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Homily shopping

Garrison Keillor once described a type of sermon that is like watching paint dry on a barn. Several years ago while observing paint dry in a now-forgotten parish in a far-off diocese (to be clear, Father Mosimann, this was another diocese), I glanced around at my fellow laymen and saw that most of them had adopted recumbent poses: One in seeming prayer had folded his hands and closed his eyes; another leaned forward, elbows on knees, holding his temples like Edvard Munch's subject in "The Scream."

I think I glimpsed in these slumped men the homily shopper I used to be.

Now, I thank God that the homily simply survives in what Pope Francis calls our consumerist "throwaway" culture. I thank God for the priests (and deacons) who step into the pulpit more than 1,000 times a week for daily and Sunday Masses in the Arlington Diocese alone. While everything around us is being data-mined, focus-grouped, digitized, politicized and monetized, the homily lives.

The homily is like dark matter: Physical laws stop short of it. Google algorithms will never decode it. The homily is an anti-virtual reality, a Galapagos archipelago hosting exquisite ecosystems. The next media revolution will boom and bust, but the pulpit will stand.

If Paul spoke of Christ as a "stumbling block" and "foolishness" to the world, then many homilies have struck me as Christ-like in both regards. I have stumbled so many times over them. As the son of a prosecutor, I tested premises and looked for the burden of proof. Grandson of an Evangelical preacher, I held sermons up to the test of time. One-time theology student, I cross-checked and second-guessed Father's sources. Those were some interesting years of homily consumption. But what a waste.

The homily is, after all, a breathtaking crossroads between earth and sky, land and sea, word and silence. It can be a place of unbearable lightness. Standing there, one looks back at the road just traveled - the Confiteor, Gloria, Old Testament, psalm, epistle and Gospel. Father pauses with us at this junction, comments on the cliffs we have just scaled. Memory awakens the heart. Gratitude returns.

And just ahead … Father will leave the pulpit and we'll trek on toward the source and summit. Now the markings on the path have grown faint. A fog encircles. Voices recede. The clouds break for a moment to reveal azure sky - or is it an ocean? The beating of our hearts is now almost audible.

In all those years I hunted the homily for structure and "relevance," "authenticity" and succinctness, but the Lord was in fact hunting me, preparing me to touch His Body on the summit. I evaded Him, hiding in the clefts of my ego. While I appraised the "worth" of these homilies, Jesus was passing me by.

But then one day several years ago I saw at the pulpit not a professional speaker but a man who had left his nets behind him and given everything to follow an upstart Jewish carpenter. His words suddenly flowed from a different place. He spoke to me in the person of Christ on the words of Christ just before he was to hold Christ.

And I thanked God for this priest and for every priest.

Gratitude overwhelmed my prosecution. I dropped my weapons, metrics and nets. And the homily-as-product and barn paint were suddenly gone. I saw only a man, a mountain guide inviting me to rest for a few minutes before we reached the summit of Mt. Everest. I saw a man who was up half the night with a dying stranger at the hospital. I saw a man acquainted with grief, mystery and encounter.

Instead of hunting or shopping for homilies, I try now to receive the free gift of the homily as it is - as the Holy Spirit has prepared Father and is teaching him at that moment what he should say (cf. Lk 12:12). "Just as the homilist must be immersed in study and reflection on the Scriptures to proclaim the Gospel faithfully," Bishop Loverde together with his brother U.S. bishops affirmed in Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily, "so too should members of the congregation who listen to the homily do what they can to receive properly and savor the biblical message."

I rest my prosecution. It's time to savor what the Holy Spirit has prepared.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's delegate for evangelization and media.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016