National Association of Pastoral Musicians
Led by the Gospel: Preaching in Times of Crisis
Wednesday July 16, 2014 (Notes for further reflection)
10:45am – 12:00pm
Ronald Raab, CSC
Preparing to Preach and Preparing to Serve
Our preaching as priests is both a lonely task and a communal action.
In crisis, where all notions, ideas and convictions are shattered, we are left with the naked love of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. The preacher’s heart rests in this extreme vulnerability and loss. We must find within ourselves, the faith to speak the truth without blame, prejudice or anger.
Our preaching enters deeply into our own powerlessness and need for God. The words from our mouths come from the surrender of our souls. The goal of preaching amid crisis is not to “fix” the situations, the heartaches, the politics, and the belief systems in the moment.
Our preaching is far beyond textbooks and local piety. The Word comes through our own brokenness, when our hearts break for the needs of real people.
We cannot change people by our own words or actions. We also cannot change the structures of society or the issues that cause poverty, loss and hardship. We can call people only into the depths of the Shepherds care and love.
Our preaching must also be rooted in the deeper story of the gospels and the profound stories of our peoples’ lives. We need to name the experiences of lepers, demoniacs, the blind, the lonely widow and the grieving relatives of Lazarus. We need to find the Good News they discovered.
God invites us to speak from the sidelines of the world, the marginal place where so many people need God. Others will also learn from other people’s needs.
God empties our lives and we come to the Word and to Eucharist as learners, as humble servants. We must make sure that we have learned from the suffering of people, encountered the crisis in the community, the need among the assembly or the turmoil in the depths of our own prayer when we listen carefully to the stray, the lost and the anxious.
Preachers are called to be instruments of peace and to create communities of non-violence. Our voices must give voice to those whose voices are never heard. This is essential as priests.
Bending down, kneeling, lying prostrate during the Triduum is not just an action for Holy Week, but a lifestyle for the preacher.
Storytelling and relationship is key to creating a ministry of healing in times of crisis, suffering and ill health.
Naming the experiences of people in the Story of Jesus
The people of God need to hear from the preacher that their experiences are validated, that their pain is named and that their lives have meaning here on earth. People long to be free of guilt, shame and anger that come from life’s daily grind. The listeners need to recognize their stories of searching in the light of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. The liturgy must always be connected to people and effective preaching bridges the sacred Word to the suffering and anxiousness of our worshipers. Good News heals and sustains. (Ministry and Liturgy Magazine: 40.3, 2013 Raab)
The message of God’s love includes the preacher’s life
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. (Ministry and Liturgy 40.4, 2013 Raab)
Naming the message of Christ for people and not “labels”
Jesus desires a fire of faith on the earth and yet knows there will be division among families. As preachers we keep the flames alive when we name the suffering of our people. We cannot just label people as “poor” or “sick” or “addicted” or “abused”. We must enter into the experience people face when these issues tear families apart and when housing is out of their bounds or when people cannot afford health care for their vulnerable children. We must then be prepared to face the criticism within our church families.
I hear from many preachers that it is easier to speak about official Church teaching than to open up the healing gospel for real people’s lives. It is easier to hide behind the door that names people as sinners than it is to search for the real reasons people sell their bodies, become addicted to drugs or even leave their wives and children. We cannot confuse obedience to the Church for the fire of faith that people need to find in the hurting lives. We all must touch suffering in order to heal it. When we all discover the truth of life we will all become more faithful to presence of God within the Eucharist.
Jesus reminds us in these gospels to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to our banquets so that we will not receive repayment here on earth. This means that all people who stand at our doors are already members of our communities. Our preaching must break through the labels we attach to people. We must articulate and model that people suffering all forms of poverty are fed just as any other member of our communities. We live an illusion when we think God’s love is only for those whom we think are deserving, or who have enough money to support the parish, or who do not challenge our comfort, or who will repay us with clerical perks and a better lifestyle.
Jesus also confronts us with the reality that we must renounce all of our possessions in order to be a disciple. As preachers, we stand with people who have little so that we all may trust God more profoundly. These possessions are often our attitudes about our neighbors and our narrow mindedness about God’s fidelity on earth. When we stand with people who feel they are on the outside of our communities, we can help them by using our preaching to knock on the door of God’s faithfulness and on the closed doors of our worshipping assemblies. (Ministry and Liturgy 40.5 2013Raab)
Preaching among the poor is sustained by the action of the community.
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. (Ministry and Liturgy 40.6, 2013Raab)
People need God’s love not words about God
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. (Ministry and Liturgy 40.6, 2013Raab)
Rely on God’s grace in preaching as people rely daily on food, shelter and clothing.
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. (Ministry and Liturgy 40.07, 2013Raab)
Be careful of cultural expectations and fake promises (at Christmas)
Preaching among any family of believers is a delicate matter during the entire Christmas season. Liturgical preaching can get lost among the multitudes of poinsettias in the sanctuary and the worry among parents if they will survive Santa Claus. The real meaning of the Word-made-flesh is often dulled dealing with guest preachers and priests or mothers trying to convince the family to go to church. Preaching should not be whimsical and pious or too theoretical. Stories within homilies should not be overly sentimental or irrelevant nor should they be only about the past. Preachers need to understand the real issues of peoples’ lives at Christmas and why people are at Mass in the first place.
People long to make sense out of their misfortunes of the past year and their separations from loved ones by miles and grudges. We want to live in God’s peace in the chaos of life. Many mothers who have lost children have a difficulty even viewing the baby in the manger. Single people are reminded during this season of family that they do not have one of their own. People who have lost jobs or simply do not have money to spend are reminded of their inadequacies during this season of plenty. No matter the community or parish, suffering and unfortunate circumstances come out of hiding during the season that our culture says is merry and bright. (Ministry and Liturgy 40. 8 2013Raab)
Ask for help to name their experiences and hardships
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. (Ministry and Liturgy 40.09Raab)
Only God heals and changes people’s lives
I preach from the profound understanding that I cannot change people’s pain or hardship. I can offer words of hope only by confronting my own pain. The Lenten scriptures must be proclaimed and lived only from the souls and voices of preachers who know and believe in Christ Jesus (Ministry and Liturgy 40.10Raab)