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PreachFebruary 11, 2024
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Russell Pollitt, S.J., approaches his homilies in a manner unlike any other preacher the “Preach” team has yet seen.While some rely on verbatim manuscripts, detailed linear plans, or simply loose notes, when this South African Jesuit priest sits down to write his homily after praying on the Scriptures, the first thing he does is produce an org chart (or organogram, as it’s better known outside the U.S.). But, by the time Russell stands in front of the congregation to deliver his homily, the organogram has served its purpose and is nowhere to be seen. 

Today, Russell is the superior of the Jesuits in Johannesburg and the director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa, but before that he served as the pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church, the downtown parish of the Jesuits in Johannesburg. It is here that “Preach” host Ricardo da Silva, S.J., first encountered the Jesuits. Russell was the first Jesuit he ever met. “This feels just like old times,” Ricardo says to Russell. “I can’t wait to hear you preach again.”

Once I get a picture of that organogram in my head, I can stand up and preach without notes.

For the First Sunday of Lent, Year B, Russell chooses to center his homily on a seemingly straightforward question: “What is Lent?” Drawing from the three Scripture readings, he settles on three ideas, each clearly highlighted in his org chart: Lent as a new start; Lent as a reminder; Lent as our desert.

In his conversation with Ricardo after the homily, Russell elaborates on his organizational methods for preaching and reveals how his brother’s suicide and presiding over the funeral of a toddler who drowned, compelled him to rethink his “​own ​style” of preaching and even his “own ​theological ​framework,” he says. “It’s ​really ​heightened ​my ​own ​sensitivity ​to ​being ​with ​people ​who ​are ​bereaved, ​and ​preaching ​at ​a ​funeral.”

At the end of the show, Ricardo asks Russell about his early years as a diocesan seminarian. “We were taught to preach,” Russell says. “That was the thing that really stands out.” The more practical approach to preaching training contrasts with his later experiences of Jesuit formation. “I’m sad to say, in our Jesuit circles, very often, I think that we offer people a lot of theory about preaching, but we don’t get people to actually do it.”

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Lent: A new start, a reminder and our desert

Scripture Readings for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B

First Reading: Gn 9:8-15
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Second Reading: 1 Pt 3:18-22
Gospel: Mk 1:12-15

You can find the full text of the readings here.

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B by Russell Pollitt, S.J.

Org chart of homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B

What is Lent? It seems to me that’s a good place to start as we begin journeying in this season of Lent. And I think the scriptures today help us answer that question. I’d like to suggest to you, from each of the readings, we are given some insight into this sacred season.

Lent as a New Start

The first reading presents to us Lent as a new start.

The flood story in Genesis ends in a very important place—a new start for humanity. Noah is presented to us as the second Adam, thanks to his obedience, unlike Adam’s, God makes a new covenant with humanity in the person of Noah. A sign of the covenant is God’s commitment, that the whole of creation would never be destroyed by a flood again. And the season of Lent invites us to a new start, to begin again. God, Lent tells us, is a God of new starts.

We’re invited in Lent to take a look at our lives and notice those parts of our lives that have frayed.

I often like to think of the image of a rope: that as soon as the end of the rope comes loose, the strands begin to stray. And Lent, it seems to me, invites us to start to twist those strands together again. And these strands in our lives can be commitments we’ve made and have not honored, or perhaps relationships that have suddenly or maybe over time become frayed. Maybe our service of others, maybe our contribution to our local faith community, our relationship with God, or even our prayer life might seem at this time to be a little frayed. And so we are invited in this season to give ourselves a new start. I wonder: Where do you feel God might be urging you to make a new start at this time? Perhaps to a commitment that has frayed, a relationship, partaking in your local Christian community, or maybe rekindling your own relationship with God in prayer? The second thing I want to say about Lent is that Lent is a reminder.

We are invited in Lent to give ourselves a new start.

Lent as a Reminder

In that letter of Peter that we heard, we are reminded of the faithfulness of God. The readers of that first letter of Peter were poor and being persecuted. They needed some encouragement, and the author reminds them of what Christ, poor and innocent, suffered and died. They are reminded of Christ’s faithful endurance and God’s faithfulness throughout all that happens.

The author tells his readers that Noah was not saved by his ark; it was God who was faithful to the promise that God had made. But notice something else in that letter. We are told that Noah was saved by the waters of the flood, waters that prefigure our own baptism. Lent invites us to remember God’s faithfulness; to call God’s faithfulness to mind. No matter who you are or where you’ve come from or what you’ve done or failed to do, our God is a faithful God; a God who is always gently waiting, watching, loving, and looking out for us.

That’s not where it ends. There’s even more. We are also reminded of who we are in the waters of baptism. We are the beloved sons and daughters of God. And so Lent invites us to remember not only God’s faithfulness, but also our own identity: that each of us is the beloved of God. No one is excluded from being the beloved of God. We live in a world of so much division, so much anxiety, so much killing, fighting. It is easy for us to become totally disconnected from who we really are. And Lent, it seems to me, invites us as we look at the faithfulness of God to claim again our own identity; the only identity that really matters. During the season of Lent, can you allow yourself to feel, to experience your belovedness; that you are a beloved son or daughter of God?

The third reflection I want to offer is the picture of the desert; that image of Jesus going into the wilderness or the desert.

Lent invites us to remember God’s faithfulness

Lent as a desert

The desert is a place of minimal resources. Water is scarce and food is scarce. Often the climate is harsh and we see how fragile life is in the face of these extreme elements, hot and cold.

In the desert, we have a different set of priorities; for those who often go into the desert, survival is key. But the desert is also a place of solitude, a place in which we become aware of life in a different way. We see the stars, for example, at night in the sky, maybe in ways that we never experience in our cities that are lit by all sorts of lights that flicker. We are attuned to the sounds of insects and animal life in the silence of the desert.

And I want to suggest that Lent is also our desert; a time when we want to try and unclutter our lives to look at our priorities—what we really need to live well. Just as one would go into the desert with the essentials, so Lent, it seems to me, invites us to think about the essentials. We are invited into the solitude of the desert to notice the stars of life, the gifts that God has given us, those things that shine brightly, that perhaps we fail to notice when we are busy, when life is rushing around us and we are rushing in life. Well, Lent is inviting us to hear the sounds of life; life in our own hearts and the hearts of others. Sounds that we don’t normally hear, or can’t normally hear, because life is just too busy, life takes over.

Lent is also our desert; a time when we want to try and unclutter our lives to look at our priorities—what we really need to live well.

Jesus goes to the desert, that place of solitude where he’s asked to face his own priorities. And notice how in Mark’s gospel, we are not told what Jesus faces; we are just told that he was tempted. He faces the same temptations as us in the desert, our daily temptations, perhaps to seek power, wealth and influence, to sow division, to be more self-centered than God, or other-centered. And Mark perhaps feels that he does not need to fill the gaps because he knows that Jesus experiences and faces what we face and we experience and face what Jesus faces.

However, Jesus ultimately knows what his priorities are: love of God and neighbor above all else. Lent invites us to enter into the desert, to examine our priorities, to give thanks for the gifts God gives us, and to look at those priorities again— noticing where we may have strayed, noticing where perhaps we have left the essentials behind. The season offers us a place to learn, to love God, to love ourselves and others more freely by remembering God’s faithfulness, noticing God’s gifts to us, and reordering our priorities so that courageously we can hold onto the new start that God is always offering us.

Can you open your heart, your life to the season that teaches us that our past and present do not determine our future— that with God all things are possible, not just all things, but new things are possible? What will make this Lent different for you— different to you?

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