Preaching the Gospel for the first time … again

kids-listening
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.

But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.

I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.

When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”

I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.

The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”

I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”

“This is different.”

“Why?”

“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”

“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”

“He’s the best.”

“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”

They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.

“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”

“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.

I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”

They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”

“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.

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“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugene Burnand (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.

When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?

“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”

We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.

Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.

“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”

At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.

“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.

“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.

“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”

“Tell us another one!” a third student said.

To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love why you are in love with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.

But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.

So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Peace beyond corners

My most vivid memories of elementary school are from second grade. I had spiked hair (I’m not sure if it was cool back then or not), lost many of my baby teeth (earning a special certificate with each one) and played lots of playground football games. However, these were not my most important or formative experiences.

I attended Saint Mary’s Grade School in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. Sister Leonette was my principal, and Sister Maureen was my second grade teacher. Since Sister Maureen had taught young black students on the south side of Chicago, she placed a special emphasis on Black History Month.

During all of February, we learned about the great African-American women and men who struggled to end slavery and segregation and who led the civil rights movement like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. We learned and sang black spirituals. Sister Maureen showed us photos of her former school, and I felt connected to those students. My family visited that school and parish in Chicago several times over the years, and we formed relationships that continue today.

Sister Maureen’s classroom also had a Peace Corner. If two students were fighting they had to go to the Peace Corner, talk through it, apologize and shake hands before they could leave. I had a few trips to the Peace Corner — mostly related to arguments arising from playground football games. Making peace like this was not easy, but it was so important. Knowing that I still experience my faults and weaknesses and broken relationships, I think about that Peace Corner often and try to practice it in my life today.

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Left to right: Leonetta Kochan, OSF, Luke and Maureen Bomaster, OSF (photo courtesy Luke Hansen)

That spring I made my First Communion. In accordance with the Gospel, the Peace Corner was actually an important and necessary preparation for receiving the Eucharist.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples:

“Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your sister or brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your sister or brother,
and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23-24)

Black History Month and the Peace Corner both instilled something deep within me about what it means to be reconciled with our sisters and brothers. The annual observance of African American history taught us about the need for social reconciliation. We learned about social sins like slavery, racism, segregation and discrimination, and the need for justice and reconciliation in society. In the Peace Corner, I learned about the importance of reconciliation with friends — and those I found it difficult to get along with. I learned the need for dialogue and forgiveness.

Sister Maureen was a great teacher — a wonderful teacher of peace, just like Saint Clare and Saint Francis. She created structured opportunities to form our young consciences and commitment to peace.

So I ask you: Who has helped form your conscience and shown you how to forgive and make peace? When was the last time you needed to say “I’m sorry” for hurting someone you love? When have you been able to extend forgiveness to someone who hurt you?

In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5: 1-12),  Jesus invites us, his disciples, to live in a new way: to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be peacemakers.

In the Gospel,  Jesus challenges us to go deeper than simply following good rules (Mt 5: 21-22). To renew ourselves in holiness. It is not enough to simply not kill people. Jesus invites us to examine what is underneath a desire to kill: anger, slurs, grudges and judgments. In what small ways do we kill each other? Is it through gossip? The Arabic word raqá today could mean calling someone stupid, crazy, fake, a flirt or ugly.

If we find ourselves talking about others like this (and I know I do, at times) or even looking around and thinking about others in these terms, it is necessary for us to go first and be reconciled with our sister or brother.

The sign of peace at each Mass provides this opportunity. It is a sign of our desire to make peace before we go to the altar. Whenever you give the sign of peace, remember the Gospel. In the sign of peace, we are preparing ourselves to receive the gift of Jesus and his peace.

And, if there is someone you need to reconcile with in your life but they are not with you at Mass, take a moment to pray for them before receiving Communion.

May every chapel, and every sacred liturgy, be a Peace Corner where we are formed into persons of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Note from the editorThis blog post is a version of a homily that Fr. Luke Hansen, SJ, preached at the closing Mass for Camp Franciscan on June 15, 2017 (Thursday of the 10th Week of Ordinary Time) at Holy Family Convent in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Photo credit: http://www.Jesuits.org

Originally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He presently assists with sacramental ministry at the Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee. In October, he will begin a licentiate in sacred theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.