‘WHERE DO I FIND THE WORDS?’ (Lk 4:14-22): 10 January 2008 (Thursday)
In the comic book, Preacher, Jesse Custer is a down-and-out alcoholic minister in the small town of Annville, Texas. Traumatized by his religious fanatic mother, Jesse goes through a crisis in faith as he struggles with his own demons.
In one of his services, his sermon is interrupted by a being called Genesis, an angel/demon that has escaped from its prison and that decides to merge with him, causing a big fire that destroys his church and kills all his parishioners. Jesse is the sole survivor, and he emerges from the ruins as some kind of superhero, Preacher, with a voice that has the power to command the obedience of anyone who hears him.
As someone whose job includes preaching, sometimes I find myself wishing that I had the power to command not so much people’s obedience, but even just their attention during my sermons. The first time I preached publicly, I was a nervous first-year seminarian sent to a small chapel in Sapang Palay, a resettlement area for squatters in San Jose, Bulacan just outside Metro Manila. It was a close-knit urban poor community with a wonderfully vibrant liturgy. That Sunday I was going to explain what the Lord meant when he said, “I am the Good Shepherd, and you are my sheep.” I was supposed to say that in Filipino, which should have gone, “Ako ang Mabuting Pastol, at kayo ang aking tupa.” But I was so nervous that instead of saying “tupa,” I mixed up the consonants–an error so fatal in the Filipino language and so traumatic for a first-timer that it almost cost me my preaching career. Thank God the folks in Sapang Palay were too polite to harp on that unfortunate slip of the tongue.
To this day, however, almost ten years after ordination, each time I prepare to deliver a homily, a part of me still turns into the nervous seminarian with the penchant for putting his foot in his mouth. Effective public speaking is tough enough; but effective public speaking about God? How do you do that? Indeed, where does one find the words?
And it doesn’t help that sometimes the church-goers are not as enthusiastic–or forgiving–as those folks from Sapang Palay. What do I mean? Think about what we preachers see when we look out to the congregation during a service. We see people who sit back and expect the priest to do all the work for them. Some don’t even recite the responses (It’s easy to tell because their mouths don’t move!). In some churches fewer still join in the singing. Others have their heads bowed down, their fingers busy—not running through the beads of their rosary, but with their respective Nokia’s, Ericsson’s, and Motorola’s, the new rosaries of our age. (I used to be exactly that type of church-goer, so this is really just karma for me!)
When you think about it, of course the people are not entirely to blame. Many times the fault belongs to us preachers too, who don’t preach well or worse, don’t prepare well. Be that as it may, the last thing a nervous preacher needs when he looks out to his congregation is a sea of bored empty faces. It’s enough to make you mix up your consonants.
The gospel story recounts our Lord’s “debut performance” as a preacher in his hometown. He returns to Nazareth, reads from the scroll of Isaiah, and preaches to the congregation. They are made up mostly of his relatives and neighbors, the toughest possible audience, as any preacher will tell you. We’re told that he impresses everyone with his words: “All spoke highly of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
Matthew and Mark tell the same story but have less glowing reviews. In both their accounts, they concede that people are amazed at Jesus, but the people also quickly express their disbelief among themselves: “How can this be? We know this guy! We grew up with him!” Both evangelists recount how the people’s amazement turn into offense, and as a result, Jesus is unable to perform many miracles there. Mark goes even farther and quotes the congregation as referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary”–a pejorative term that insinuates that Jesus is an illegitimate child because the Jews at the time usually refer to a person as the son of his father.
One can’t help but realize that preaching can be a hazardous and thankless job, but thank God for the consoling thought that the Lord himself has experienced a similar difficulty! It means a lot to a struggling preacher to know that the Lord knows, that he understands, and that like those folks my first time around, he will be forgiving.