Preaching in Three Dimensions ~ Fr. Jim Schmitmeyer
God’s Word offers space to explore, not lessons to bore. Keeping an eye out for the three-dimension properties of a biblical text enables preachers to turn flat deliveries into OminiMax presentations. Here’s how.
Open to the Christmas story: wind whistles through a crack in the door; a lantern flickers. A seasoned homilist turns a collar to the wind and gazes on the ragged scene in awe and wonder.
Open to the Passion: the text shoves the preacher out on s street speckled with blood beneath a heaving man hefting the weight of a wooden beam. The preacher stares at the swollen face, the blood-matted hair.
“Rabbi, where do you live?”
The liturgical homily is a verbal sacrament, that is to say, a visceral experience, not an air-tight lecture. The homily exists to invite the faithful to encounter the Word-made-Flesh. In distinction to other bona fide preaching genres, liturgical discourse is a debate proposition to analyze, nor a personal testimony to inspire, nor a tidy lesson to apply to daily life. Its aim is to meld the past with the present and conflate the sacred with the profane: “Something we have we heard, something we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands, the Word of Life, this is what we preach.” (I John 1:1)
If the homily’s intention is to engender an encounter with the Divine Word, such an encounter needs a place in which to unfold. This requires that a preacher approach a text from an imaginative angle, stepping through the door of the text and into the scene. At the same time, the preacher carries along scenes and memories from the world of today. Soon a blending of two worlds occurs: the inn on the road to Jericho begins to resemble a Motel Six; fishing docks turn into factory loading docks, and lepers, shepherds and kings swap stories with nurses, office workers and politicians.
The disconcerting-comforting-enlightening result of this collision/collusion readies the homilist to preach the passage from numerous “corners of the room.” Enlivened with the hard edges of physical space, the homily that evolves from such a starting point will more likely prod listeners to enter into the text, not just hear it. It will enable the listener to sense the tight squeeze of the Narrow Gate or feel the burn beneath the downward push of a hand-hewn Cross.
Illustration #1: Feel the Squeeze
The physical characteristic of a biblical setting can spur association with similar locations in a modern-day pastoral setting. Below is an excerpt from a homily that explores, in a spatial manner, the verse, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”
I knew a fellow named Jack.
He ran a construction crew.
One morning he kicked in the door of trailer house
and rushed down a narrow hall to a clutter bedroom where his foreman,
a young man with chronic depression, was curled in the corner.
“Fifth time I did that,” he told me.”
“Why you keep that fellow on your payroll?” I asked.
He looked me in the eye. “Mike’s the best foreman I ever had.”
Then he looked off in the distance.
“I’ll carry him. Don’t matter how long. I’ll carry him.”
Jack knows the squeeze of a narrow passage.
He’s knocked in doors to get to them.
Furthermore, he works construction,
so he’s particular when it comes to dimensions.
He’ll tell you the exact width of a narrow doorway.
He’ll let you know you that it’s shoulder-span
of a man named Jesus;
its lintel, the height of the cross pressed on his back.
Illustration #2: Hear the Hope
Salvation in Christ unfolds in places of danger: atop mountains called Horeb, Tabor and Calvary. More often than not, these remote heights were accessed by desert routes through hostile towns.
In the excerpt below, this preacher was drafted to chart rugged terrain and explore unfamiliar territory.
I remember the December I received a call
to visit a mother and a newborn
in a neo-natal intensive care unit.
When I arrived, the nurse at the station directed me to the wrong room.
I found myself with three strangers:
a young mother a young father and an infant struggling to breathe.
I said, “Excuse me, I’m in the wrong room.”
The mother looked at me, then she glanced at the father.
He looked up and, for a moment, held me in his eyes…
but I could not read his eyes.
The mother, she is a teenager, okay?
Too young to be married.
She’s sitting in a chair next to the bed,
the baby, gasping for air, lies on her lap.
The father, also a teenager, sits next to her.
Tattoos on his arms.
Rings in his nose.
And probably no job.
And I’m thinking, what a loser.
(Yes, that’s what I’m thinking.)
Then the kid says something I don’t expect.
He says, “Father, we could use some prayers.”
And that’s when it happens!
When I kneel on the floor to give the baby my blessing.
I glance at all those plastic tubes…and suddenly,
I find myself in the presence of another young couple
who didn’t have much of a place in this world.
Beneath the murmur of medical equipment,
an echo of angels singing:
Glory to God…Glory to God in the Highest!
Conclusion: “Do Not Litter”
A final advantage that three-dimensional interpretation affords the preacher is its natural tendency to respect the nature of the scene. Hikers appreciate the beauty of a vista and are careful not to clutter the view.
Entering a biblical scene with the intention to explore its caves, scale its heights, taste its rain and feel its heat does not allow the weight and nuisance of unnecessary tools or instruments, only those that are needed to deepen appreciation of the place and the stories—past and present—that unfurl within that privileged locale.