Integrity among the words we preach
Before I was ordained, I sought out advice about preaching from my spiritual director. He was a gifted priest, a tremendous homilist and a holy man. He was also a recovering alcoholic who taught me to rely on God’s daily grace. He encouraged me to never save a written copy of any homily. He instructed me not to keep a file or records of what I say to various congregations. He told me to not even keep a file folder for future ideas, quotes or insights. He never wanted to rely on what he called “stale grace” because he always wanted to be present to the Holy Word of God in a manner that would feed him every day. He relied on the daily Eucharist for true food and inspiration. He did not want to rest on his written notes from the past, but he desired the constant presence of God to love him every day.
My director’s message to me has remained with me all these years. Even though I was taught in homiletics classes in graduate school to write out every word, every sentence and paragraph, I have instead taken the advice of my former spiritual director. In my thirty years as a preacher and homilist, I believe I have written out about five complete homilies. I never saved the texts of even these five compositions. I cling to the Spirit’s availability every time I open my mouth in the center of the worshipping assembly.
Even though it has taken me thirty years to figure it out, I have only recently realized that my spiritual director’s advice to me was to prepare me for ministry among God’s people in poverty. I preach like other people live. I rely on God’s bread for the day as other people long to remain sober today. I carry within my heart the insights that remain at hand for me as people carry their possessions on their backs. I preach totally dependent on God. There is a great correlation from how I prepare my homily and the people who sit in front of me waiting for the grace of the day. I rely on the Spirit just as others wait for healing and who beg for daily sustenance.
I reflect upon this story of homily preparation as I listen again to the closing gospels of the liturgical year from the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time until Thanksgiving. I stand alongside the Pharisee in the temple who was so self-assured of his place in God’s plan. The Pharisee separated himself from others by naming their faults. The tax collector, already marginalized by the community, prayed humbly before God. The juxtaposition of these two men in the temple gives us all who preach a model of relating to God and to our congregations.
As preachers, we cannot lean on our power and self-righteousness. We cannot blame people for their sin, their failures, their diseases or their place in life. We cannot separate ourselves from the struggles people face. We cannot hoard grace for ourselves by thinking we are out of the bounds of our own advice or the call to change our perspectives. For those of us who preach, the Pharisee should be a constant touchstone of finding our place among the faithful and God’s call to speak, live and act with integrity.
Once again the real place of integrity comes from the mouth of the person who is marginalized, the tax collector. His prayer offers an opening to God’s grace in the moment, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” This is the prayer that becomes bread for the preacher, the food of love, and the place of trust for us to believe that God is God and we are not. As preachers of the sacred gospels, we must come to our congregations with profound humility and not with a sense of privilege that is canned, artificial and full of our own importance.
I also take my place as a preacher with Zacchaeus as he climbed the sycamore tree. He longed to see Jesus. He longed to find his place among the people who recognized the healing power of Jesus. He was also a tax collector and a wealthy man. He had the power, the riches and the belongings to be self-sufficient. Instead, he climbed the tree to gain for his entire life a new perspective. In climbing up the tree, he left all the emotional attachments behind. As Jesus called out to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house,” he came to realize his complete dependence on Christ for that day.
Like the interaction between Zacchaeus and Jesus, we are called as preachers to leave our attachments behind and rely today on God’s invitation to stay with us. This is the trust in God I desire for every preacher. Zacchaeus gave away half of his possessions to the poor and repaid his greed. As preachers, we cannot hoard our gifts or stockpile our self-importance. We preach from our daily humility trusting in the grace of each and every day.