Ministry and Liturgy magazine, August 2013 issue
Among dusty coins: preaching to the lost among us
Several years ago, I preached a parish mission in another state. At the early Mass on Sunday morning I noticed an attractive woman seemingly engaged in my homily. She was stately and well dressed yet she was rather jittery, shuffling her body from side to side in the pew. Her face carried a deep sadness that I noticed across the many pews that separated us. Her facial expressions changed rapidly as she reacted to my words. She wore a large, oversized, navy turtleneck shirt. The neck of the shirt was unrolled high up to her chin.
She attended the evening session of the mission as well. She wore a different colored turtleneck, jeans and boots. She seemed even more attentive to my words and I could tell even during the homily that she wanted to speak with me. After the session, she waited for people to leave. She approached me and began to open up about her story.
The woman had sold her body for sex as a youth. When she was nineteen years old a man strangled her with a wire and left her battered body in a dumpster. The trick assumed she was dead. She told me she wears turtleneck shirts to hide the scars. When I met her, she was thirty-nine years old. She then whispered to me that she had never cried about the experience of being tortured and raped in all of those twenty years. She never cried until after she heard me at Mass on the first morning. She spent the afternoon weeping and sobbing about her past in the realization that God had brought her out from the dumpster and into a new life.
I carry her story in my heart like a holy card tucked in my bible. She remains for me an icon of Jesus’ search for the lost. I still see her in my mind during my homily preparations reminding me that the lost are often sitting in plain sight, and that the forgotten are assembled in our pews. I begin with her story as I reflect on these series of gospels from the Twenty-fourth until the Twenty-ninth Sundays in Ordinary Time.
I hear again the ancient parables of the lost coin, the one sheep separated from the ninety-nine and the two brothers trying to figure out their relationship with their father and battling over their inheritance. To preach is to search for the lost. I break open the Word among people who have lost out on wealth, who have never had a decent home and who have never had an inheritance to lose. These stories are not lost among ancient and unfamiliar times and places. These stories are alive and thriving in our pews, in all of our parish communities in one form or another.
I straddle a great tension in preaching. I listen to the scriptures say that God loves the poor; that Jesus’ home and ministry was among the marginalized. I hear the psalmists speak of God’s fidelity toward the weary. People who live in the depths of poverty in our day seldom hear this message. Many people perceive the Church not caring for people beyond the sanctuary. Words alone do not pay for food or heal grief or purchase medications for mental illness. The words of preaching must come not only from the converted heart of the preacher, but also from the work and ministry born in communities that extend themselves and who make love real in the world, in our day and time.
People who live in the shadows of society need to hear an invitation to the person of Christ Jesus directly from those of us who preach the Word made flesh. They want stories of redemption, grace among real people, moments and situations where love has been made real. People long to connect to the gospel, to discover an insight into God’s relationship with us, to heal and mend the issues from the past that are tightly held in fearful hearts and hurting bodies.
People living in intense stress do not come to church simply looking for foolproof arguments for the existence of God. People do not want to know something else about God; they want an encounter with God. The lost will not be found only hearing holy concepts, firm arguments or historical ideas about why Jesus came to earth or how the early Church formed itself. Today, the searching pilgrim discovers new grace from the message that people have found love, acceptance, and reassurance in a life of faith and dedication within the Church. People need to be reassured that they will be accompanied in their suffering.
Along with Lazarus, there are many people covered with sores, lying in the shame of the past. Preaching can bind wounds and heal sores. The presence of Christ in our words still carries people from dark pasts. Preaching still dusts off the past of the lost. The love of God still offers the lost a place to call home. We also listen to the healed lepers. We walk with their encounter with Christ Jesus. From the depths of wounds, abuse, sores and disappointments, in our healing we return to God full of gratitude.