Podcast: Preaching lessons from Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman
“I had the great privilege of never having a man formally teach me preaching,” boasts Manuel Williams about his training for the priesthood. One of his teachers was Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A.; the other was Joan Delaplane, an Adrian Dominican sister and the first Catholic woman president of the American Academy of Homiletics. “What both of these great women stressed,” he said, “is you have the privilege each and every Sunday of standing before the people of God. And they would make it personal. They’d say, ‘We don’t get that privilege easily. We have to look for venues or for opportunities.’ And so never step into that preaching moment unprepared.’”
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Manuel is a member of the Congregation of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He has been pastor of Resurrection Catholic Church in Montgomery, Ala., for 33 years. Throughout this time he has also served as director of Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South, Inc. He preaches revivals and missions throughout the U.S., with a focus on African American Catholic spirituality and history. In 2021, he co-taught a course on “Anti-Racism Preaching” at the Aquinas Institute of Theology, where he is currently pursuing doctoral studies in preaching.
Listen to Manuel’s homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, on this week’s episode of “Preach.” In conversation after the homily, with host Ricardo da Silva, S.J., Manuel unpacks how he makes oft-heard parables relevant and how he invites his congregation into full participation in the Gospel story.
That’s a hard thing about being a preacher or anyone who’s doing ministry; we never live up to what we want to be. However, I think that preaching helps direct our own lives. It’s hard to say something in public that you don’t really believe.
Scripture Readings for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Is 55:6-9
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18
Second Reading: Phil 1:20c-24, 27a
Gospel: Mt 20:1-16a
You can find the full text of the readings here.
Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, by Manuel Williams, C.R.
In case you hadn’t noticed, life isn’t fair. Now, of course, that’s not news to any of us beyond nursery school age. Very early in life, we learned life is not always fair. A younger sibling seems to get special privileges that we didn’t get. Sometimes, veteran employees in a company or an institution get shoved out of their place by young hotshots who come into that community. Sometimes, retired professional athletes see and feel the unfairness when they notice current stars signing contracts for millions of dollars more money than they make in a year than these athletes had ever made in their whole careers. Life just isn’t fair.
Sometimes, people watch what they eat, they exercise regularly, they refrain from smoking, and they still get cancer, while someone else does just the opposite and enjoys good and robust health. Life isn’t fair. Sometimes, the well-to-do win the big lotteries while hundreds of working class people with modest means purchase tickets every week and never get even a single number.
Sometimes, the good do die young and the scoundrel lives to be a hundred. Sometimes, the honest and the upright lose their jobs or their businesses while the cheats and the liars seem to make a mint. Sometimes, hard work doesn’t pay off. Sometimes, the innocent are convicted and the guilty go free.
Very early in life, we learned life is not always fair.
Sisters and brothers, you and I know from our own experience that life just isn’t fair. We have our ways of coping with this unfairness. One way we sometimes handle it, especially for those of us who dare to call ourselves Christians, is we always try to see the positive side; to look for the cloud’s proverbial silver lining.
We all either know people like this or know times when we’ve tried to deal with unfairness in this way: “No matter what happens, surely something good can come out of this”; “Let’s look at the sunny side.” These folks, when you and I are them, are like a little girl who loved baseball. One day she was in her backyard practicing her hitting, and her proud daddy was watching from an open window. She threw the ball in the air, she swung the bat, and she missed. And she said, “Strike one, I’m a good hitter.” She threw the ball in the air again, she swung the bat, and she missed; strike two. “I’m a great hitter,” she declared. She threw the ball in the air a third time. she swung and she missed, and she screamed, “Wow, I’m a really good pitcher—a really good pitcher.” That’s one way to deal with the unfairness of life, to seek the good, to think positively, but to say a reality is sooner or later we’re hit again with another one of those glaring instances of unfairness.
But there’s another way we deal with the unfairness; sometimes we confront it head on. We try and reverse the unfairness. We try and execute our notion of human justice. We’re like the man of a small stature, a truck driver who parked his truck one day at a highway diner, went in to grab himself some lunch, and before he could eat his food, three burly motorcyclists came in and they immediately started to abuse the man; picking on him—he’s outnumbered—they took his food, they laughed in his face. The truck driver endured the abuse, got up, never said a word, paid for his food and walked out of the diner. One of the cyclists then remarked to the waitress. “Boy, he wasn’t much of a man, was he?” And the waitress replied, “No, I guess not. But he ain’t much of a truck driver either,” she said, pointing out of the window. “He just ran over three motorcyclists!” Sometimes brothers and sisters, when faced with the unfairness of life, we confront it or its agents.
Our Bible is full of people who knew that life was not fair and that unfairness sometimes led them to question whether God was fair as well.
That’s exactly what the workers did in the parable. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel passage, “You’re not fair.” They say to the vineyard owner, “How can you give these? Johnny-and-Jane-come-lately, it’s the same wage you gave us who worked all day in the burning heat. Why are you making them equal to us? It’s not fair because we worked hard. We deserve more than the others.”
Perhaps I’m speaking only for myself this morning, but I understand their point. I understand their anger. I understand their frustration at the injustice of it all. Doesn’t our church and our world operate with specific standards of human justice? When you go into a department store, don’t they fawn over you more if you spend $500 than if you spend only $50? In some of our educational institutions, people with tenure can’t be moved, can’t be changed, can’t be relieved of their duties.In most of our businesses, the longer you work, the more privileges you get: more pay, bigger office, more responsibility. And is there a pastor, a minister who wouldn’t honestly admit the temptation to attend less quickly to those members we rarely see or to the ones who don’t contribute?
So you see, I understand why the folks who carried the burden in the heat of the day were a little perturbed with the master of the vineyard. What he did was not fair. But, brothers and sisters, there’s good news in this parable for us. Our Bible is full of people who knew that life was not fair and that unfairness sometimes led them to question whether God was fair as well.Do you think Job thought life was fair; God was fair as he reeled from one disaster to another? Do you think young Jeremiah thought God was fair? We heard him a few Sundays ago declare, “You duped me, O Lord, and I allowed myself to be duped.” The prophet Habakkuk, “How long do I cry for help and you don’t even hear me?” What about our mother in faith Sarah: “You want us to go where? At this age, I’ll bear what?” Do you think Joseph found his brother’s fair when they sold him into slavery? Ruth: marries a man, he dies young, and she’s left in an alien land.
I’d rather have a God who is love than a God who is fair.
Sisters and brothers, our salvation story is filled with people who experienced the unfairness of life and sometimes thought that unfairness was to be found also in our God. But there is a big difference between saying life isn’t fair—it most certainly isn’t—and God isn’t fair. It’s true: God is not fair, but God is better than fair. God is generous beyond measure; God is rich in grace and mercy; God is full of compassion.
The reality is our God doesn’t owe us anything. On the contrary, we owe God everything: time, talent, treasure, our very lives, the gifts of our minds and bodies, the gift of those we love and who allow us to love them in return...all of it is a gift from God. As the text from Isaiah points out so beautifully today: God’s justice doesn’t work like ours; God’s ways are not our ways; God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts. And that’s good news. Jesus tells us this morning in this marvelous parable, not to begrudge God’s goodness, God’s mercy to those that we find wanting. Because the truth is at some point in each of our lives, we receive from our God abundant grace, mercy, and more love than we ever merit. When someone hurts me, I want a God who is just, but when I’m the offender, I want a God who is forgiving and generous. It is true: Life isn’t fair; it is true: Our God’s not fair either, but it is soul-saving, life-affirming good news that our God is better than fair; our God is rich in love and compassion, and I’m grateful. I’d rather have a God who is love than a God who is fair.