How to Preach

Jim Bowman

You stand up there and preach your heart out for a few years. The father likes it enough on one occasion to say so. The unknown woman has nightmares because you the visiting priest talked too much about black people moving into her neighborhood, or so the curate said later. You give a one-for-all, all-for-one pep talk to 1,000 high school boys in a historic church. You knock 'em dead in a school chapel with your favorite Malcolm X story – about his deciding blue-eyed devils weren't devils, and that's why he was killed – and the asst. principal goes bonkers. Ah yes, you were quite the spellbinder. It was a good life in the late 60s, was it not?

Not entirely.

That's my conclusion after 35 years on the other end of heartfelt preaching by young and old, some few of whom have sought to knock me dead with morning-newspaper items delivered with panache. The lady of our house wanted "relevance" once, in the early 70s. She got it but wasn't happy. I listened with open mind and ended not happy. Relevance cloyed. Overly specific stuff became something to squirm about. Great if I agreed with that man in the pulpit (or woman, we had a few of those), murder if I disagreed, having in some cases been wrestling with the issue for longer than the preacher had lived. The pulpit had its moments, to be sure, for my listeners and me. But I sadly fear I once was sometimes part of the problem.

So how to do it, this preaching, one of the few popular live speaking situations where there are no questions afterwards? First, the old business of not hearing what someone says because what he is sounds so loud you can't hear it is only half right. In the long haul, the bad-guy preacher becomes hard to take, but how many of them are there? Meanwhile, the one who knows how to preach, bad guy or not, is surprisingly easy to take. Teresa of Avila, that great woman, preferred a sinful wise counselor to a saintly dumb one. Wise of her to do so.

Preaching is an art. The fool hath looked in his heart and spoken, without benefit of practice. The guy or gal who gets up there and bares his soul gets A for sincerity (usually) but maybe F for effectiveness, except with listeners who dote (absolutely) on soul-baring. Rev. Willard Jabusch of Chicago, until recently campus chaplain at U. of Chicago and for many years before that teacher of homiletics at St. Mary of the Lake (Mundelein) Seminary, bemoans in the latest Commonweal the lack of literary foundation or upbringing of today's preachers. Such a good point.

Does Father or Mother Preacher (Episcopals have "Mothers") know words and plots and arguments as waged and woven and declaimed by great English men and women over the years, or Greek and Roman ones over the ages? My God, why should we get up in arms over incoherent, pedestrian commentary? If the preacher has not Latin, we can live with that. Shakespeare had little enough. But English? What if he has no more English than the guy you belly up to the bar next to who also has his ideas about war, peace, wealth, poverty, and the state of baseball in the American League?

Not that flash makes spiritual cash. No indeed. Clarity will do nicely. I've heard it from one of the least likely places the readers of this web site can imagine, namely my neighborhood Latin Mass church, courtesy of the Society of St. Pius X, which comes courtesy of the no less unlikely schismatic Archbishop Lefebvre, with his distinctly outré notions of Vatican II, which most of us consider the cat's meow of ecclesiastical rule books. (He acted just like a Frenchman, some might say, which in the present geopolitical context may sound like dirty pool or utterly irrelevant or, trust me, outré.)

In Our Lady Immaculate ROMAN Catholic church, kitty corner from the once Nathaniel Hawthorne junior high school, now Gwendolyn Brooks middle school, I have heard good sermons of two types:

* The one that states its point clearly and distinctly and drives it home with dreadful precision and relentless abandon. The speaker is organized and definite. He assumes the listeners want to hear this and he wastes no time getting to his point, which he repeats time and again. The fascination here is in the conviction and clarity of the speaker.

* The one that instructs and instructs, assuming nothing but tightly expressing what's behind this or that, without too many qualifications but with perhaps an anecdote or two. The fascination here too is in the conviction and clarity of the speaker.

These Pius X Society preachers are shocking, not in what they say so much as the conviction with which they say it. There's a lesson here.

OK. Enough generality. How might a pretty good sermon go these days? Take Sunday before last, 4th of Lent, A Cycle, used in masses where RCIA (baptism) candidates go through one of their scrutinies. It's a good idea. It's nice to see the candidates looking so proud to be Catholics in a few weeks.

The day's proper service (vs. common, meaning it happens most Sundays, not that it's no-'count or in any way to be dismissed) begins with Isaiah 66 telling us, "Rejoice, Jerusalem . . . you will find contentment at her consoling breasts." Begin sermonizing here, or you pass over in silence something that, though odd and maybe embarrassing to those who have not nursed babies or watched wives nurse them, must be taken seriously.

We are a religion of the book. Rejoice, ye preachers, you have something here to run with. Use your imagination. Consider (first in private, then in public) what sublime contentment must be involved in consoling breasts. Tell them of the time the theatergoer turned as the show ended and revealed her astonishment that the infant had been there behind her the whole movie. Not a peep had come forth, and babies specialize in peeps and more. If you haven't been there and done that, tell it second hand. Be amazed as you tell it.

On to the first reading, First Samuel 16, where God nixes seven sons of Jesse as the lord's anointed, surprising Samuel, who thought Eliab, the oldest, was a shoo-in, being good-looking and of "lofty stature." Re-think your position, God told Samuel. "Man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart." Uh-oh. Into the heart? We are open books to the Lord? That's scary. Maybe we can try a look into our own hearts, cutting the usual nonsense, especially the part where we worry about how we look. How and what we are is what counts, we might consider. You don't have to be a Judaeo-Christian to buy that, but it helps. At least if you take the Good Book seriously, which is the main reason (it is, isn't it?) we are here today.

Hmmm.

On to the next reading, of Paul, that Ongoing Embarrassment to modern and postmodern man (& woman), ever with the gauche comment. Ephesians 5 is it for today. He is meditating on Light vs. Dark, which seems a waste of time at first blush. I mean, what's to say? Light is light and dark is dark, and the twain meet twice a day, at sundown and sunset. No. There's more. "Light produces every kind of goodness and justice and truth." This seems excessively hard on darkness as we know it. More: we are to "take no part in vain deeds done in darkness; rather, condemn them." But we don't condemn things these days; hell, we barely deplore them. Such language makes us uncomfortable. We want too badly not to appear gauche in the view of our fellows in the market place.

But when you condemn these things, these acts of darkness, which he says are "shameful even to mention," you do well, because then "they are seen in the light of day," which is important. They are exposed as shameful. And then all you have is light, which is ipso facto good. But by now Paul has gotten murky: "All that then appears is light," he says. Oh?

Far more accessible, indeed fascinating, is the third reading, the John 9 account of the man born blind, cured by Jesus with a dash of mud near the Pool of Siloam, or Siloe. It's a give-and-take story with lively characters, especially the man and his parents, who mix it with the Pharisees, who smelled a rat in Jesus and tried to trip him up. They are spirited people, and crafty too, being careful not to give the Pharisees, also called simply "the Jews," anything to pin on them.

But the great moment in this story full of near-great moments is Jesus' contesting the notion of parental responsibility for what had befallen their son. It's a point we scientifically trained or science-conditioned readers take for granted, chalking it up to a sort of anachronistic shoot-down of superstitious belief. That it is, and I for one am delighted Jesus chose to do it (shoot the belief down). But as the father of six, I am doubly if not sextuply delighted at his talking that way: "It was no sin, either of this man or of his parents [that he was born blind]. Rather, it was to let God's works show forth in him." Now that's religion!

Narrowly construed, the blindness is a tragedy. But in the big picture, it's a way for "God's works" to shine. Oh please, give me that big-picture religion, because without it I am lost. It's like Paul considering us Christians of all men the most miserable if Jesus be not risen. This little light of mine can shine all God lets it to. But if I can be relieved just a little from the burden of responsibility for my kids, even for six perfect ones like my wife's and mine, how much lighter is my step, how consoled I am. Like that baby at the breast. I thank God for that.

Amen.

Jim Bowman is a former Jesuit from the Chicago Province and a long time religion editor for the Chicago Daily News. He is now the editor of Blithe Spirit, a lively webzine which you may visit at http://www.Blithe-Spirit.com.