Re-imagining Preaching

This is a bit long, and not exactly lined up with the prompt. But before imagining the Church, I needed to remember experiences of preaching that will help me make sense of my journey and place in the Church…

At the Jesuit School of Theology, I found much life through a friendship with someone who encouraged me to be brave and unintentionally led me to preach. This friend relied on me physically because of a neurological disability and I relied on her listening heart and the way she bravely and hopefully approaches the world around her. She wanted to co-preside a lay liturgy with me, and I accepted to be the preacher. I felt the spirit of God working in the preparation process, enlivening my thoughts, pointing me to the right resources and life experiences to both sharpen my own spirituality/beliefs and create a homily that would stir a small group gathered at the J.S.T. chapel. I felt a humm of light move through my speaking and through the community that surrounded us. An enlightening experience of what preaching could feel like, offering life and good challenge and inspiration.

My copresider also encouraged me to apply for a trip to Jerusalem, despite my own fears and hesitations, and in so doing instigated my second preaching experience.  I was invited to preach at the tomb of Jesus. In the end, I had about 10 minutes of carefully crafted material, but I learned just two days before I would preach that I had to cut this to about one minute of material because our time was very limited in the tomb. Disappointed, but determined, I re-crafted, spending most of my free time re-writing. The day came and before dawn, a crescent moon overhead, the group departed for the tomb. I was left behind. My professor figured I must have gone ahead and led the group on, when in reality I had gone to the chapel at our residence to pray and got lost trying to find my way to the groups’ meeting spot. I missed their departure as I sleepily/excitedly/stressfully roamed the halls trying to find the entrance. Who did I come across, but my newfound friend from Uganda! A special companion for me on the trip, who thank God was also running late. We found our way to the entrance, ran out of our hostel and weaved through the blackened, cobblestoned streets of Jerusalem to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We arrived at the site of the tomb, and found our group to soon realize there was a scheduling snafu. Instead of having mass in the enclosed tomb, we would have liturgy in an open space, at the crucifixion altar. Being a lay woman, I could not preach in such a public setting. Disappointed and confused, I moved forward with composure. Until the first reading came to life. 

Hannah is in the temple and she cries out to God (the Holy Spirit couldn’t have planned the daily reading better, 1 Samuel 1: 1-17). Her weeping matches mine as I stand next to the rock of crucifixion. It turns into sobbing, the kind where you can’t control your breath. It was as if the bubble of myself that was filled with continued compromise and frustration and self-doubt and passion and love was pricked with a pin and all of this feeling came out in a steady, wheezing sob. (It was also the birthday of a former love of mine who did not believe in feminism but brought me deep joy, and I continued to grieve the loss of this complicated relationship that matched a complicated relationship with myself. Amidst my sobs was this grief, and a voice that said that my cancelled preaching is what God wanted. That this ego-driven desire to preach needed to be humbled. This voice shamed me for pouring so much energy into preparation of something that I was not supposed to be doing.) My tears were a bitter mix of light and dark. 

 After the liturgy, my professor invited me to give my reflection to our group outside. Sitting on stone steps, under the moonlight, I looked out at this compassionate group of 12, who looked up at me, holding me in a knowing and loving gaze. I shared my weepy words, of which I remember saying that “Hannah carved a space for herself in the temple. She communicated that her tears belonged in the temple. She deemed them sacred.” She placed her body, her uncontrollable sobbing, her desire for motherhood, her history of torment and taunting by her own family… she placed all of this that lived in her tears in the temple of God before the high priest. He would not understand at first. He would assume and accuse. But ultimately, her cry would move Eli, change his heart and he would pray “may the God of Israel give you what you have asked of him.” Not a vague “Lord hear her prayer” but a blessing that her specific desires be granted!

So I pray now:  Spirit of Light, you know my sacred longings. Shine a light on the dark spirit, who plays on my longings and whose lies I am coming to identify more clearly. May I continue to pour my heart out to God in the temple, trust my sacred desires and have courage to give voice to longings in my Church, in our Church.

8 thoughts on “Re-imagining Preaching

  1. Catherine, thank you for your honest and evocative sharing.

    You wrote of a shaming voice within you which said that your desire to preach was ego-driven. Do you have a sense of where that voice comes from, and when/where specifically it was born in you? What happens when you bring that voice in conversation with the Spirit of Light?

    As you return to Hannah’s story, and the consolation of being able to preach on her holy tears, what does Hannah’s example invite from within you at this moment of transition and discernment? Are you drawn at all to ask Hannah to be an intercessor for you?
    In your closing prayer, you offer your “sacred longings” – what do those longings feel like, look like, and how are they shaped within you?

    1. Thanks Rhonda for this guidance. Praying with Hannah as intercessor, continuing to discern my sacred longings, past and present.

  2. PREACH! I have been typing that encouragement in the chat on zoom / you tube virtual gatherings to affirm the speaker when their message resonates. It was the first response that came to me, Catherine, when reading your powerful witness.

    I was struck that you mentioned voice – in hearing (shame and discounting) and in expressing (longings courageously)

  3. Thank you for sharing this incredibly powerful post Catherine. It reminds me to seek the wisdom, words, and experiences of our ancestors. What stood out to me in your post was, “My tears were a bitter mix of light and dark.” When you wrote your post and reflect on it now do you feel that same mix, or do you find yourself more in the light or dark?

    1. Thanks for your response E).J. This question was very helpful to pray with. My context has changed since this time. I feel God wanting me to move forward from grief and some of the questions that arose in the moment that I toiled over, but to remember this experience as holy and merciful.

  4. Hi Cath,

    It was such a gift to walk with you at JST and I would like to offer the word emergence to you. I witnessed you growing more fully into the person God has created you to be, and I see you wrestling with that here. As others have noted, there are a few images of light that rise up in this post. I wonder what it would be liek to re-imagine the paradigm of preaching, to really understand and surrender to the fact that perhaps our lives are sermons; perhaps the ways you are on fire with the Word of God in your teaching, in your everyday actions, are already forms of preaching. I do not offer this as a dismissal that your experiences of explicit “preaching” are not valid (because holy wow, you preaching on those steps was a gift to me that morning!) but, wondering where God’s invitation si in all of this. How do you see yourself these days preaching — these days of pandemic, of isolation, of different ways of being a teacher?

    Peace, friend.

    1. Yes, I appreciate this perspective. I am filled with life in the ways God has brought me into preaching with my life and teaching in the context of my teaching and ministering to young people. Thanks for the framework.

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