When I was first ordained, I served for a year as the chaplain to the Bishop of Los Angeles. Don’t get excited: I was essentially his secretary and driver. In that job I also served as his liturgical chaplain at every parish visitation and diocesan event. On one occasion—I think it was the annual ECW Eucharist with a cathedral full of several hundred active church women—the preacher failed to turn up. Bishop Rusack turned to me, during the gradual hymn, and said, “Guess what? You’re preaching!”
At that moment, my mind turned to the words from today’s Gospel: “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict." [Luke 21] I certainly was obeying Jesus by failing to prepare in advance. I got up and said something, precisely what it was I don’t remember. But I do recall that it was not as difficult as I had thought it would be because instead of relying on any of the learned stuff I had tried to fill my head with in seminary, I had, on this occasion, actually listened to the scripture lessons as they were being read.
As I remember my time in seminary, one of my great anxieties and obsessions involved worrying about having the right words to say on any occasion. One of my motives for working and studying as hard as I did was to try to fill my head with an anthology of the right thing—the doctrinally right thing for the pulpit, the pastorally right thing for the sick bed—to say in any occasion which the ministry would deal out to me. As critical as I am of CPE as an institution, one of the things it did teach me was that being present to the person meant a lot more, ultimately, than having a head full of ingenious and perspicuous remarks. And 30-plus years of life as an ordained person has only deepened and extended that learning.
As Jesus’s teaching in the Gospel demonstrates, you and I spend too much time worrying and thinking about what it is that we are supposed to say. And on the day when we as a community commemorate John Chrysostom, the great preacher of the Eastern Church, the occasion almost seems to demand a treatise on preaching. But as I listen to the readings this morning—both Jesus’s caution against overpreparation in Luke and the account of the prophet’s call in the first chapter of Jeremiah—it seems that the homiletical secret might reside less in what we say than in what we hear.
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant." [Jeremiah 1]
Yes, clearly, Jeremiah’s call is a call to speak. But the words spoken come not from Jeremiah’s own ingenuity but rather from the One who put them there. Before it is a call to speak, the call to prophesy is a call to listen. If we presume to speak for God as an exercise in our own creative ingenuity, we are speaking really only for ourselves. We are, of course, asked by God to use ourselves (and our ideas and feelings and convictions) in God’s service. But we do not achieve that by obsessive overpreparation. We achieve that by listening.
A couple of weeks ago I watched the DVD of the recent documentary Into Great Silence, a film about a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. Most of the movie proceeds in total silence. I remember one beautiful segment where we watched one of the monks cutting celery in the kitchen for what had to be at least five minutes of absolute quiet, the only sound being made as the knife hit the cutting board. The monk did not wear an i-pod. He wasn’t working on his Blackberry. There was no TV broadcasting CNN updates in the kitchen. A bunch of monks were not gossiping about order politics or interpersonal relations. It was just, simply, quiet. And if you watch Into Great Silence all the way through, you get the deep sense that it is this quiet which provides the brothers in that house with the space in which they can listen to what God is saying to them.
And, I believe, it is only when we have listened to what God is saying to us that we can presume to say it to other people. Preaching, after all, is an audacious act: a finite, limited human being ascends into a privileged, authoritative space and dares to say something on behalf of God. Sometimes that something we preachers say is a word of judgment. Sometimes it is a word of comfort. Sometimes it is only framing the questions which, together, we ask of the One who is under and above and around and within us and our creation. But whatever it is that we do say, it is only finally of God if it proceeds from a process of deep listening.
We inhabit a world where, increasingly, people are not present to their own experience. We are distracted by the little machines we carry around with us. We worry about things going on everywhere but in our own immediate orbit. Jesus had it right: when you are called upon to speak, worry less about what you are going to say than what God wants you to hear. And Jeremiah understood that the hard words he was about to utter came not from his own intellect but from the mind and heart of God. If we would aspire to the eloquence of John Chrysostom, let us, like Jesus and like Jeremiah, attend to the One who is always with us trying to get our attention. If we make the space and listen for and to God, the words will come to our hearts and our minds and make their way into and out of our mouths.
Preaching is not finally about what we say. It is about what we individually and collectively hear. And we can only hear God if we listen. Amen.