Preaching can be a funny thing. In my homiletics class (yup, we have a class for giving homilies), we learn the proper techniques of public speaking. We learn about proper eye-contact, about projecting our voice, about sticking to one point and keeping it under seven minutes. Then we get to watch ourselves over and over again on video and critique ourselves. But in the end, these are all just tools to get us ready. The real most important part of preaching is praying our way through Scripture and every day life, and pulling them together. Its about making what was real, so very real, to the people who wrote the Bible, even more real, so very real, in our own lives.
That’s a lot to ask in seven minutes or less.
Just last week I had a fun eye-opening moment to what a homily could be. And the point is that seven minutes or less simply is not enough. At my Field Education assignment, where I get to go teach at a high school every Friday, I was helping to lead a prayer service for the first four periods of the day. By the end of it, I had read the Lazarus story and preached on it four times in two hours. Just how deep that story is, how much it can change our lives just by reading it out loud and hearing the anguish in Martha and Mary’s voices, the power in Christ’s command, and the surprise of the people as the dead man comes walking out of the tomb; honestly it was a little tiring.
About half way into my third time through the same preaching, one of the girls I could tell wanted to ask a question. Funnily enough they don’t really teach us how to take random questions in the middle of our homilies, so I just kept going. When I finished, she kind of sheepishly asked if it was ok to ask a question. I thought it was adorable: her curiosity was coming face to face with my preparation (or lack thereof!) and my willfulness to just get through the preaching yet again.
It also made perfect sense. It’s not like I’ll ever be able to say everything I want to say. And to think I could ever preach to the point where no one had any questions is ridiculous. Finally, someone was willing to ask a question. And it made the whole prayer service so much more real. So much more than me preaching at them, and much more our getting to explore God together.
What if homilies at Mass were more like that? What if we felt less like we were being talked at, and more like we were in this together? Now, I’m not necessarily saying our priests need to change the way they’re preaching, or that they’re just “talking at us,” but I think we all need to change the way we’re listening. I also don’t want to put our priests on the spot, during Mass or after, but what if we listened, realized we still had questions, and then asked our priests more about it afterward?
I can’t speak for all the preachers out there, but that’s kind of an exciting prospect for me. So next time you catch me talking at you for any reason, don’t be afraid to stop me and ask me what I mean. It’s not like any of us are called to simply talk at others about God for our own benefit. I think any homily, any kind of preaching, has got to be the beginning of a conversation. I know I don’t have all the answers, and I know no homily I can give will pretend to answer even most of them. But if we have more questions after a homily, maybe that means we were listening just right.
Don’t dare stop asking questions. And we’ll keep looking for the answers together.