Sunday, June 9, 2013

Preaching Responsibly (10.C)

I'm preaching today to the candidates for the permanent diaconate and their wives, so the homily reflects that. It's posted for those who might find it of some interest nonetheless.

I was wandering around the internet this week when I found a website devoted to book titles—it had a long list of eye-catching or distinctive book titles.

Many of these were books I’d never heard of, and which I was glad I’d never heard of, like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and “The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse.”  If the list had a category for “titles guaranteed to make sure I’d never buy the book,” I think the winner would be “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”

Odd though it was, the list had a serious point: the title of a book is crucial if you want people to read. I’ve always wondered why priests and deacons almost never give their homilies a title like many Protestant preachers do; many times I’ve driven by one of their churches and wished I could drop in on Sunday to hear the sermon.

But, as the saying goes, I digress! There’s a reason I’m rambling about book titles.  When I sat down to prepare my homily, the first thing that came into my mind—and the thing that stayed with me as I thought about what to say—was the title of a book I’ve never read.

More than that, it’s a book that I never read 35 years ago. So you can guess it was a catchy title!

The title was “Ten Responsible Minutes: A Pleasant Approach to Homily Headaches,” by a Redemptorist named Joseph Manton. And it wasn’t the subtitle about homily headaches that has stayed in my mind but the words “Ten Responsible Minutes.”

That phrase emphasizes something about preaching that we must never, never forget. It is a very serious responsibility of the deacon or priest, never to be taken lightly; each minute of the homily is, to some extent, given to us by the congregation, and never to be taken for granted. Contrary to the occasional joke, we do not have “a captive audience.”  If once we did, we certainly don’t now; the irresponsible preacher will drive his hearers away, either physically—they’ll find another parish or none at all—or at least mentally, since they will retreat to planning their summer vacations while trying to appear interested in what you’re saying.
“Ten responsible minutes” could be a motto that would deter us from sloppy or no preparation, but that’s a subject for another day. The reason I thought of the preacher’s responsibility today has all to do with the Gospel, and with our grave responsibility never to do more harm than good.

We’ve all heard homilies that would only help the listener if the Holy Spirit descended directly upon them. What I’m talking about this morning is the rarer phenomenon of a homily that does harm; and this we must never do. An old Latin motto is still used in the medical profession “primum non nocere—first, do no harm.” And while it’s easier to do harm as a doctor than as a preacher, we must not discount the power of the pulpit to injure.

With that long introduction, let us turn to the text of this morning’s Gospel, with a side glance at the first reading.

What happens is easy enough to summarize: a poor widow loses her only son, Jesus takes pity one her and raises him from the dead. In response, the people acclaim him and praise God.

A similar story unfolds between Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, with an added note of the prophet’s duty towards his poor benefactor, who has fed and housed him during the great drought. Unlike the widow of Nain, she has something of a claim on the prophet’s miraculous powers.

It seems easy enough to connect the passages and leave our listeners with a message about God’s compassion and healing will.

But if the homilist does not use all ten minutes responsibly, it also easy to leave some vulnerable members of the congregation hurt and confused. In most large parishes, there are families who have lost a child; in my parish, there are two.

What are they to think if we fail to handle responsibly the question of miraculous healing?

No-one today is likely to pray that a dead loved one be brought back to life; but almost everyone faced with the serious or terminal illness of a young person prays for a miracle, yet these are extremely rare. How do we preach the miracles in today’s Scripture readings in a way that is faithful to the Gospel and Catholic tradition without leaving people feeling abandoned or even punished since they did not obtain the miracle for which they prayed?

This is not a theoretical question. I once heard a famous “healing priest”–now a famous “ex-priest”–speak about healing to a stadium full of people.  Although I was still young and hadn’t studied the Bible or theology, I knew even then that some people would hear his message as “pray hard enough and God will work a miracle for you.”  It’s a short distance between that and “you didn’t pray hard enough, so your son or daughter died.”

Don’t think I am going to show you how I would handle these texts this morning:  there isn’t time, and you are not an ordinary Sunday congregation. My point today is simply that we must recognize that our words have consequences—not, perhaps, for everyone or even for many, but certainly for some. And thus we are responsible for the impact of our words, especially on people who are grieving or who may be lacking in sophistication or even in intelligence.

At the same time, we must not rob the miracles of their force or attempt to downplay them. In this morning’s Gospel, the raising of the dead boy is an act of Christ’s power; it shows clearly that God has visited His people. It shows the Kingdom breaking through the clouds of death. This is a sign of hope for all who grieve, and we need to proclaim that hope to them.

But responsibly: taking care to anticipate the power of our words, and recognizing that what we say is not always what our brothers and sisters will hear.

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