Thursday, December 15, 2011

Prophetic Preaching, Grounded in the Cross

What follows is an assignment I recently completed for preaching class that summarized theology of and approach to preaching.  Thanks for reading and I'd greatly appreciate your input.

               I was never a big fan of church growing up: waking up early, wearing uncomfortable dress clothes and sitting through a boring service only to then get in trouble during Sunday school was not my thing.  My friends and I were so misbehaved for so many years that our senior pastor once held a meeting to discuss whether or not we could remain in the program.  I did occasionally enjoy a song or activity but it was not until confirmation class that I actually looked forward to attending church, and even then it was just to hang out with the girls.  Luckily, my apathetic stance towards Christianity began changing around my senior year of high school.  While the Spirit worked through a number of channels to strengthen my faith that year, it was one particular sermon on Christmas Eve that made the greatest difference.  Instead of preaching what was expected, a lighthearted and gentle sermon, my pastor took a bold stand and spoke out against the war in Iraq.  I sometimes wonder if folks were upset by his message that evening, but for me it meant the world.  Despite years of attending Sunday school, confirmation class and worship, it was not until I heard the prophetic witness of my pastor on Christmas Eve that I grasped why church really does matter.
            In order to be a prophetic witness, to be a voice calling out in the wilderness of our broken world, one must be grounded in the cross.  Without the cross, it is all too easy to put our selves at the center of a sermon instead of the good news of God’s saving grace in Christ.  Turned in on ourselves, we often preach for influence, to look intelligent or for the approval of our congregations, despite our best efforts to do otherwise.  Amidst these human temptations, it is only the cross that can keep our ego in check and center us on what we are actually called to do… to proclaim the gospel and comfort troubled consciences.  As Philip Melanchthon states in the Augsburg Confession:
For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel, that is to say, in those who hear that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace on account of Christ.[1]

Put in simpler terms, when we preach in congregations, in classrooms or in abandoned city streets, we are not actually doing anything.  Rather, we are merely instruments through which the Spirit works, bringing faith to those that hear our humble words.  Without the humility of the cross, we make it difficult for the Spirit to get through.  We become instruments clogged with sin and vanity, blocking the Spirit from bearing the good news of God’s saving grace to a needy world.
            The humility of prophetic preaching centered on the cross transforms the faith community into an environment where all can teach and learn from each other.  As Norma Cook Everist describes it, “each individual needs to be a teacher in order to be a learner, and a learner in order to become and continue to be a teacher.”[2]  In such a community, prophetic preaching becomes an ongoing conversation where the voices of all are valued, including those not sitting in the pews each Sunday.  The Spirit dances amidst the community as all talk and share, creating faith and inspiring action.  Fueled by the Spirit, the conversation grows while more individuals of diverse backgrounds, both church natives and exiles, are welcomed.  As Otis Moss III points out about those exiled from the church, “Their understanding is filtered; they view the church through the lens of the media, hip-hop culture, and street rhetoric.  From their perspective, the church and specifically the preacher are seen as irrelevant at best.”[3]  When prophetic preaching is viewed as inclusive conversation rather than as a solitary event, the gospel can become more relevant and speak to a more diverse set of experiences.
            Barbara K. Lundblad provides a helpful of explanation of preaching as a community conversation:
That’s how I think about preaching; it’s a conversation, even if one person is doing most of the talking.  I think of people in the congregation as my preaching partners.  They’re with me as I hear the text, discern the focus, shape the sermon, and in the moment of preaching…  That’s what a sermon is for me: It’s a meeting place between the scripture text and the community text.  It’s holy ground, where people turn aside to hear God’s word passed down over centuries, yet new in this time and place.[4]

Prophetic preaching centered on the cross is a holy ground, a meeting place where not just those in the congregation but also those outside the church doors can enter into conversation.  Simply taking into account current events, a congregation’s needs, the time of the year and other contextual factors can enrich one’s preaching but in my view the conversation is further cultivated by other intentional methods.  Sitting in on a pericope group with other pastors may be helpful, but holding discussions with other congregants about the upcoming Sunday’s texts could be even more fruitful.  It was a great experience this semester to blog about my initial impressions of the lectionary texts and thus have access to the insights of readers all over the world.  While it is my role as an ordained minister to introduce new texts into the community each week, the whole community takes part in both birthing the sermon and continuing the conversation:  As Veronica R. Goines states, “The origin of preaching may emerge out of a dialogue between the preacher and God, but its effectiveness is evidenced when the congregation takes hold of the sermon and carries its message beyond the preaching moment.”[5]
            As I fulfill my role of introducing new texts into the community conversation each week, informed by my Lutheran tradition I believe that it is best to use the common lectionary texts whenever possible.  While there may be occasional emergencies or joys in the community that warrant an alternative text or topic, using the lectionary helps to firmly center one’s preaching on the cross.  In being forced to humbly tackle difficult texts and being prevented from relying on one’s favorite verses, preaching the lectionary focuses me on the Spirit rather that my own concerns.  This perspective is described quite eloquently in Birthing the Sermon:
My appreciation of the lectionary has grown deeper because it gives me a broad range and a diverse diet of Scripture.  Otherwise, I think I would tend to stick with the familiar, neglecting to discover the gems and pearls of wisdom that are contained in the whole of sacred writ.  I am forced to consider what the relevant word is even from the difficult, seemingly inconsequential and neglected passages.[6]

Beyond centering one on the Spirit, the lectionary broadens the community conversation and contributes to church unity.  Through sharing a common set of texts each week, Christians from all over the world can engage in one global conversation online.  As more believers get connected and talk with each other, even those who do not have Internet access can benefit from the sharing of stories and insights across political and cultural boundaries.  Lectionary preaching can serve believers in even the most rural and unconnected villages by sparking conversation and mutual understanding, thereby contributing not just to Christian community but the local community as a whole.
            Centered on the cross, prophetic preaching bears witness to the oppression, violence and sorrow of the human condition, thereby comforting troubled consciences and drawing believers to faith in Christ.  While our broken humanity has been a universal reality since the time of Adam and Eve, our language for and our characterization of that reality is always changing.  As is reflected in The Book of Concord, Northern Europeans in the sixteenth century were pretty concerned about their souls and eternal damnation.  They also thought the newly invented printing press was pretty darn cool.  Many Americans in the twenty-first century simply do not believe in hell, and fewer still worry about the condition of their souls on an everyday basis. We do though constantly hear from our selves and others that we are not good enough, or pretty enough, hard working enough or rich of enough.  We all face the oppression of our imperfections at very least and most of us contend with many other oppressive forces.  While the printing press is old news for us, we are surrounded by Facebook, iPhones and Livestreams.  In order to comfort troubled consciences and bring believers to faith, prophetic preaching must use language and a means of presentation that reflects this contemporary reality.
            Although prophetic preaching must speak to the brokenness of our humanity, it must also celebrate the amazing things God is doing:
When I preach, I celebrate all the way through.  I preach with joy and with passion.  I have heard Henry Mitchell say on occasion that folks will do what they celebrate.  We have to help people understand that there is joy in living for Jesus and in serving the Lord, and that the joy of the Lord is our strength.[7]

Henry Mitchell was right… folks will do what they celebrate.  That is one of the many reasons why preaching must be an ongoing conversation… the preacher must know about what successes, joys and gifts the Spirit is working in his or her community.  Without celebrating such successes, how can we ever ask the community to do more?  Without knowing about the joys of another’s life, how can we truly be in Christian community with that individual?  Without celebrating the joy of Christ’s love and redemption of humanity, why would we ever proclaim our sin and brokenness at all?
            Centered on the cross, one must humbly admit that prophetic preaching does not come easy… it takes discipline and work.  While I have yet to develop an exact method for sermon preparation, a general sense of the process has taken shape.  When working a typical parish schedule, I plan on first reading the following Sunday’s texts a week ahead of time on Sunday or Monday morning at latest.  By simply meditating on the texts for a day or so while attending to my other responsibilities, I believe I can best provide space for the Spirit to begin working on me, “watering my soul like the moisture in a dry sponge.”[8]  I would then block out a regularly scheduled “meeting” with text for Tuesday afternoon in which I would read the text more careful, to initial exegetical work and publish my initial impressions on either a blog or through a YouTube clip.  Having thereby introduced the new texts into my faith community’s collective conversation, I would try elicit input both online and perhaps through a small group meeting on Wednesday.  Thursday would be my primary day for constructing a manuscript that I would then use to practice and refine my sermon.  Friday would be my day of rest, a Sabbath in which I could rest and refresh myself through exercise, quiet meditation and ideally a whole lot of fun.  In terms of self-care, regularly seeing a therapist is a non-negotiable… I need the supervisions to maintain both my health and ability to effectively preach.  Saturday would be the time to polish and practice my sermon, translating my manuscript into something I could preach without notes.  I have to come to see preaching without notes as my other great non-negotiable… notes limit me, tie me down and dampen the conversation between the assembly, the Spirit and myself.  On Sunday (and ideally not too early in the morning) I would arrive at church with enough time to practice once or twice more and pray with those who are assisting with worship.  I might occasionally use the pulpit if appropriate but typically I will preach from the floor, directly connected with the congregation in conversation (both spiritually and at times literally).
            I strongly disagree with those who spend thirty or forty hours actively preparing a sermon each week… in my mind that completely contradicts the idea of being a prophetic witness.  By spending any more than fifteen hours in active sermon preparation, I would be neglecting my call to proclaim the gospel through other means such as pastoral care, mission and evangelism.  Even while actively preparing a sermon, I would prefer to be out in a coffee shop, urban garden or neighborhood bar, surrounded by helpful distractions.  All those helpful distractions, unique situations and colorful people who would not typically be in the pews need to be part of the community conversation.  In neglecting to go out and meet those exiles, we ignore the humility of the cross and begin to worshipping ourselves rather than following God’s call to be a prophetic voice in the wilderness, proclaiming the gospel.

[1] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 41.
[2] Norma Cook Everist, The Church as Learning Community (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2002), 23.
[3] Cleophus James LaRue, More Power in the Pulpit: How America's Most Effective Black Preachers Prepare Their Sermons (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 99.
[4] Jana Childers, Birthing the Sermon: Women Preachers on the Creative Process (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2001), 119-120.
[5] LaRue, More Power in the Pulpit, 45.
[6] Childers, Birthing the Sermon, 31.
[7] LaRue, More Power in the Pulpit, 64.
[8] Childers, Birthing the Sermon, 20.

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