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Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Making the 60-second Sermon (C26O) (C06O)

First, have you ever thought about how hard it is to say something, just one thing, something you feel strongly about in a persuasive way, in just one minute? When I was asked to contribute to the PrayTell blog's "60-Second Sermon" series, I knew that it felt like a good idea, but I didn't realize how hard it would be to try to say anything meaningful in one minute. The time I spend editing my idea down to a single minute is a much, much longer process than coming up with an idea and writing a draft.

Living at St. John's Abbey (and University) in Collegeville, MN, Benedictine monk, musician, and liturgical scholar Fr. Anthony Ruff began the PrayTell blog in 2010 as a well-informed and "intellectually grounded" forum for "pastors, liturgists, musicians, and scholars," containing "practical wisdom about prayer, sacraments, and the community of the faithful – in short, worship." The blog has certainly evolved into a wonderful meeting place of minds, people of various points of view, engaged in mostly respectful dialogue on every imaginable subject related to the discipline. In the latter part of 2018, Ruff contacted a few dozen people from his address book and asked them to film themselves giving a "60-Second Homily" on a specific Sunday or feast day, and the series has, first under John Kyler and Nic Cortez and now Jason Horstman (SJU grad assistants) been online consistently since the first Sunday of Advent in 2018.

I've seen a lot of the posts, but not all, and know that familiar faces and names like Rita Ferrone and Rita Burns Senseman, Jaime Cortez and Craig Colson, Diana Macalintal and Kate Williams and Michael Silhavy have all contributed.

In October of last year, John Kyler contacted me on behalf of Fr. Anthony, asking if I'd be part of the new project. The concept, he said, was that each "preacher" would give a one-minute message based on the gospel, inspirational and "right-to-the-point." The part that really interested me was that the message be characterized by "compelling imagery, short anecdotes, and wit and humor," all of which appealed to my style. Later, I was assigned the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time earlier this year, for which I wore a cheap crown and referred to King George III's song in the musical "Hamilton" to talk about the reign of God. So much fun.

I got my friend Mark Karney, a videographer at whose studio we have made several albums and who has made some catechetical videos from my songs for parish events, to help me realize some of my ideas. He made the videos way better than anything I could have done. I mean, it's the gospel, it's a minute-long commentary, not a Spielberg movie, but people are accustomed to a certain level of professionalism in video, and Mark definitely contributes that piece. Using green screen and background graphics and videos made the "sermon" more interesting and engaging, and Mark loves doing this kind of thing as much as I do.

Then, this summer, PrayTell asked me to do a handful more of these during the year, and I was delighted to be able to say "yes." Our second little sermon is on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.

Here is the new video, if you haven't seen it. Note that the "famous" crown from my first 60-Second Sermon has been placed casually to my right on the bookshelf, in front of the "Atlas of the Bible." This was by popular demand, and I think it is a very great idea that references Alfred Hitchcock's style and will have filmmakers talking for generations. 😅 Click here to see the readings for this Sunday to which the video refers.

Pro tip: when you're green screening in a video, don't wear a shirt with green checks. 😑🙄 How was I to know? Who am I, Bill Maher? I'm not even Matt Maher. Luckily Mark is a genius and you can't tell.

I actually made two "test" videos to share with a small group of friends to get feedback on which idea they liked better, and I think they chose wisely. What I presented to the crew at PrayTell was pretty much the first of the two ideas I'd had, though I changed the ending at lunch on the day we taped it, right before heading over to Mark Karney's house to make the video. The second one did have its advocates, however.

In that second test video, I focused more on the responsorial psalm as a representation of the (fictional) Lazarus's faith, and wondered, "I wonder what the rich man is singing today?" The question is reminiscent of a (possibly apocryphal) Tom Conry story from the 1980s (but if it didn't happen, it should have), when Tom said at a conference that he had a gut sense of what was wrong with the church when he heard a church assembly of well-fed white suburbanites (like me) singing John Foley's "The Cry of the Poor" (like me) and thinking that they were singing about themselves (like...😳) Here's the rough video that I did not send to PrayTell.

And, because there's no end to this once you start, here's a third one that I wrote but didn't video. It was too late and I had already made the one you saw. That doesn't stop Brain from working. This is about 20% too long, so I would have had to do some serious editing to get it down to a minute.

We have a wealthy man, and outside his doorway, a poor sick man named Lazarus.
The rich fellow doesn’t see Lazarus.
He is selectively blind to Lazarus, to his pain, his need, his hunger.
I’m that rich guy.
No question that through very little fault of my own I have a good income,
Good health, good family, a home,
And once I get over the shock of realizing how that separates me from most of the world,
I have to start asking myself,
Who am I not seeing?
Who am I walking over to get comfortable again?

I hoard my time.
So when Mick corners me on Sunday morning with the list of his woes,
I can’t wait to break out of that conversation.
Lazarus was probably relieved to hear Jesus say that there’s no freaking way the rich can get inside the reign of God. Not even Abraham has strings to pull.
So whatever you’re rich in, start giving it away.
Do everything you can to wake up to people’s need.
Pour yourself into the breach.
That’s how the chasm between the heaven and hell inside us—and between us —starts to disappear. 
That's a little bit about my little contribution to Fr. Anthony Ruff's terrific project out of Collegeville, the 60-Second Sermons that are published on the blog every Monday for the following Sunday. Here is a link to the archive of the series, so you can click around and hear what different people did with different gospels. The wonderful richness of everyone's insight is really edifying in the best possible sense.

That's about it. This is important to me because the process makes me distill my insight, knowledge, and faith experience about a certain group of scriptures down to an essence of one minute, and so I have a responsibility to be both clear and evocative, using images and the resources of my personality to express truths that don't originate with me or belong to me. It's like both poetry and music: at the end, you want the piece to say more than you actually put into it, and you trust that it does because, first of all, you never had it all in the first place. Like the seed scattered in the field, it grows when we're asleep, it does our work in us, and we pass it on as best we can. It's just a story, from a man who told really good stories about a reality for which there really are no words: the reign of God.

I look forward to doing a few more of these. Keep listening, friends, and pass the stories along. If necessary, as St. Francis of Assisi said, use words!

Now, since all free video comes with a commercial (in this case, a PSA!) and these couple of Sundays give us prophet Amos as well as Lazarus and mammon, I wanted to offer you one of many ways that we can actually do something on behalf of the poor: support the Crop Hunger Walk in Barrington on October 13. Here is a link to my walker page: some choir members and other parishioners are walking the 10K in support of fighting hunger, with people from all the churches of Barrington. I will keep you in my prayers that Sunday at my masses, and hope that the word of God will always remind all of us to be doers as well as hearers. Crop Hunger Walk, an activity of Church World Service, does just that. Thanks for reading this far!