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franciscan - May 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998

The Ministry of the Word

by Brothers SSF and Sisters CSF

The Principles of the First Order of SSF say that ‘there will be some amongst us called more particularly to the ministry of the Word.’ We asked a few of these sisters and brothers to write briefly about how, for them, preaching communicates God.
The preacher is lost for words. She is confronted by a text of scripture and searches her soul for an echo – is anybody there? there? there? . . . A resonance!

So, she begins where she is: cracked pottery, yet resounding to God’s voice who speaks on audio frequencies. And that voice speaks in and beyond us – as she listens to that voice the cracks are for a time sealed, we can hear not the preacher’s voice from without, but the voice of the Lord whispering secrets in the heart. Something like that – now for next Sunday, and what have I read, heard, seen lately which I know will be there in the hearts and minds as a need or a wound or a joy? And what can the preacher do, to bring the riches, the healing, the delight of God in his word, a bit nearer? §

Anselm SSF


‘We commit ourselves to regular reflection on the reality of our lives in the light of our vision, and on the reality of this vision in the light of our lives.’ That final sentence from CSF’s Vision Statement sums up for me what preaching is about. When I preach, I do so from my own lived experience: I can’t preach what I don’t know or feel to be true. Often when I finish a sermon, I feel I’ve clarified what I do believe, and that enables me to share it. I find it much easier to be personal than didactic about faith issues. I’m not a trained theologian, so I would feel uneasy offering textual exegesis. But I try to put across my sense of the spirit of the passage, and relate it to the circumstances the congregation are living with. Preaching for me is also a call to action. It’s no use saying what I believe unless I’m prepared to live it myself. So I often find that I preach most fervently to myself about the way I need to change and grow, as well as encouraging others to reflect on how they need to; I try not to burden people with ‘shoulds’, but preaching on the Gospels gives the chance to reflect on the ideal. Preaching certainly isn’t providing answers on stone tablets. It’s a journey into the will of God, the preacher and the congregation trying to make the journey together. §

Rowan Clare n/CSF


From the pulpit I scan the field of faces, hoping, as always, that there is no hint of Episcopal purple below!
However, faces are not my concern, rather it is hearts that are restive, broken, bruised, fearful, lustful and distorted. Through words I seek to convey God’s desire to calm, mend, heal, love, liberate and transform human hearts, which are so often set somewhere – even if only on a Torremolinos holiday or on ‘Self’! Daniel O’Leary’s recent model for priesthood also holds true for preachers – for I am a ‘Farmer of Hearts’. Anyone acquainted with rural life knows the effort involved in farming even one field. The soil’s potential must be recognised and nourished, even before planting when the conditions are right. If the ground is arid, the farmer must penetrate beneath the barren surface so as to release the hidden springs of water. But always there is the trustful waiting that God will grant growth. ‘Farming’ human hearts involves similar processes, e.g. the heart’s ‘soil’ must be nourished with Gospel hope, so that a response towards the light can begin; stony hearts need God’s sword-like Word to cut through ignorance and fear, and like an over-arching rainbow, the Promise of God in Christ, reveals to hearts that, even from the quagmire of sin and broken places, a harvest can appear. George Herbert exclaimed excitedly, ‘Who’d have thought my shrivell’d heart could have recovered greenness?’ Alongside all preachers within the universal church, I desire this invigoration of hearts to be a share in Christ’s ‘farming’, for he never takes his hand from the plough! §

Paschal SSF


I suppose that a pre-requisite for communicating God must be my own faith and attempt to live what I profess. If God is all-important to me, I am driven to share that experience; but if, for example, I am unforgiving, I cannot persuade others to forgive. There’s preaching and preaching: the teaching slot, a devotional talk, or a brief homily with salient points only. Most ordinands nowadays are taught to preach for no longer than ten minutes because research has shown that audio-assimilation is less than visual; and familiarity with other media has reduced peoples’ concentration for hearing. Style and manner may be dictated by the audience, whether an intimate retreat group or a cathedral congregation. If Jesus is Good News, which bit of his story is gospel for this group now? It takes time to read, ponder and write. We prepare; the Spirit inspires. I am less comfortable with an unresponsive audience than where people laugh or give visible feedback, but we seldom know ‘results’. All told, I believe preaching is a sharing – of learnt knowledge and felt experience of God – applied as well as I may to those who are to hear me. §

Elizabeth CSF


Preaching begins with listening, with my listening to what is to be read, and questioning: How do I hear the word of God in this? How do I use what I hear to help others listen for the word of God to them? The communication happens at many different levels; we’ve tended to lose sight of the corporate dimension, that preaching is in the context of a community gathered to hear what God’s word is for us, here, now. And it has a sacramental quality, offering my words so that they can be taken, blessed, broken and shared. I find the phrase ‘breaking the word’ very telling. The task of the preacher is analogous to that of the poet. The art of the poet is to use words in such a way that in their juxtaposition to each other and in the spaces between them they convey a meaning bigger than they could carry in themselves.

So too the preacher seeks to leave openings in her words for God to communicate God-self in a way that is channelled and expressed but not confined by the mind and heart of the preacher. §

Pat CSF


Tell me the old, old story is one of my favourite hymns; a bit traditional perhaps, but it sums up my understanding of the sermon. The preacher’s task is to remember: to repeat and to rehearse the story which the hearers, as members of the Church, already know, the story of God’s action revealed to us in the scriptures, which finds its focus in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the story which has formed us.

This may seem to be a sentimental exercise, simply comforting people with tradition, but, of course, the story, if properly told, is anything but cosy; it challenges, excites, and transforms both the hearers and the speaker. It puts a high expectation on the preacher, who must rigorously attend to the text, wrestling with the scriptures, becoming steeped in them. It requires the imagination to recognise that we are part of the same on-going story, and ingenuity to enter into it creatively with the participants of today.

Lastly, preaching should give issue to praise. The sermon is not an addendum to worship, but an integral part of it. P. T. Forsyth, a great preacher of the early years of this century, claimed that the sermon is ‘the ordered alleluia of the congregation’. The rôle of the preacher is so to tell the old story that people are led into a new meeting with the living God, and to bow down in worship and praise. §

Samuel SSF

 

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