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  • Godwin Cotter

Cynicism and Sermons

A friend and I were discussing homilies and he bestowed on me a gem from his grandfather: “ A priest only has one sermon, he merely rearranges the wording Sunday to Sunday.” I thought the comment scored high on the cynicism charts, and since the time of Diogenes, and even more so today, cynicism is hot intellectual property. I can trot it out the next time a discussion on sermons arises but is it true?

On reflection I think it is both true and not true. Any human endeavor is kind of like the water depth a certain distance from shore. Waves come, and there are crests and troughs, but in spite of fluctuations, the basic depth (or lack-there-of) remains relatively constant.

But why target just clerics with this reductionist metaphor? The same could apply to all of us; to news commentators, bloggers, teachers, moms, dads, we all have one basic sermon, we just rearrange the wording each day.

Who gives the best sermons, and how do you improve on the sermon you give on a daily basis? These are not easy questions and attempt an answer, I wanted to go back to the best sermon I have ever witnessed.

It lasted five minutes, if that, and I heard it decades ago when Mother Teresa came to speak in a Winnipeg football stadium. I had endured an early morning wakeup, a long bus ride, a seemingly endless wait for the stadium to fill part way. Then I had to sit through at least an hour and a half of word salad extravaganzas by secular and religious dignitaries, each making up in length for what they lacked in content. It was like listening to paint dry. I cursed myself inwardly. Full disclosure, my reason for going was really to meet unmarried females who didn’t harbor any interest in becoming nuns. Inwardly I kept muttering, “I hate you Mother Teresa, I hate you”. Don’t judge me. It was because of how long, excruciating and shallow the sermons had been and the waterboarding was breaking me. In my anguish, I lashed out and blamed her for what was really my folly: attending for the wrong reasons.

Finally, a little white speck came to the microphone. I was thinking, “Thank you God, it will be over soon, oh freedom, oh, sweet freedom!” Within a couple of sentences, she brought up the Gospel of the day, the passage where Mary visits Elizabeth, and John the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth’s womb. Mother Teresa noted that it was the unborn child that was first to recognize the Christ, God coming down to live with us. The adults and the born didn’t have the eyes to see what was happening, only the unborn child did. And then she went on to deplore how in many nations of the world, (my nation included), we kill the unborn child in the womb through abortion. The message was clear: what we do to the unborn, we do to the Christ who comes to save us.

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