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PreachApril 22, 2024
Photo courtesy of iStock.

When preaching to a privileged congregation, “I don’t want to offer people cheap grace in a sermon,” says Gemma Simmonds, C.J., “I want to offer challenge.” 

Gemma, a theologian and sister of the Congregation of Jesus, works at the Cambridge Theological Federation in Cambridge, England, or “the heartland of privilege,” as she calls her home on the steps of the world-renowned University of Cambridge. 

In such environments, it is easy to win people over with our high theological training and intellectual rhetoric, “and to try and wow people with all of that,” says Ricardo, “and not so much with the concrete down-to-earth experiences.” 

Listen to Gemma’s homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B, in which she explains how her experience of poverty in Brazil gave radical significance to Christ’s words: “Make your home in me as I make mine in you.”

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

In their conversation after the homily, Ricardo and Gemma discuss the need for humility, prayer and willingness to share one’s experiences in preaching: “In a sense, what we are is one beggar sharing what they have in their bowl with a lot of other beggars,” Gemma says. “As long as we remember that!” She shares insights ranging from her experience preaching as a ecumenical chaplain in the Church of England, preaching for broadcast on the BBC, and even finding God’s presence in poop.

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Reading I: Acts 9:26-31
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32
Reading II: 1 Jn 3:18-24
Gospel: Jn 15:1-8

You can find the full text of today’s readings here.

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B, by Gemma Simmonds, C.J.

It’s characteristically British to dislike pretension. We don’t like people to get too big for their boots, so we have all sorts of expressions for cutting people down to size. Someone puts on airs and graces or adopts a grandiose tone and we say, “who does she think she is?” or “who’s he when he’s at home with his boots off?”

The question is based on the assumption that when someone is at home with their boots off or their dressing gown on or whatever other qualification we give to that question, they’re in their unvarnished state, the plain Jane or John, divested of any trappings of grandeur that could disguise their ordinariness. What you see is what there is. ‘Being at home,’ in this sense, represents some kind of diminishment of the public figure that we might otherwise cut when in front of an audience. But this is not what Jesus means when, in John’s Gospel, he invites us to make our home in him as he makes his in us.

When we want to put someone at their ease we say to them, “make yourself at home.” The Spanish phrase for that is mi casa es tu casa—my home is your home. Home, in this sense, is where we feel relaxed and safe, where we don’t have to pretend, not because our defenses have been stripped away from us, but because we can trust that this is where we are loved and understood, where we can be ourselves and be accepted for who we are. But it’s a risky business to invite people to make themselves at home.

When you’re at home, you can afford to be untidy, to leave things lying about on the floor, cups of coffee half-drunk, books left open. It’s all very well for us to do this in our own environment, but doing it in someone else’s is another matter entirely. To invite them to make themselves at home is to risk your own peace and quiet, your own preferred ways of having things done. It means adapting and making space for the other.

Like many of us here in this chapel, I was born to privilege: the privilege of having a safe and loving home, parents who welcomed me into the world and gave me the best of everything they could afford. I was privileged to have the best education that money could buy, including three years in this university. As someone brought up in the Christian faith, I knew from my earliest years about the obligation to care for those less fortunate than myself, but I had little idea of what, practically speaking, the implications of such misfortune might be for a person’s life.

One of the things I met when I came up to Cambridge was the culture and literature of Latin America. Not only did I fall in love with the language, but I was spellbound by the theology of liberation that came from this exotic and faraway country. Within this love affair there grew an increasing sense of being called by God to go to Latin America, not because I had something to offer that continent, but because I increasingly believed that it had something to teach me. I found myself praying to experience what it was to be poor among the poor. Be very careful what you pray for—God may very well answer your prayer in ways that you didn’t expect and that carry a certain divine ironic satisfaction.

God’s first joke was to send me to the one country in Latin America where I didn’t speak the language. Being deprived of a voice is one of the primary aspects of true poverty and as I listened to the unfamiliar speech and accents of Brazil I experienced powerfully that deprivation and the vulnerability that goes with it. I flew to Rio via Madrid, only to find that my luggage had remained behind in Spain. I landed in the country with nothing but what I stood up in and realized, as we drove up into the freezing cold of the mountains, that arriving in a cotton T-shirt and open-toed sandals was perhaps not the best preparation for what lay before me. I had to beg everything, down to fresh underwear, from the sisters with whom I was staying.

I found myself homeless, voiceless, inadequately equipped for the environment in which I was living. It was an effective if rather radical preparation for working among the homeless, among street children and the thousands who flocked to the favelas of the city from the countryside where they couldn’t make a sufficient living to survive. “Make your home in me as I make mine in you.” Those words resonate very differently when you already have a home and a safe environment in which to live and when you don’t.

I found myself surrounded by people who made their home in Jesus because they had no other practical alternative. It didn’t solve their social or economic problems. It didn’t save them from the danger and humiliation and sheer human degradation in which they lived on a daily basis. But paradoxically enough, it gave them a sense of hope, of dependence on God which was so much more powerful than the dependence on consumer goods, status and the trappings of privilege on which my own world relied. When you think you have everything and that you are in control of your own life you have little need of hope, of faith or even of the love that is willing to sacrifice itself for another. When you have nothing, you begin to experience every word or act of compassion and solidarity as a divine gift. You begin to understand the true value of everything that gives life and allows for human flourishing.

Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading are challenging in the extreme. He talks of cutting and pruning the vine. Anyone who has ever seen the pruning of a vine will know that it’s a brutal business. It can look as if the vine has been stripped entirely bare and it’s difficult to believe that anything fruitful can grow from it again. He talks of withering and burning—these aren’t comforting images, but they say something about the harshness and emptiness of a life lived on its own terms and without reference to the purpose for which all human beings were created. He promises, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask what you will and you shall get it.” But many of us know from bitter experience that prayer generally does not work like that.

What can he possibly mean when he promises us fruitfulness when we ourselves feel sterile and empty? I would never wish to romanticize poverty. Nothing prepares a person from the pampered first world for the reality of how the majority of the world’s population lives. Nothing but the actual experience of it. But a life where securities are stripped from us, where we know for the first time the true worth of dependence on God and on one another, the power of human solidarity, and above all, the power of hope is a life lived to the full in ways that the self-sufficient can never dream of.

Making ourselves at home in Jesus and allowing him to make his home in us is something that we will never do as long as we depend on our own strength and rely on our own securities. What Jesus offered his disciples on the night before he died was to take the same risks as he took when he embraced the cross. They found it a terrifying prospect, and when the moment came, they couldn’t face it. But when, in the power of the Spirit after the resurrection, they did face it they discovered what home truly means.

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