Preaching for Encounter
Tips to help your parishioners connect to God, who is fully present
A couple of years ago, I participated in a program designed to improve the preaching of Catholic priests, hosted by the Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics and funded by the Lilly Endowment. I was quickly brought up short when I realized that I could not even articulate my expectations or goals for a Sunday homily.
A principal theme of the Notre Dame Preaching Academy is that we are “preaching for encounter,” and the purpose of a homily is always to help members of the congregation “encounter the Lord.”
In our spiritual life, in our prayer and in our various ministries, we seek and expect to encounter the Lord. “What you do to the least of my sisters and brothers, you do to me.” We ache when our prayer is dry, when we wander in the desert and cry out, “God, where are you?”
The Woman at the Well
Think about the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (cf. Jn 4:4-42). It started as a clash of cultural and religious norms — why would Jesus (a Jewish man) ask her (a Samaritan woman) for a cup of water? This was not done! Yet she kept listening to him, and during their conversation she finally realized that he is the Messiah. She rushed off to tell people in her village, and they came to see for themselves — she must have been very convincing. When they met and listened to Jesus, they also accepted him as the Messiah.
Compare that to the disciples who spent day after day with Jesus. They went into town to get food, and when they came back, did they bring any townspeople with them? Had they convinced any of the people: “Come and listen to this fellow Jesus; he’s a great preacher, a real prophet. In fact, he’s the Messiah we’ve been waiting for”? No, they just shopped for food, and then they worried about the scandal of Jesus talking to a woman in public. They missed what (who!) was present in the midst of them.
Jesus was frustrated with his disciples because they hadn’t opened their eyes to see what was right in front of them: “Look! Here’s the harvest — the people are ripe for the picking!” One conversation with this woman from Sychar and she had the whole town with her. The disciples who spent every day with Jesus still couldn’t see who was in front of them, and they missed another harvest opportunity.
Might that be a dilemma in our own spiritual lives — that we miss who is right in front of us? If God is everywhere, shouldn’t we expect to encounter God everywhere? Shouldn’t we expect to keep running into God at school, at work, in our families and while we’re on vacation?
Shouldn’t we expect that every celebration of the Eucharist will be an encounter with the Lord? Shouldn’t we fully expect every time we come to Mass, and every time we celebrate a sacrament, that we will experience God in some way? Shouldn’t we expect to hear God in our prayer? Shouldn’t we expect that, when we come to Mass, God will speak to us (after all, we’ve heard God’s Word proclaimed to us)? Shouldn’t we expect to leave that sacred space knowing that God has touched us, healed us, forgiven us, spoken to us, loved us in that time and place?
We aren’t called to live lives of quiet desperation, but rather joyful expectation, because God is alive and fully present. Whether we are alone in prayer or gathered as a community of faith, God is present. God is always trying to “get in,” always ready to “get under our skin.” God doesn’t stop and start being present to us; God doesn’t appear and disappear. God doesn’t turn off and on like a light switch or a water faucet. We simply have to learn how to recognize God and what God is doing or saying or giving to us.
So I should expect, no matter where I am, or who I am with, or what circumstances I am in, that God is there. And then I can ask, “What is God trying to say or do — in me, for me, and through me?”
The Preaching Academy extended that expectation to the homily and my listeners, who should expect through my homily to encounter the Trinitarian God. This occurs not because of my effort but as a result of God’s grace; never “if,” but always “when” and “how.” Trying to “catch God’s presence” is like trying to catch a drop of rain. Trying to “grasp the presence of God” is like trying to hold fog. We might do better to remember that we’re actually standing in a waterfall.
Building on that insight, I invited the congregation to use the quiet time after holy Communion to answer this question individually: How did I encounter the Lord during this Eucharist? When did I experience a personal word, or have a moment of communion with God? When did I feel a movement of the Spirit, or a shift in my thinking? Did I receive a gift from God — some peace, mercy, an embrace of love? Did the Scriptures or the homily or a phrase in a song speak a word that touched my hurt, healed a wound, answered a question, prompted a challenge? Did something in the Eucharistic prayer or the music prompt me to personal prayer, provoke gratitude or lead to my request for God’s help? Maybe the encounter happened through the child in front of me, or the cantor, the person sitting next to me, or the minister who gave me holy Communion?
What is my takeaway? What do I want to hang onto for the coming week? Perhaps I can even write it down on a scrap of paper and carry it with me as a reminder during the week.
Expect to have an encounter with the Lord, even in the homily!
FATHER KENNETH W. SCHMIDT is the advocate for priestly ministry and support in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Coherence with the Gospel, Crucifix and Witness
For those who “‘wish to see Jesus,’ to those searching for the face of God; to those who received catechesis when they were little and then developed it no further and perhaps have lost their faith; to so many who have not yet encountered Jesus personally … to all these people we can offer three things: the Gospel, the crucifix and the witness of our faith, poor but sincere,” Pope Francis said in his Angelus talk on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 22, 2015). “The Gospel [Jn 12:20-33]: there we can encounter Jesus, listen to him, know him. The crucifix: the sign of the love of Jesus who gave himself for us. And then a faith that is expressed in simple gestures of fraternal charity. But mainly in the coherence of life, between what we say and what we do. Coherence between our faith and our life, between our words and our actions: Gospel, crucifix, witness.
“May Our Lady help us to bring these three things forth.”