Monday, December 14, 2009

The Homily: Ouch.

Have you ever read Flannery O'Connor? If not, when you get that Borders card for Christmas, do yourself a favor and buy a book of her short stories -- A Good Man is Hard to Find or Everything that Rises Must Converge. Very short stories, totally worth it.

And totally shocking. Like "The River", a baptism story in which a kid drowns. Or "A Good Man is Hard to Find," where the moment of real wisdom comes for the main character about 3 seconds before she gets murdered. (And if she didn't get murdered, it wouldn't have happened.) Or, my personal favorite, "Revelation", where somebody realized what a jerk they are after they get smacked with a science textbook.

Yeah, the stories are a tad bit violent. And that's because O'Connor's basic insight is that we human beings, we don't like to really look at ourselves. In fact, we're so uncomfortable with the prospect that at this point the only way to break through our illusions is by completely disrupting our expectations. "Religion is interruption," wrote the great Catholic theologian, Johann Baptist Metz.

When I preach, I am often trying to disrupt and to make the familiar strange. I will regularly take a reading and try to peel away layers until I get to something that is unsettling or just plain weird. (Sometimes you don't have to go very far.) I've done some pretty wacky things, too -- you know the reading where Jesus stands and reads the passage about "I've come to bring good news to the blah blah blah..." and then says "This reading has been fulfilled in your hearing" and sits down? Well I've done that as a homily -- read that passage from Isaiah again, said it's been fulfilled, and then sat down. Homily over. Long silence. Uncomfortable stares. (And afterwards, one parishioner: "Are you OK?" Me: "Oh yeah, absolutely." Her: "REALLY?")

I don't think the homily is a moment for performance, but I think it should unsettle. I mean, come on, we believe in loving enemies. Lord, we believe that God walked among us, and rose from the dead. And we're members of a religion that uses images of a crucified man as decoration.

Seriously. That's unsettling.

And don't EVEN get me started on the whole eating Jesus' body and drinking his blood.

Pop culture stream of consciousness soup.

So yeah, I think a good homily often leaves us a little off balance. Because often, despite all our good intentions, God still needs that leverage to sneak in.

But having said that, let me just add one thing. I'm reading this book Wondrous Depth by Ellen F. Davis. It's a book about preaching the Old Testament. And she has this insight -- if the scripture is supposed to surprise us in some way, the first person it should surprise is the homilist. Which is to say, preacher man or woman, you best take the time to let them readings work their mojo on you.

And if you don't -- and most of them most of us don't -- what the congregation gets instead is just you. Not that that's bad. Look at that kid -- how can you not love him?


But let's be honest. People came here to encounter God, not Jim. (Even if Jim is awesome, and available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.)

Also, Wheel of Fortune.

They say that every priest has about 3 homilies and they keep getting recycled. I'd say for me it's 5 or 6, and each of those represents some key revelations of God in my life. Which is great.

But God keeps on coming. There's always more. And when I'm repeating myself, it could be because I've stopped listening. Maybe it's me that needs unsettling.

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