I learned in my homiletics classes in graduate school to make sure I always received formal feedback on my Sunday homilies from designated members of the assembly. During my first few years after ordination, I asked a few members of the worshipping community in several different cities to write a critique of my homilies. At first, I was nervous about asking people to respond to my Sunday presentation. People were very grateful to be asked about their opinions and willingly took on this responsibility. Some of the people told me that was the first time they had ever been invited to participate in what they perceived was strictly a clerical privilege.
After some time of receiving feedback, I felt a shift in their perspective. I noticed that people were taking the Word to heart. They began to own the Word of God in a more profound way. The action of giving me feedback about preaching turned into accepting the responsibility for the gospel on their part. The authority of the Word-made-flesh was becoming more visible to me and to my critics. They took more time to ponder the gospel. Some of them paid more attention to the struggles of the community, the suffering of their neighbors. They began to tell me where they thought the Word of God was alive in the middle of the community.
As a preacher, I discovered the need for people to have an ownership of the Gospel and the Sunday homily. This discovery was not just about whether or not my sentence structure was perfect or that all of my verbs were agreeing. I watched something deeper happen. I helped people find their voice in the homily. Their voice led to a deepening trust that God was indeed active within the community. This is the place of real gospel authority among the people of God, connecting the authentic needs of people to the message that God is invested still among us all.
I reflect on this ownership and authority of the Word as I ponder the gospels beginning on the Baptism of the Lord through the Ninth Sunday of Ordinary time. We hear as Jesus entered the Jordon with John the voice and perspective of the Trinity. This is the beginning of Jesus’ authority among his people. This gospel also invites us not only into baptism, but also into the depth of Christ’s authority to give us new life so that we may live to offer others the same.
Jesus calls his disciples and immediately challenges them to leave everything they have ever known. Jesus’ authority rests not only in his invitation but also in his immediate response to people who were in need of healing. He calls Simon and Andrew by name and they respond. For those of us who preach, we must find again the initial vigor and challenge of being called among people. We must realize that our authority as preachers is also to bring healing for people in our midst. We must continue to be connected to people’s pain, suffering and genuine need for God.
Jesus turned people’s understanding of God inside out as he gathered them on the mountainside and began to teach them that the poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom. The people who will truly own this word from God will be those who have sunk into despair, grief and violence. The Word of God here in the Beatitudes sinks down into the crevices of life, into the places of secrecy, infidelity and hopelessness. As we preach the Beatitudes on the even floor of our assemblies, we also must realize that the Word of God has its real authority among those who chase after greed, among people who run toward selfishness and among those who live only for their own existence. We also become aware that these challenging words may often alienate us from many other people who have yet to realize their own relationship with God.
Jesus invites us to preach from our inner light. We do not keep this light under a bushel basket or isolated in our own computers. We preach this light because we have first realized we cannot live any longer in our own darkness. This compelling place for us who preach is realized in Jesus’ command to move beyond the external faith of the scribes and Pharisees. This calls us not only to preach the Word, but also to live this command by offering our cloak to others and our possessions to our neighbors. The authority of the Word-made-flesh is made real in our ability to love people, to reconcile with those we hate and to live a new life of real freedom.
As preachers, we must continue to find ways to receive feedback from members of our assemblies. We must let go of our pride and learn to listen. We must let go of thinking that our preaching comes from our own authority. As I discovered years ago, when we let go and ask others for help, we discover that all of us are compelled to live the Word of God with a new integrity and authority.