. Many times I left Mass still hungry, even though I had received Communion. Now I wondered about the reasons for that hunger: there were in fact very few homilies that fed me spiritually. Receiving Communion alone was not sufficient.  I gained some understanding of and sympathy for people who say they “get nothing out of church,” even by those who come with sincere intent and a hungry heart. I felt deep sadness and frustration. I started to harken back to the days of ignorance in the best sense of that word  — it felt more comfortable not to know so much. 

Sadly, I am reminded of these words often and sigh. Take this past weekend. I had prepared my sermon for the Anglicans for Sunday morning, but attended Mass in a Catholic parish on Saturday evening. I was looking forward to the homily on the same Gospel passage, curious as to what the priest would have to say about this tale of two women in Mark’s Gospel (5:21-43). There were a few baptisms and, as a result, a lot of people at church who might not normally attend. But I left church, again, with a hungry spirit. For starters, the priest omitted the section of the bleeding woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, thereby diffusing the Gospel passage of its shocking message. Then instead of being served the radical message of the Gospel we heard a 11-minute treatise on the history of baptism. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this illustrated exactly what Barbara Brown Taylor described in the above quote, i.e. leaning away from the text and delivering a sermon that stopped short of encountering God.

We’re not supposed to criticize Father’s sermons or be too hard on our priests as they’re so stretched in all directions. And it is quite possible that another soul was fed by the same sermon while mine was left wanting. Pope Francis gives us permission to take seriously our hungry spirits esp. as we leave church. I just hope that my hearers will tell me when my preaching words do or do not deliver food for their souls. I will let you judge for yourself. Here is my take on last Sunday’s Gospel: The Tale of Two Women

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