Ars Praedicandi: The Hearers Are As Important as the Prophets

by Rene McGraw, OSB

It was April 3, Easter in Norway, 1942.[1] The Quisling government had closed the Lutheran churches across the country, because they were one of the few churches in Europe that had spoken out against the Nazis. Most of their bishops had been removed because they refused the directives of the Quisling Nazi government. No Easter church celebration for the Lutherans that year. All the churches were locked shut. In Oslo, people were milling about in the town square in front of the square. Soldiers were standing around, rifles at the ready, to prevent any trouble.

Suddenly, a clear soprano voice started singing, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”; the whole crowd, as though they had rehearsed it, joined in. The first verse ended, and in the pause one of the soldiers there, grabbed a woman holding a baby by the arm, and shouted out, “Start the second verse and I will kill the baby.”

There was a pause. And then a shaky voice started out the second verse. It was the woman holding the baby. No shot was fired.

Now imagine if there was only one woman who sang the hymn. Imagine if there were hundreds of people angry at her for speaking out. Imagine if she had sung the whole first verse by herself. No one responded. Suppose they either laughed at her or told her to shut up or simply walked away and left her alone with the baby and the soldiers.

She might have said, “You duped me, Lord, and I let myself be duped.” Like Jeremiah in the first reading. Like Jesus with Peter. Like Jesus so often in his preaching when no one seemed to understand or hear. Jeremiah, Elijah, the story of Jonah. “I shouted out, and on one heard. Jezebel schemed to kill me, says Elijah. Herod takes John the Baptist who shouts out against his marriage to his brother’s wife and has him killed because a young girl danced well.

And the woman in the town square, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus. Many stories of prophets are not like the woman in Norway, but rather like Jeremiah and Jesus and John the Baptist, where many just don’t care or don’t hear at all.

Then what? Then for Jeremiah, “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”

Then it is like Elijah who complains to God that all the prophets are against him, that Jezebel and Ahab are out to kill him. It is like Jonah who predicts, wrongly as it turns out, that nobody in Niniveh will listen to him.

But speak they did. The fire in their heart could only be extinguished by crying out. But then it only caught fire again.

But what about the people who heard Jeremiah? What about so many people who heard Jesus and stood against him for what he said, so much so that he was put to death? What made those marvelous Lutherans in the square in front of the Cathedral so different? Thank God for the woman in Norway, but thank the Lord equally for the people who heard her and responded. The hearers are as important as the prophets.

As Paul tells us, not all the people are prophets. Not all are the woman in Oslo. Nor are we all called to be prophets. But we are all called to be hearers and doers of the Word that the prophet speaks to us – welcoming the poor, teaching our kids to be color-blind, working one person at a time to be a welcoming church and a welcoming people. No, we decidedly are not all called to be prophets. But let us be ready to join in the song of the prophet from Norway, whether others laugh or mock or turn away.

I want to end with something that Dorothy Day said during an interview at the time of the Vietnam War when she was still protesting war and poverty. The reporter asked her, if she didn’t get discouraged when no one heard her protests or turned away in disgust. Her answer is a great one, I think. “No,” she said. “Not at all. I just do what seems to me to be what God wants me to do. Success is up to God. Let God worry about success!”

Not every one of us will be a prophet. But we can all be hearers and doers of the word. That is what we are doing here at the Eucharist, listening to the word of God of Jeremiah and the woman in Oslo. Let us be hearers and doers.

Fr. Rene McGraw, OSB, teaches philosophy at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, MN. He delivered this homily at Saint John’s Abbey on September 3, 2017.

[1] As I prepared this homily, I could not find exact verification of the facts. But the story so moved me that I think even if it is not exact that it is a wonderful story.

Featured slide art: “The Prophet Jeremiah” by Michaelangelo Beonarroti, Sistine Chapel, 1512.
“Lamentations of Jeremiah” by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

 

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  1. “No,” she said. “Not at all. I just do what seems to me to be what God wants me to do. Success is up to God. Let God worry about success!”

    -Notice how egoism and its kin, grandiosity, are purged away in that perspective.

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