Just a few weeks after I was ordained I gave a homily during a funeral. I did not know the person, an elderly longtime parishioner in South Bend, Indiana. After the funeral, as I was preparing to ride in the hearse, an elderly, quirky man resting on a wooden cane approached me by the car. He sported a worn, wool sports coat with a scarf hanging nattily around his neck. He whispered in a quiet voice, barely audible above the crowd, “You certainly have a way with words.” I thanked him cordially. Then he leaned closer into my earshot and said, “ Don’t get too big for your britches.”
I admit after all these years; I still hang on to the old man’s advice. His influential words still shape my preaching and give direction to my homilies, not only for funerals but every time I open my mouth to give perspective and witness to God’s word during the Eucharist.
I pass on this piece of advice as I listen again to the gospels between the Fourteenth Sunday and Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time. The shape of the liturgy and the message of these gospels remind us neither to cling to self-importance nor to depend upon our physical possessions when preaching and living the word of God. Jesus sends us out along with the seventy-two to carry little with us; no extra sacks, sandals or money belts. With these few possessions and a reminder of the essentials of lasting peace and emotional and physical healing, we are bound not to get too big for our britches.
I now preach among people who have few possessions and who ache for this peace and healing. Preaching is a vivid and real expression of my own conversion as I try to let go of all that gets in the way of living a simpler, less cluttered life. These gospels shake us from our everyday, numbing patterns of life. The Holy Word invites us and even compels us into real action in the world. As preachers, we cannot be deaf to these gospels nor can we expect others to hear them without us reflecting upon the way we live them out ourselves in our everyday life. On many days I ask God that I may first be changed by the gospels. I want to model what I say, that my words will come from a life of integrity and honesty.
I long to make the connection that the love of God is manifest in how I love my neighbor. The Good Samaritan models for us who preach that our words must bind up wounds and our words must become a balm of healing and reconciliation. When I preach those words, I am confronted with how my words so often crush and offend and how my words separate and divide people in my daily life. These connections of action based on the words of Jesus in the liturgy are non-negotiable, especially for the reader of the gospel and the preacher of these God-given texts.
As preachers we must not think that our preaching and God’s message are just for other people. This is a real professional trap that I have noticed within myself and I hear among other preachers. The message of love is for others, but not for me. The message of fidelity, kindness and service are easy to speak but take a lifetime to live. I have learned to be more patient with myself but also to keep the challenge alive. I am no longer worried about the structure of the homily, the acoustics of the church, and the quotations from saints, popes and popular piety. I am no longer focused on rich sentence structures or a turn of phrase. Now that I am preaching among people who have few possessions, I am no longer worried about my delivery, my homiletic style or even a consistent theology or even precise exegeses. However, I do worry whether or not I can actually live the message I proclaim, the heart of the words Jesus spoke to those who followed him and those he sent out among wolves and naysayers.
I admit that the balance of Mary and Martha’s approach to Jesus’ presence is quite sustaining to me as a preacher. In order to serve with words from my mouth, I must first sit at the feet of the One who hears my woes, who challenges my status quo and who binds my wounds. If this connection is not made, my words will be hollow and untrue. If I do not rest my heart and all of my belongings and the feet of the Master my journey will be only into the depths of selfishness and self-aggrandizement.
As preachers we all must fit into our clothing. We cannot get too big for our britches in the name of the Kingdom of God. We must take to heart the call to sort our belongings, to let go of our attachments and to serve with our words unceasingly. I continue to learn these lessons long after that first encounter with an elderly man who had the courage to put me on the correct path and to send me out into the mission of preaching.