Monday, May 28, 2012

Rome has a long way to go... perhaps we Lutherans have a way to go also...

How important is the homily [sermon]?  Funny how high this rates in the minds of the hearers and how easy it is for us in the pulpit to diminish the power of preaching.  Here are the words of a former Baptist preacher who became Roman Catholic laity. His words resonate well for us Lutherans, too.  Consider the following:
1. The Sacred Scriptures emphasize the central importance of preaching to the overall ministry of Church.  In an apostolic exhortation from St. Paul to St. Timothy, the Apostle to the Gentiles writes:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge...(2 Timothy 4:2a)

Let’s stop there for a moment.  St. Paul really piles the words on top of one another, doesn’t he?  “In the presence of God … and of Christ Jesus … who will judge the living and the dead."  Rhetorically, he’s building up to something.  What he’s about to say is important.  So, what is it?
Preach the word.

This is what he writes:
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage —with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Timothy 4:2b-5).

Preaching is important—vitally important.  According to this passage, good preaching helps prevent apostasy.  It is central to faithful ministry and evangelization.

There are many other passages in Sacred Scripture that testify to the importance of preaching.  These include, but are not limited to: Mark 16:15; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 21, 23; 14:1-20; 1 Timothy 4:13; Titus 1:3; Acts 9:20.

2. Bad preaching is a main cause of spiritual dullness and leads people away from the Church.  In a recent article in the National Catholic Register, Fr. Robert Barron identified bad preaching as a main reason that people leave the Catholic Church:
A second major concern that can and should be addressed is that of bad preaching. Again and again, people said that they left the Church because homilies were “boring, irrelevant, poorly prepared” or “delivered in an impenetrable accent.” Again, speaking as someone who is called upon to give sermons all the time, I realize how terribly difficult it is to preach, how it involves skill in public speaking, attention to the culture, expertise in biblical interpretation and sensitivity to the needs and interests of an incredibly diverse audience. That said, homilists can make a great leap forward by being attentive to one fact: Sermons become boring in the measure that they don’t propose something like answers to real questions.

All of the biblical exegesis and oratorical skill in the world will be met with a massive “So what?” if the preacher has not endeavored to correlate the “answers” he provides with the “questions” that beguile the hearts of the people to whom he speaks.  Practically every Gospel involves an encounter between Jesus and a person — Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, etc. — who is questioning, wondering, suffering or seeking. An interesting homily identifies that longing and demonstrates, concretely, how Jesus fulfills it. When the homily both reminds people how thirsty they are and provides water to quench the thirst, people will listen.

As a former Protestant who has benefitted from a lifetime of listening to solid, compelling, passionate sermons, I know first-hand what a blessing it is.  I can't imagine what it would be like to listen to week after week of homiletical drudgery.  So, I can understand why Catholic people who are hungry to hear good preaching are tempted to leave the Church.  But of course, as a convert, I now realize that means leaving behind the fullness of the faith and the real presence of Christ.  What a tragedy!

But imagine another scenario:  imagine a Mass where a hungry soul not only received the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus, but was also educated and motivated by a Scripturally-sound, profoundly relevant, Christ-exalting homily.  What an experience that would be!  The Church would be transformed—and would go forth to transform the world.

3.  Pope Benedict XVI has called for a revitalization of Catholic preaching—and has linked its importance to the Eucharist itself.  In his post-Synod Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, he writes:
…[Given] the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved … The homily is a means of bringing the scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful to realize that God’s word is present and at work in their everyday lives. It should lead to an understanding of the mystery being celebrated, serve as a summons to mission, and prepare the assembly for the profession of faith, the universal prayer and the Eucharistic liturgy. Consequently, those who have been charged with preaching by virtue of a specific ministry ought to take this task to heart … The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the centre of every homily. For this reason preachers need to be in close and constant contact with the sacred text; they should prepare for the homily by meditation and prayer, so as to preach with conviction and passion. [59]

Pope Benedict XVI goes on to state something quite extraordinary about the nature of the Word of God, preaching, and the homily:
[Scripture] itself points us towards an appreciation of its own unbreakable bond with the Eucharist…Word and Eucharist are so deeply bound together that we cannot understand one without the other: the word of God sacramentally takes flesh in the event of the Eucharist. The Eucharist opens us to an understanding of Scripture, just as Scripture for its part illumines and explains the mystery of the Eucharist …. For this reason “the Church has honored the word of God and the Eucharistic mystery with the same reverence, although not with the same worship, and has always and everywhere insisted upon and sanctioned such honor" [54-55].


Anonymous said...

The exhortation to faithfulness in preaching has been around since the beginning, and absolutely needs to be recalled and rehearsed daily by those entrusted with rightly handling the Word of truth. Now, how about a blog about the responsibilty of the hearer? My experience has shown me that, if I am open to it, I can glean something even from the poorest of homilies.

Anonymous said...

A poor homily makes the work of the
Holy Spirit more difficult.
A poor homily means the pastor did
not work hard in his preparation.

Sermons are more about content than
delivery. If there is Biblical
content with law/gospel application,
then the Holy Spirit has something
to work with to penetrate the heart
of the hearer.