Preaching the "Word Made Flesh"
Advent 2015

The Sunday Homily: Just exactly what are we doing here?
Fall 2015

"Three words" on preaching from Pope Francis
Advent 2013

Emerson’s portrait of the preacher: "Life passed through the fire of thought"
From Church, Summer 2007

Preaching the Mary of Scripture
Lent/Easter 2005

The Homilist as Storyteller
From Ministry & Liturgy, March 2003

To Preach as Jesus Preached: A Model for Homilists
From Liturgy 90, May/June 1997

Preaching the “Word Made flesh”
by Jay Cormier

The word that has come to explain the wonder of this Advent season, incarnation, comes from the Latin word meaning “to be made flesh.”  We celebrate God becoming “enfleshed”:  the Eternal One touches human history in the person of Jesus and enables humanity of every time and place to touch him, to know him, to encounter him in the reality of the human experience.  The fourth-century bishop and theologian Athanasius put this profound mystery so succinctly: God became like us so that we might become like him.

Emmanuel: “God with us.”  The “mystery” of the Incarnation: the Word of God becomes human, “enfleshed” in all our human messiness and brokenness.
As a new liturgical year begins this Advent, those of us who have been entrusted with the ministry of preaching might stop and ask ourselves if our words each week are “incarnational.”  Do our homilies reveal “God with us”?  The Incarnation that began so humbly at Bethlehem did not end at the empty tomb: the Word of God continues to make its dwelling place in our midst, or, to translate the prologue to John’s Gospel literally, to “pitch his tent” among our abodes and dwelling places.

So where do we see God’s tent among ours?  How does God make himself known in our “flesh”?

That’s the challenge of what we do each Sunday.  We sometimes tend to speak in the theological jargon of Scripture, catechism and dogma. We have been articulating such formulae for so long we presume the congregation understands them as we do and shares our appreciation of the truths behind them — but often our communities are left asking the very legitimate question, What does this have to do with my life?

Incarnational preaching answers that question.  Our call as homilists is to “enflesh” the love of God in our midst, to make the Gospel more than just a concept or theory or series of disjointed facts from a time long ago.  The homily should reveal the Word of God as a living reality in our time and place; our preaching should point to God’s love present in the ordinary busyness of our everyday lives.

Jesus revealed the Kingdom of God in the everyday experiences of raising children, of dealing with unemployment and loss, of gathering the harvest.  What stories can you tell in which we see the love of God in the human experience, what images can you share that help us recognize “God’s tent” next to ours?

Love is not a concept; compassion is not an abstraction.  Our parishes are filled with stories of generosity and hope that are heroic, courageous — and holy.  God is made “flesh” in those stories.  Learn them — and tell them.

As you begin a new journey through the Gospel in the liturgical year 2016, consider how your preaching might be more “incarnational”: how you might preach the Word in homilies that

I just had the opportunity to watch again with my students the beautiful 2010 film Of Gods and Men, the story of the Trappist monks of Our Lady of the Atlas in Algeria who refused to abandon their monastery and the people who had come to depend on them.  Seven of the nine monks were slain by terrorists in 1996.  At the height of the danger, Brother Christian, the prior, told his brothers that their continued presence among their Islamic villagers was a ministry of “incarnation.”  In resisting the violence by their continuing their life of prayer and work, “each of us discovered that to which Jesus beckons us.  It’s to be born.  Our identities as men go from one birth to another.  And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are.  The incarnation . . . is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity.”  

In this new liturgical year, may we “give birth” to God’s Christ in our preaching each Sunday; may we give real flesh to the Word that pitches his tent among ours.

Return to top

The Sunday Homily: Just exactly what are we doing here?
by Jay Cormier

I was preaching one weekend this summer at the parish where I serve as deacon.  The Gospel reading was John’s account of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude.  After Mass, two parishioners made comments that made me aware again of why we do what we do — or should do — in those seven-to-eight minutes each Sunday after the Gospel reading.

In the homily, I talked about how we can bring the Eucharist into our everyday lives by doing ourselves the four “verbs” of Jesus’: take / bless / break / give.  As I was “working the curb” after Mass, a woman came up to me and thanked me for what I had said.  “You really did your job this morning,” she said quietly.  “You made me feel bad about my life and the times I haven’t done what I should.”

I cringed.

“Thank you,” I said, as reassuringly as I could.  “But making you feel badly is not my job in the sermon.  My job is to help you see how God is part of your everyday life, how we can live the Gospel of Jesus within our families, in our workplaces and communities.”  We talked a little bit (as much catechesis as can be done in the parking lot) and she parted (I think) with a more positive perspective.

But her comment caught me off guard.  Exactly what is our job on Sunday mornings?  It’s certainly NOT to make our folks “feel bad.”  The homily is neither a weekly dose of sour-tasting-but-necessary medicine to correct what ails ‘ye nor is it the latest policy directive from Church Central on whatever is in the zeitgeist this week. 

The homily should be about helping the community realize our common call to discipleship in the everyday experience of our lives as parents, spouses, siblings, professionals, workers, friends, citizens.  Christ certainly calls us to challenge our communities; we are to preach the reality of the cross.  But we’re also sent forth by Jesus to preach hope, to open eyes and hearts to behold the love of God in our midst and realize the Kingdom of God in our homes and communities.

So why do you preach on Sundays?  Exactly what are you trying to accomplish in those precious minutes entrusted to you?  Something to pray about every so often . . .

A second parishioner, one of our regulars, greeted me after Mass.  She was, as always, kind and complimentary about the day’s homiletic effort (happily, I don’t make everybody feel awful about themselves when I preach).  She said that earlier in the week, she experienced a powerful reminder of something I said during a homily during the parish retreat I led this past Lent. 

“I was slicing a banana and what you said about the Eucharist all came back to me!”

I smiled and thanked her and said something encouraging — but I had no idea what she was talking about.

A banana?

I went back to my notes from the retreat and found it.  I had told a story about a poor little girl in India who found a discarded banana peel and how, with great care, removed the few pieces of fruit clinging to the peel and fed them to her little brother before eating herself.  I related how they laughed with joy at their good fortune to find this bit of sweet food and how it was “Eucharistic” in the spirit of Jesus.  (The story appeared in the 2003 Lenten issue for Holy Thursday; it is also included in our special Connections issue on the Sacrament of Initiation).

The parishioner’s remembering the banana underscored for me the power of story and image in preaching.  While we struggle to get the theology and exegesis exactly right in our homilies (and I’m not diminishing the importance of that), what will be remembered, what will make an impact on the hearts and souls of the community is what they see in the homily.  Our challenge is to show folks God’s grace in their midst, the love of God among them, how they are following Jesus in the good they are already doing and the possibilities to do even greater things.

And it starts with a few well-chosen and articulated “bananas” in our preaching.

Return to top

"Three words" on preaching from Pope Francis
by Jay Cormier

By now you’ve read the headlines regarding Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel): his call for a Church that “is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets” caring for the poor and the lost and his sharp criticism of the “dictatorship” of economic systems that perpetuate poverty and injustice.

The text is certainly marked by the blunt, “unpapal-like” word choices the pope has become known for: he repeats his concern that Church is becoming a “museum piece” of self-reverent piety; he admonishes bishops and pastors who have become pessimistic “sourpusses” (yes, he uses that word — article 85).  But the overall text mirrors the Holy Father’s optimism and hope.

Since preaching and proclamation are our focus here, we took note of Pope Francis’ rather lengthy reflection on the homily (articles 135-159).  As we have come to expect from Francis, the section is conversational in tone and practical in content.  Pope Francis has been there: he knows the pitfalls of facing a congregation from the pulpit and the challenge of trying to come up with something new and meaningful every Sunday.  Both the preacher and the listener, the pope laments, “suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them.” And, in one of my favorite passages, he warns against wasting time “responding to questions that nobody asks.”

As we’ve heard many times in this first year of his papacy, Francis often constructs his homily around “three words”: he will take three single words or phrases from the Gospel text and relate them to the everyday lives of his hearers.  So, taking our cue from Francis’ style, we highlight “three words” from his reflections on the homily in Evangelii Gaudium:

Conversation.  The homily is “a dialogue between the Lord and his people,” Francis writes, a conversation similar to that between a mother and her child: “the child trusts that what she is teaching is for his or her benefit, for children know they are loved.  Moreover, a good mother can recognize everything that God is bringing about in her children, she listens to their concerns and learns from them.”

The homily, the pope advises, “should be brief and avoid taking on the semblance of a speech or a lecture.”  A homily that is “purely moralistic or doctrinaire, or one which turns into a lecture or biblical exegesis, detracts from the heart-to-heart communication” which should take place.  In a homily that goes on too long, Francis warns, the preacher’s “words become more important than the celebration of faith.” 

Such a conversation can only take place when the homilist “keep[s] his ear to the people.”  The homilist “needs to be able to link the message of the biblical text to a human situation, to an
experience which cries out for the light of God’s word.”  The conversation Francis envisions evokes images of the human experiences of disappointment, suffering and uncertainty and God’s love transforming those everyday experiences into compassion and reconciliation.
Preparation.  The homily is an act of love that is central to the ministry of the ordained.  Such love, Pope Francis points out, demands that homilist prepares.  “We only devote periods of quiet time to the things or people whom we love; and here we are speaking of the God whom we love, a God who wishes to speak to us.”

While Pope Francis readily acknowledges that the day-to-day demands on pastors often drops homily preparation to the bottom of the weekly “to do” list, “I presume to ask that each week a sufficient portion of personal and community time be dedicated to this task . . . A preacher who does not prepare is not ‘spiritual’; he is dishonest and irresponsible with the gifts he has received.” 

Preparation begins with coming to understand the text — and that means discovering its principal message.  Forget trying to understand every little detail of the text, advises Francis — and don’t manipulate the words to make a point or force it to fit a pre-determined theme.  The central message of a Scripture text “is what the author primarily wanted to communicate; this calls for recognizing not only the author’s ideas but the effect which he wanted to produce . . . If a text was written to console, it should not be used to correct errors; if it was written as an exhortation, it should not be used to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions . . . ”

Preparing the homily includes finding words that are clear and simple, organizing ideas in a logical progression and (please note) not trying “to deal with too many things at one time.” 

Joy.  Pope Francis urges the same tone of mercy and joy in preaching that he has been teaching since the day he was elected.  Embracing such joy begins in our praying of the Word we preach.  “What is essential,” Francis believes, is that the preacher understands “that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love always has the last word.”

The homily must, therefore, be positive.  “It is not so much concerned with pointing out what shouldn’t be done, but with suggesting what we can do better . . . Positive preaching always offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity.”

Spend some serious time with these 25 articles from Evangelii Gaudium.  Consider how your process of developing and delivering your homily measures up to Pope Francis’ vision of the ministry of preaching.  Use them as the basis of discussion and study with fellow preachers.

One more suggestion:  Many parishes have been using the book Rebuilt as a basis for their pastoral planning this year, as a tool for evaluating the effectiveness of their ministry.  Parishes should consider using Evangelii Gaudium in the same way, using Pope Francis’ reflections as a blueprint for setting goals for your parish’s ministries and sharpening the tone — especially the joy — of such work as an extension of Christ’s presence in our midst.

Return to top

Emerson’s portrait of the preacher: ‘Life passed through the fire of thought’
by Jay Cormier

In July 1838, the faculty of the Divinity College at Harvard invited an alumnus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, to address the seminarians.  The speech was not well received.  Emerson had left the ministry a few years before: the death of his young wife drove him to question both his beliefs and profession.  Emerson’s Divinity College address challenged what he saw as a lifeless Christian tradition and humanity’s inability to encounter God in the hearts of every man and woman.  The Harvard address was a watershed in the Transcendental movement.

Emerson’s controversial address that evening including this portrait: 

I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say
I would go to church no more . . .
A snowstorm was falling around us.
The snowstorm was real, the preacher merely spectral,
and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him,
and then out of the window behind him
into the beautiful meteor of the snow.
He had lived in vain.
He had no one word intimating
that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love,                    
had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined.
If he had ever lived or acted, we were none the wiser for it.
The capital secret of is profession, namely, to convert life into truth,
he had not learned.
Not one fact in his experience had he yet imported into his doctrine.
This man had ploughed and planted and talked and bought and sold;
he had read books; he had eaten and drunken;
his head aches, his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers;
and yet there was not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse
that he had lived at all.
Not a line did he draw out of real history.
The true preacher can be known by this,
that he deals out to people his life –
life passed through the fire of thought.
[emphasis mine]

Life passed through the fire of thought – an insightful definition of the preaching ministry not only for a nineteenth-century New England village pastor but for those who preach to twenty-first century parish communities, as well.  Emerson’s portrait of the preacher he encountered on that wintry Sunday places a mirror before our own enfleshing of the Word each weekend:

Good preaching is about life – life in all its messiness and ugliness, life in all its struggles and confusions, life in all its failures and disappointments.  The preacher is not just a detached observer of life, but a full participant in all it joys and sorrows.  It is life that the preacher shares with every member of the congregation.

The Sunday sermon/homily has to be grounded in the Monday-through-Saturday life of the community.  It must point to the presence of God in the midst of our “ploughing” and planting, our laughing and crying, our “head aches” and “heart throbs.”  As Christ reveals to us a God who is the loving Father of his children, the preacher is called to reveal that same God who comforts, consoles, illuminates, and animates our lives.

The Sunday word should also be spoken in the language of life.  Just as Jesus preached in parables about lost sheep, wayward children, and germinating seeds, contemporary preachers are most effective in telling stories of the holy and sacred in their communities – stories about juggling school and sports schedules, making one’s way through life’s moral quagmires, working through ethical conundrums that were unimaginable just a generation ago. 

The “secret” of effective preaching, Emerson believed, is in revealing the truth of God’s compassion and forgiveness in the generosity, kindness, and commitment of the saints who live in our midst.  The word we proclaim cannot stand apart and aloof from the landscape but be grounded in very midst of it. 

“Fire” evokes power, energy and purification.  In Christian imagery, fire is the symbol of the Spirit of God animating and illuminating the community of the baptized.

We are a church that has been purified and perfected in the Pentecost “fire” of the Spirit of God – the “ruah” of God’s love, justice and forgiveness.  The fire of that Spirit illuminates the road we travel to God’s dwelling place, melts away the coldness of sin that isolates us from God and from one another, and empowers to realize our baptismal call to become prophets of God and disciples of His Christ.

That is the fire that Emerson speaks of, the fire of the Gospel of Jesus:  the limitless and unconditional love of God that continues to create and re-create in our own time and place.  God’s love can be a vehicle for transformation, a balm for healing, an agent for gathering together a desperate.  It is the call of the preacher to help his/her community realize such possibilities in their own time and place.

Emerson laments that the preacher on that snowy Sunday speaks from a series of ethical and moral principles that remain vague and remote; the poor man seems intent on keeping the Gospel at arms-length from life, including the preacher’s own.

Preaching that is of God must come out of a preacher’s own journey, a preacher’s own searching for God, a preacher’s coping with his/her own doubts and disappointments.  Preaching must begin in the wilderness of the heart, with Christ as one’s desert companion.  Make no mistake:  it is a difficult journey.  It requires us to let go of the “beliefs” and values we find most comforting and dare to walk where God’s love seems hidden and alien.  It compels us to refocus our vision of God from the “likeness” we have created of God to the “image” in which God created us.  It forces us to free God from the limits we have set for God, to allow God to rise up out of the tombs in which we have buried him, and realize that God’s grace and love are far greater in breadth and scope than we imagine.

Such “thought” begins in the prayer of what Father Walter Burghardt calls “mulling” over the Gospel.  Emerson’s faithful preacher has his/her eyes open and senses attuned to the presence of God in and around the community the preacher is called to serve.

‘Life passed through the fire of thought.’

May Emerson’s vision of preaching be realized in our own village churches: the Word of God proclaimed in the midst of our snowstorms and not apart from them, the Word uncovered and lifted up in life in all its glorious messiness, the Word living in our midst in the smallest acts of compassion, justice and peace.

Return to top

Preaching the Mary of Scripture
by Jay Cormier

She lived in a backwater of a place. Her race, nationality and culture were scorned and often suppressed by the occupying forces of her homeland. As an adolescent, she found herself pregnant—were it not for her extremely understanding fiancé (who was not the child’s father), she could have been banished—or worse. When the time came for her to deliver, she and her husband found themselves miles from home: she gave birth to her baby in a cave, with her carpenter-husband offering what little help he could.

Like all young parents, she and her husband struggled to make a loving, nurturing home for her children. In the first years of her marriage, this young mother experienced homelessness; she and her husband were refugees, barely escaping the murderous wrath of an insane dictator; she would know the desperation and anxiety of searching for her lost child in a big city; she would stand by helplessly as her innocent son was executed for crimes concocted by jealous betrayers.

This was the Mary of the Gospels: a woman of incredible faith and loving perseverance, a woman with feet planted firmly on earth, a woman who lived the life of a mother, wife and kinswoman in all its struggles and challenges. Mary is neither the fairy-tale princess with cover-girl beauty as depicted in too many statues nor the passive "lovely lady dressed in blue." She is a real, flesh-and-blood woman who experienced life in its most difficult, traumatic and terrifying.

Sadly, however, preaching on Mary on her principal feasts often fails to rise above "Maiden Mother, Meek and Mild;" or the feast themselves get caught up more in the season (Advent expectation on December 8, left-over Christmas sentiment and New Year's resolutions on January 1, and summer indifference on August 15) rather than on how Mary's faith and humanity illuminates the mystery of God's love for his people.

What follows are some thoughts for preachers on the three major celebrations of Mary in the liturgical year and possible approaches for bringing this woman alive to us who know her better than we realize.

December 8: Mary the Disciple
From the earliest days of the Church, the Christian community has had a sense of Mary's "election" or call to the role of "Theotokos"—"bearer of God;" later centuries have expressed this belief that Mary was conceived "immaculately," without sin.

The gospel for December 8 (Luke 1: 26-38, also read on the Fourth Sunday of Advent in the "B" year of the lectionary cycle, as well as on the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25) recounts Mary's yes to God's will for her. The late Raymond Brown, in A Coming Christ in Advent: Essays on the Gospel Narratives Preparing for the Birth of Jesus, writes that Mary's hearing the news of the Messiah's coming and her ascent to Gabriel's news makes her, in fact, Jesus' "first disciple." Her faith and trust trump her confusion and fears of her pending—and unexpected—motherhood. Mary of Nazareth is, for all of us, a model of discipleship: The voice of God calls every one of us who would be a disciple of Jesus to make his presence real in our own time and place. Mary is the promise of what the Church is called to be constantly seeks to become: she is the hope and comfort of a pilgrim people walking the road of faith.

December 8, in the midst of Advent expectation, calls us to embrace the model of Mary the disciple. Among the themes the homilist might develop:

January 1: Mary, Mother and Sister
January 1, in its most recent liturgical designation in the Roman rite, is dedicated to Mary under her most ancient title of "Theotokos." The gospel (Luke 2: 16-21) for today begins with the arrival of the shepherds to the cave in Bethlehem to see this child they had heard about and concludes eight days later when the child is circumcised and given the name "Yeshua" or "Jesus"

—"The Lord saves." Like any loving parent, Luke writes, "Mary treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart."

Today's feast focuses on Mary, the mother, spouse, and sister. It is both the Mother's Day and Father's Day of the liturgical year, celebrating Mary's vocation as nurturing mother to the newborn infant, her loving covenant with Joseph as spouse, her relationship of support and comfort to family and friends as sister. As Christ "empties" himself to become human in order to sanctify humanity, Mary and Joseph, like any good and loving parents, "empty" themselves and place their child at the center of the lives. As the gospel story unfolds in the weeks ahead, we will see Mary, who cradles the sleeping God-child, stand by the cross of that child in his final moments and then cradle his broken body before its burial. Her motherhood will be filled with the anxiety, heartache and grief known by many mothers.

The homilist might reflect today on God's call to each one of us to be "bearers of God" in our roles as parents, spouses, kinfolk and friends.

In his book The Meaning of Life, theologian Harvey Cox of the Harvard University Divinity School remembers that "the most concentrated lesson I have ever learned came to me as I stoked my wife's sweaty hand and rubbed her back that August day during her arduous birthing of our son, Nicholas. That single afternoon in a tiled delivery room taught me more about why we are here than did years of lectures and seminars. The world is designed to teach us to love."

Such is the simple yet profound lesson of the Incarnation: God sends the Savior to us as a helpless infant, to teach us that love must be protected, nurtured and cared for like a child. Mary and Joseph are the gospel's first and best teachers of how to be a parent. Their own parenting of the Child entrusted to them by God and their own struggles to be a family for one another show us how to care for the Christ child who is continually born among us in all that is fragile and weak and longing to be reborn in God. The homilist might echo God's call to each one of us to be "bearers of God" in our roles as parents, spouses, kinfolk and friends.

August 15: Mary, the Daughter of God
In the Roman church, August 15 is the Assumption of Mary, the celebration of Mary's body as well as soul being "assumed" into heaven. In the Eastern church, it is called the Dormition or "falling asleep" of Mary. In many Christian churches (in the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, for example), August 15 is the feast of St. Mary the Virgin. Like any saint's feast day, August 15 celebrates the new life the faithful man or woman now embraces in the kingdom of God.

In other words, August 15 is Mary's "Easter."

The gospel for August 15 is Mary's Magnificat, her song of hope and joy in the Christ she will bear. Mary's song to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1: 46-55) is the first human proclamation of the gospel that is about to unfold. Mary declares what God has done and promises to do in the dawning of the Messiah. Mary, the "lowly servant" on whom God looks with favor, models the "good news" her Son will proclaim: a gospel of forgiveness, humble service to one another, justice and, ultimately, resurrection.

The Magnificat should shatter any simplistic underestimating of Mary. Her song is nothing less than a prophetic, cutting-edge declaration of a woman of faithful conviction in the living, creative presence of God. Her song celebrates God's saving work of the past and anticipates the saaving work of the child in her womb. With Mary, we are called to be disciples and witnesses of the Christ story before us: As Mary welcomes the Christ child into her life despite the complications, we are called to welcome the Christ of compassion and peace into our midst; as she journeys with her son to Jerusalem, we are called to journey with him and take up our crosses; as she cradles the broken body of her son, we are called to hold and support and heal one another in our brokenness and pain; as she realizes the promise of her son's resurrection at the end of her days, we will realize the Easter promise at the end of our lives.

When I told a priest-friend that I was writing an article on Marian preaching, he rolled us his eyes as if to say, Here we go again: The Blessed Virgin takes another hit from the anti-Mary forces.

On the contrary, we need to make Mary more approachable in our preaching by learning from and celebrating her very human experience as mother, spouse and sister. To confine Mary only to the Aves of the rosary and backyard statues is to do a great disservice to her memory and to deprive ourselves of a great model and teacher of faith.

As a young nephew of mine says about most preaching, with surprising theological insight, keep it real.

Return to top

The Homilist as Storyteller
by Jay Cormier

Eastman Kodak has developed a new digital camera that can be plugged directly into a computer and print out immediate pictures in full color, of any size.

Now, if you are a serious photographer or computer wizard, you immediately realize the possibilities of this device. But, to my wife and me, happy with our little "low tech" camera for snapshots and content to use the computer for word processing and record keeping, Kodak's latest product line meant little.

Until, one evening, we saw a 30-second television commercial for the camera. The spot contained neither technical data nor any loud claims about the wonders of the "Easy Share" camera. The commercial simply showed a single mother and her two sons making the difficult move into a new apartment. While Mom went to pick up supper, the boys immediately unpacked the camera and took all kinds of pictures of each other unpacking, laughing, and horsing around in the empty apartment. Next, they plugged the camera into their computer and printed out full-color copies of the pictures and then covered the refrigerator door with the photographs. Mom returned to find the instant gallery and realized that this empty apartment had become her family's home.

Even the most technologically challenged among us cannot help but be impressed. For me, it was not a matter of believing that the camera worked. It was a question of what this camera meant to me and my life. It was only after I saw the "story" of this family's using the camera and its "transformative" effect (we have to expect some commercial hyperbole, after all) that I understood the meaning and potential of this camera.

'Incarnational’ Stories
The impact of this Kodak commercial is instructive to those who mount the pulpits of our churches each Sunday. Preachers and homilists often speak in the theological jargon of Scripture, catechism and dogma. We have been articulating such formulae so long we presume the congregation shares our appreciation of the truth behind them; but, in fact, they are asking the very legitimate question, What does this mean to my life?

Oh, we all know the "facts" of our faith. The problem is that we often do not understand the meaning of those facts, we do not realize the importance of the facts, or we fail to connect the facts to our own life experience. An effective story—like the Kodak commercials, like Jesus' parables of lost coins, wayward children and compassionate travelers—makes those facts meaningful to us. 'Incarnational' stories

On the First Sunday of Lent, a preacher told three such stories in his sermon on the Gospel of Jesus' wilderness experience. The preacher began his sermon preparation by asking the questions his hearers would be asking: What does Jesus' encounter with the devil in the desert mean to us? What does this story say to us about our lives?

The following three "stories"—little more than images or "slices of life"—open up the meaning of Lent's invitation to the wilderness:

In a cost-cutting move, "corporate" eliminated his position. In his mid-40s, he realized that other companies would hardly be lining up to hire his services. He learned about a support group for professional, technical and managerial job seekers. He received valuable advice on revising his resume and polishing his rusty interviewing skills. The group helped him work through the shock, disbelief, resentment and anger experienced by anyone who loses a job; with the group's support, he was able to rebuild both his skills and self-esteem and focus on what he wanted to do next in his life. His "desert experience" between jobs was a time of discovery and growth from confusion to clarity, from resentment to humility, from a sense of failure to hope.

After 15 years of marriage, a sudden and unexpected illness took her husband's life. Theirs was a warm and loving marriage—each was the other's protector, confidant and best friend. The weeks after his death were a fog of grief and heartbreaking loneliness. Slowly, she started to work through the tangle of legal and financial details. With the help of family and friends, she began to put her life back together. These were difficult, painful days, but from this "desert sojourn" she moved on to the next chapter of her life.

For most high school seniors, applying to college is the first and biggest decision of their young lives. Pages of applications must be written and submitted, financial aid forms are researched and completed, SATs must be prepared for and taken, visits must be made to the various campuses. Then it becomes a time of waiting and wondering—waiting for the test results, waiting for the letter of acceptance, waiting for the financial aid availability. And wondering—Am I really ready for this? What do I want from the next four years? What do I want to do with my life after college? For every high school senior, the college application process is a "desert experience" from childhood to adulthood.

The preacher went on to explain that we experience many "desert experiences" throughout our lives—times of change, decision, transition, growth, discovery. The same Spirit that led Jesus into the desert to discern what God was calling him to make of his life now accompanies us in our desert experiences of grief, loss and despair; this Lent, the Spirit calls our souls into the desert in order to discern what God calls us to make of the time we have been given as we continue our journey to the Easter promise.

Through stories like these, theological and spiritual concepts that homilists take for granted become meaningful and real to their hearers. Such stories are incarnational—they "enflesh" God's love in our midst. In these stories, the presence of the holy in our lives is rediscovered and embraced. Jesus himself understood the effectiveness of such stories.

'The Story Factor'
But how do preachers become good storytellers? What does storytelling demand of the preacher in terms of preparing and delivering the Sunday sermon? How does the telling of a story communicate the profound theological truths the preacher is called to reveal? And how does a preacher who is not a natural actor or spellbinder speaker weave a story that will make such truths come alive?

A new book by professional communicator and storyteller Annette Simmons offers a helpful and realistic framework for using stories to teach and influence. While not written for preachers per se, Ms. Simmon's The Story Factor: Secrets of Influence from the Art of Storytelling (Perseus, 254 pages, $25), offers practical insights, examples and hints reveal an understanding of the preacher's ministry:

"People don't want information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell...Story is your path to creating faith. Telling a meaningful story means inspiring your listeners—coworkers, leaders, subordinates, family, or a bunch of strangers—to reach the same conclusions you have reached and decide for themselves to believe what you say and do what you want them to do."

Ms. Simmons outlines six kinds of stories that all good preachers and storytellers should learn to tell:

Every Sunday invites the preacher to tell one or a combination of these six story models.

Story Strategies for Preachers
In addition to a number of practical suggestions and tips, The Story Factor outlines three strategies for the preacher who would be a storyteller:

A good story teller understands the world as the hearer experiences it.
The genius of Jesus' parables is their ability to take the ordinary and reveal the extraordinary. In telling the story of God's love for them, Jesus begins with the world as his listeners experience it. Through his stories, Jesus makes the presence of God real in the lives of his hearers.

While most preachers readily acknowledge the power of story, some shy away from taking on the role of storyteller, fearing that they lack the necessary performance skills to keep an audience enthralled. But storytelling does not necessarily mean long and detailed narratives with intricate plots and a full cast of characters. Good stories can be simple images and word-pictures that people know and see and feel. Sometimes a homily's story will have all the dramatic elements of plot, confrontation, climax and resolution, or the comic set-up and the well-timed punchline; often, however, a picture painted in words or the relating of a situation or experience common to everyone becomes a story that tells itself in the imagination of the listener (such as the three "desert" stories, above). These simple stories can reveal a faith that is just as real and meaningful as the most cleverly developed and detailed yarn. With the right image suggested by the homilist, listeners can tell their own stories within their own imaginations.

Finding that right story, that meaningful image begins by placing oneself in the world of the hearer, by experiencing the world as they experience reality at home, in school, in the marketplace. "We don't need more information," Ms. Simmons writes. "We need to know what it means. We need a story that explains what it means and makes us feel that we fit in somewhere."

Stories are told in both the verbals and nonverbals employed by the storyteller. "Words are less than 15 percent of what listeners hear," Ms. Simmons writes. Listeners also receive information from a speaker's gestures, facial expressions, body language, and the voice's volume, tone and rate of speed.

"To tell a story well, you have to be 'on' the story in an unconscious way to communicate well. This means you have to let go of your notes, stop obsessing about what comes next, and remember to move your hands in a certain way and walk through your story in real time."

The goal is not a perfect recitation or a flawless performance, but to communicate to your hearers a sense that you believe what you are saying, that both you and your story are true and trustworthy, that the words and images are yours, that you are comfortable and enthusiastic about what you are saying.

And that takes practice.

It is mind-boggling that so many preachers will spend hours and hours to find the right words to say—but spend little or no time learning how to say them. Effective preaching/storytelling demands that as much time be spent preparing the nonverbals as devising the verbals, of preparing the body and voice to actually say the words prepared.

Stories must be centered in hope. Pointing to sin and evil is easy. Pointing to God's presence in the midst of sin and evil—that is the challenge of effective preaching.

All good stories, Ms. Simmons points out, are centered in hope.

"When you tell a story of hope, you need to feel hope in your heart to communicate it. If you try to tell a story of hope while you are feeling frustrated, you communicate the frustration rather than the hope . . . Only when you feel hope can you bring hope."

"Fear" stories should be avoided, the author of The Story Factor advises. "Stories that use fear and shame to mobilize action may seem effective in the short term but can be counterproductive over the long term. Overdoses of fear and guilt eventually immobilize people."

If the preacher is convinced that the Gospel proclaimed is one of good news, then the attitude the preacher projects, the tone of preacher's voice, and the story the preacher tells must give hearers a clear reason to hope. That doesn't mean that the stumbling block of the cross should avoided or not talked about—it means realizing that the story doesn't end on Calvary but is fulfilled, finally, at the empty tomb.

Return to top

To Preach as Jesus Preached: A Model for Homilists
by Jay Cormier

Many preachers and homilists construct their like public speaking assignments—an introduction, three main points and a conclusion. Sometimes included, mostly out of a sense of obligation (if this is going to be a real homily), is some exegetical background on the three readings and an admonition to the congregation to either stop doing something or start doing something.

But consider for a moment not only the teaching of Jesus but the teaching method of Jesus. Jesus' words, especially his parables, are masterpieces of thoughtful, concise and meaningful communication. The parable of the two sons is a good example:

28 "There was a man who had two sons.
He approached the elder and said,
'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.'

29 The son replied, 'I am on my way, sir';
but he never went.

30 Then the man came to the second son
and said the same thing.
This son said in reply, 'No, I will not';
but afterward he regretted it and went.

31 Which of the two did what the father wanted?"
They said, "The second."
Jesus said to them,
"Let me make it clear that
the tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the kingdom of God before you.

32 When John came preaching a way of holiness,
you put no faith in him;
but the tax collectors and the prostitutes
did believe in him.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not repent and believe in him."

Matthew 21: 28-32

This parable, which is typical of Jesus' style of preaching, includes three elements:

These three elements are at work in the parable above. Every parent of every time and place knows all too well the struggle to get their children to do their chores. Sometimes the request is met with whining, but eventually the chores are done; and sometimes the child fails to transform the best of intentions into a completed task (the story, verses 28-31a). Our response to God is often like that parent-child relationship: some of us proudly claim to be God's own but do nothing to warrant that claim, while those who seem to be the antithesis of God's own may, in fact, be closer to God's way of holiness (the connection, verse 31-32a). Jesus concludes the parable admonishing his hearers to embrace that same spirit of repentance and conversion (the invitation, verse 32b).

Though one could argue quite correctly that this approach "fits" the standard speech model of introduction/three points/conclusion, the story/connection/invitation model takes a very specific approach to structuring and delivering the preacher’s message. Approaching the homily using this model can help many homilists think through and deliver—and, consequently, communicate—a more effective, meaningful homily to his/her worshiping community.

The beauty of Jesus' parables is their ability to take the ordinary and, through them, reveal the extraordinary. Through stories about wayward children, lost coins, unexpected finds, paychecks, mustard seeds and weeds, Jesus makes real for his hearers of every time and place the presence of God in their lives.

We have all heard again and again that storytelling is the most effective form of preaching. But storytelling does not necessarily mean long and detailed narratives with intricate plots and a full cast of characters. Good stories can be simply real images that people know and see and feel. One of the foremost storytellers of our time, Garrison Keillor, says that a good story "allows people to come into it. You can somehow envision yourself as a participant in a story" [The Door, January/February 1996]. Sometimes a homily's story will have all of the dramatic elements of plot, climax and resolution, or the comic set-up and the well-timed punchline; often, however, the a homily's story will tell itself in the imaginations of listeners. Using the right image or idea will trigger the listener's own story—personal experiences based on their own encounters with that image. From those "stories" a homilist can share faith that is meaningful and real.

Several years ago, the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry published the reflection Proclaimed in Your Hearing, which includes this insightful definition on the role of the homilist

[to] help people make the connections
between the reality of their lives
and the realities of the Gospel . . .
to help them see how God is Jesus Christ
has entered and identified himself
with the human realities of pain and happiness"
[19, emphasis added].

How succinctly and accurately put! This communication, an act both of liturgical prayer and ministry, should make Sunday's gospel real to the Monday-through-Saturday world of the parish community. Among the implications for the homilist, then, is the need to be in touch with that world. This is the ministerial dimension of homiletics: to love one's community enough to listen to them, to travel with them on their journeys, to honor their struggles to live faithfully in a world working overtime to sterilize itself of God's presence.

Sadly, too many homilies seem long on admonition and condemnation and short on invitation. Invitation is an act between equals. It is not arrogant, belittling, or self-righteous. It does not take the easy way of pointing to evil but does the harder, more challenging work of pointing to the good in the midst of evil. Invitation does not wallow in the stridency and anger of Jeremiah ("Woe to you, Jerusalem!) but finds reason to hope in the joy of Andrew ("Come and see the Lord.") Invitation does not water down the message but confronts the truth with honesty and integrity. Invitation does not deny the cross but embraces it with the conviction of Easter hope. Invitation is not a demand from a self-appointed expert or professional who believes he/she "possesses" some special insight to be given to lesser lights but a humble welcoming into the vineyard by a brother/sister pilgrim.

Which is NOT to say that invitation cannot be admonition. The Gospel calls us to conversion and that means change—a change of attitude, a change of perspective, a change of approach. And change is difficult. Homilists should indeed address the call for conversion, but with the wisdom and compassion to understand that conversion demands difficult and sometimes radical change—and the humility to realize that such conversion is demanded of the homilist, as well.

An Example: Discovering Michelangelo in our Midst

The story/connection/invitation model was put to use by one homilist on the Solemnity of the Lord's Ascension. In reflecting on the readings, the homilist was struck by Jesus' call to his disciples of every age to be his "witnesses to the ends of the earth." Such "witness" often comes at a price.

Around the time this homily was given, the media across the country carried the story of the discovery of an authentic Michelangelo sculpture in a New York mansion. The homilist read the story of Professor Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt's hard—and professionally risky—work to prove that the statue of Cupid was indeed the work of the great artist. The homilist saw in the story a parallel to the hard and demanding role of being an authentic witnesses to the Risen Christ.

The homilist began by telling the community the story, retold from articles in The New York Times and Newsweek:

The three-foot-high statue of Cupid had stood in the entrance of the New York mansion for almost a century.

Nobody paid much attention to the nondescript sculpture, covered with cracks and stains, its arms broken off long ago, its nose and upper lip badly chipped.

The mansion currently houses the French embassy's cultural mission. One night last October, the mansion was brilliantly lighted for the opening of an exhibition of French decorative arts. That night, Professor Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt was on her way home from her office and classes at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. She decided to walk up the steps and press her nose against the glass door to sneak a peak.

There, under the bright lights of the reception, she saw something that made her heart race. She recognized the little statue from a 1902 catalog identifying it as one of the rarest of art works: a genuine Michelangelo.

Now such claims, if not well founded, can be professional suicide in the art world. Professor Brandt—who also serves as a consultant to the Vatican Museums—proceeded cautiously.

With the permission of the French cultural attache, she began a detailed study of the statue—and became convinced it was the real thing.

"It looked like the work of a teenage Michelangelo," she concluded, pointing to a number of the artist's distinctive techniques, such as Cupid's quiver in the shape of a lion's paw, the forms and features of the face and the flickering curls of the hair.

The world's leading Renaissance scholars have reviewed her studies and concur with her findings—that the little statue is the work the great Michelangelo.

One noted Renaissance scholar had especially high praise for Professor Brandt's careful work: "You are not going to make any discoveries in this field," the scholar wrote,
"unless you have the nerve to commit yourself, the courage to entertain the idea that it might be by Michelangelo and eventually to say that you think it is by him."

Next, the homilist forged the link between the story and the theme of the Ascension gospel—the "connection between the reality of [the hearers'] lives and the realities of the Gospel":

In her courage to imagine the possibilities, in her dedication to seek out the truth, in her love and passion for her profession, Professor Brandt discovered an extraordinary treasure—a treasure that, for decades, art historians have hobnobbed within touching distance of, but never realized.

On the Mount of the Ascension, Jesus calls his disciples to be his "witnesses to the ends of the earth." Such "witness" demands the same dedication to truth, the same love and passion, and often the same risk as Professor Brandt took in her work.

To be "witnesses" of the Risen One demands a dedication to seeking out what is good, right and just.

To be "witnesses" of the Risen One is to recognize his presence not just in this holy place
but in our homes, schools and workplaces—thus making them "holy places" as well.

To be "witnesses" of the Risen One is to possess the courage to endure ridicule and misunderstanding and to risk our own safety and comfort for the sake of that Gospel.

But in dedicating ourselves to being Christ's "witnesses," we uncover a great treasure that is forgotten but never lost: the love, hope and compassion of God.

The homilist then concluded with an invitation, beautifully expressed by the Apostle Paul in the second reading for Ascension:

As Paul writes to the Ephesians in today's second reading, "with a spirit of wisdom and insight to know him clearly" and an "innermost vision [to] know the great hope to which he has called [us]," may we have the courage, perseverance and commitment to uncover the great treasure in our midst— the Easter Christ.

The story/connection/invitation model demands that the homilist keeps his/her antennae up and feelers out for the unmistakable signs of God's presence in the world they share with their worshiping community. Sometimes, the gospel reading will trigger a story; at other times, a story, an event or an image will come first, opening up in the homilist's imagination a new dimension to a particular gospel account. To preach as Jesus preached is, first and always, a matter of being in touch with the Word—the Word of God both made flesh in Jesus and fleshed out in the people of God and the world God gave them.

And that is what transforms preaching from a last-minute Saturday morning stressed-filled burden into a week-long ministry of service, in imitation of the preacher Jesus, who "opened [his] mouth in parables…to proclaim what had been hidden from the foundation of the world."

Return to top