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PreachOctober 22, 2023
Inmates join hands in prayer during a Kairos retreat at Ironwood State Prison near Blythe, Calif., in this file photo from March 2000. (CNS photo courtesy Kairos)


As an undergrad at Boston College, Sarah Hansman was a self-described “retreat addict.” Today, she is a retreat leader in Boston College’s Kairos program and is often invited to preach in various settings. “We often talk about the emotional trajectory of the retreat,” Sarah says. “When the retreatants are already in this space of openness and vulnerability, is different than I would preach if I was in a standalone setting.”

Sarah returned to her alma mater after a successful four-year career in tech sales and years of discernment during which she made the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola in daily life. Sarah is currently working towards an M.Div. degree at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. In addition to her academic pursuits, she leads retreats, serves weekly in a men’s prison and embraces every preaching opportunity that comes her way.

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In this “Preach” episode, Sarah Hansman delivers a homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A, and shares with host Ricardo da Silva, S.J., how her corporate experience prepared her to take risks and practice vulnerability in preaching.

“When it comes to preaching, and when it comes to sharing my voice, one of my goals is to be a role model for those who either don’t feel like their voices are heard or don’t feel like their voices are worthy to be heard,” Sarah says, when asked about her vocation as a preacher. “Every time I’m offered to reflect in any setting, I say, ‘Yes!”

[Listen now and follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or on your favorite podcast service.]

As a young laywoman, every time I’m offered to reflect in any setting, I say, ‘Yes!’


Scripture Readings for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A


First Reading: Ex 22:20-26
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
Second Reading: 1 Thes 1:5c-10
Gospel: Mt 22:34-40

You can find the full text of the readings here.


Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, by Sarah Hansman


If I’m being honest, when I pulled up the readings to prepare this reflection alone in my apartment, my response was verbal: “Whoa.”

The Bible never fails to shock me with its continued relevance in our daily lives. There is always more truth to uncover and a new moment or context to be in dialogue with.

But these readings feel particularly on the nose.

Consider our first reading from Exodus. I would paraphrase it as this: You shall not mistreat the marginalized, the refugee, the stranger. Do not forget that you were once strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt.

And God tells the reader, "I will surely hear their cry."

The cries of people are abundant today. The state of our world cries out as the number of migrants crossing the U.S. border grows by the day; as the mistreatment of our planet leads to climate refugees; and, most recently, as violence and suffering reigns in Palestine and Israel. All grappling with issues of place, of home, of neighbor, of dignity. And all with increasing polarization and division.

You shall not mistreat the marginalized, the refugee, the stranger. Do not forget that you were once strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt.

And then we reach the Gospel message.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

This line is so oft-repeated, so commonplace, that we can perhaps gloss over it. “Yeah, yeah, I know that commandment.”

Short and simple. But simple does not mean easy. What might it look like to take this call seriously?

For almost a year now, I have served at an all-male prison every week. And despite being a divinity school student, frequenting retreats and constantly being in spiritual spaces, there is no place that brings me closer to God, to grace, and to the face of Jesus than this community of inmates I work with.

Now, I don’t pretend to know every aspect of the social dynamics at play in the culture of a prison, but there are many. Navigating the system is complex and dehumanizing. I do know that these men have shared how they are labeled “Jesus freaks” or “weirdos” and get flack every time they go to the chapel. But they put up with it because they describe the peace they feel in the chapel, the way they can let their guards down, the community they find. But I know it weighs on them. I know it’s not easy to feel isolated in a space that is already full of so much grief and loneliness.

Incarcerated men have shared how they are labeled “Jesus freaks” or “weirdos” and get flack every time they go to the chapel.

Last week we began a new program, and one of the men brought up that he was trying to spread the word and increase participation in our group. He let the guys know he wanted to invite one of the very few transgender individuals at the prison to join us. He was checking in—to make sure people were comfortable with this.

Fear arose first and an inmate spoke up, saying: “We already get enough flack from everyone around us for going to the chapel. We know what they think about this person. I don’t judge them…but I don’t wanna get any more heat for associating with them. If they show up fine, I’m not going to kick them out. But I don’t think we should be inviting them in.”

There was a long pause.

Then another guy spoke up: “What about the Gospel? Don’t we have to welcome the stranger?”

And then another: “Let’s not forget who we are. We are people who have made mistakes or landed here one way or another. We have been forgotten by everyone outside. And we know how bad it can be in here. Now I don’t know anything about this person. But imagine how much harder it is to be a trans woman in a men’s prison. That takes courage. And if we can’t welcome this person in, who will?”

A final guy said: “You know I’m about to be released in a week. I’m gonna be trying to get a job, build community and reintegrate, all with a big target on my back that says I’m formerly incarcerated. I’m going to get labeled as a con and I’m sure I’ll be cast off without a second thought by most people. I’m scared. And all I can hope is that there are people out there loving enough to give me a chance; to welcome me in before they judge…so I think that’s what we should do with this person.”

“What about the Gospel? Don’t we have to welcome the stranger?”

The inmate who initiated the conversation looked to the one who was concerned. He said: “I hear you. I understand why this makes you nervous. I get that fear and I wanna make sure we’re making decisions together. But I really think this is important.”

The conversation ended there. No decision was made final and I imagine it will continue next week.

But I was floored.

Do not forget that you were once strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt. Love your neighbor as yourself.

I was witnessing these men live out this week’s readings; not out of excess or from a place of security but from a place of exposure. The decision to welcome this person in had real implications for them. They were willing to put themselves in a state of vulnerability for someone they didn’t know? And perhaps they wanted to wall off their community, and make it as secure and self-protective as they could, but they chose against it.

And with synodality so present in the Catholic world today, I couldn’t help but feel I just witnessed synodality of the highest order. I saw them listen truly and share from their own lived experience. I saw them affirm the other before they spoke, and not rush into a decision. I saw them walk with the Spirit.

Now these men would not identify as “L.G.B.T.Q. allies.” Not out of hate—they just don’t know much about the queer or trans communities. Some of these men have, disturbingly, been locked up for decades. The world has changed so much, and the issue does not impact their daily lives, and they certainly have plenty of their own worries.

Our liberation is bound up in that of our neighbors.

But in this conversation, they recognized something that fear can often blind us to.

Our liberation is bound up in that of our neighbors.

I wonder if that’s why today’s gospel reading is so short. After multiple Sundays of parables and examples, this week we are left with our own imagination.

Perhaps, sometimes you don’t need direct experience, detailed explanations, or the most up-to-date research to recognize the need for neighborly love. Perhaps you just need an openness to listen and empathize.

This summer I was a chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital. And during our orientation, my supervisor was clear about the core ethos of chaplaincy: to do your job, to truly encounter patients, you must touch the part of you that knows something about their experience; may that be grief, fear, pain, or doubts.

I grew anxious. I had never spent time in a hospital myself and in the grand scheme of things, I’ve lived a very privileged life. Sure I’ve had my challenges, we all do, but my suffering doesn’t compare to the suffering of these patients.

To truly encounter patients, you must touch the part of you that knows something about their experience.

I told my supervisor this and she didn’t skip a beat: “Whether you like it or not, if you’re willing, I promise that you know something about what they are feeling. You just have to be willing to go there. Ask yourself: What do I know about this feeling?”

Facilitating goodbyes during an end of life or sitting with someone who’s grappling with a new diagnosis, I knew I could not directly relate to the experience. But I do know what it’s like to say goodbye. I do know what it’s like to be unsure about the road ahead.

That’s what I was asked to do with my patients. That’s what these inmates did. And that’s what this week’s readings call us to.

Do not forget that you were once strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt.
Love your neighbor as yourself.

I consider the words commonly attributed to Lilla Watson, the Australian aboriginal activist: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

What do you know about feeling on the outside; about being in a strange land? What do you know about feeling like an outcast? What do you know about what it feels like to suffer, to doubt, to grieve?

What do you know about feeling on the outside; about being in a strange land?

In our increasingly globalized world where media can water down realities and feed us half-truths, it’s easy to doubt what to say, what to do and how to engage with justice issues that are so big, so complex, so nuanced. It’s easy to feel like you’re better off staying silent or remaining neutral.

Certainly, it is our job to self-educate, reach to the margins and not be content with ignorance, particularly when considering identities where we hold power. As a white person, I must educate myself on racism in America and the biases I hold. As a Catholic, I must reflect on and listen to individuals on the ways that Catholicism has hurt, isolated and wounded them. As a person that’s simply alive in today’s world, I must not view the violence in Palestine and Israel in a vacuum.

Yet it is a balance. We cannot wait for expertise or a perfect solution to get engaged.

So as Jesus often does, he leaves us with more questions than answers. He subverts our desire for exact directions or a defined path forward. He invites us to use our own imagination, to have a conversation, to listen to someone whom we disagree with. To discern: who is my neighbor?

So, this week I ask you: What do you know about being on the margins, and how can you use that to have courage in the face of fear, nuance in the face of half-truths, empathy in the face of indifference, compassion in the face of despair, and justice in the face of oppression?

Look inward, look around. Who is your neighbor?

Amen.

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