Last year, I attended a preaching conference where Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker were invited to address those in attendance. We cannot fault the politicians for attending or for candidating (after all, they were both planning to run for the office of president). But we might begin to wonder why they were invited to a conference on preaching. I was reminded that in the early nineties I was in attendance at a conference for evangelicals where George H. W. Bush was invited to speak. We can try to convince ourselves that this is the business of the church but when honest we know what is going on here. Unfortunately, the state has mastered the art of placating the church in order to receive votes. While the church may think it has the ear of the state, I fear it is the state who has the church by the throat. The danger is we water down the gospel and preach sermons that sound like we are simply chaplains for Caesar.
Barbara Lundblad spoke to the opening crowd at the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis this week. The theme is “Preaching as Moral Imagination.”
For myself, the strength of this sermon was when Lundblad stated that we all know Luke 18 as a parable about prayer. Later, after pointing out that the parable mentions “justice” four times, she says “maybe Jesus thinks he is telling a parable about justice.” Even later, after pointing out the parable concludes with a question about faith, she asks “are we to hear this as a parable of faith?”
She goes on “Is this parable about prayer, justice, or faith?” If we pray without an interest in justice, are we even interested in the work of God? If we attempt justice without prayer, are we convinced we can accomplish it on our own?If we prayer for justice without faith, are we likely to give up too soon?
Lundblad’s gifts are evident as she immerses listeners into the text. She gives life to both the persistent widow and the unjust judge. She has us thinking that Jesus may have known a widow like this and a judge like that.
Then she asks if this widow could be a refugee shut out of the country, a drag queen dancing illegally in the streets, an African American not permitted to vote because she has no photo id.
While we may not know Lundblad’s purpose for selecting these examples as illustrations, it is obvious from listener response that many are pleased her description of justice sounds like the agenda of “progressives” in D.C. In case some of these preachers serve people who disagree with this message, she encourages preachers to be faithful to the agenda. Be faithful even if they encounter people who threaten to leave the church “if they hear one more sermon that sounds like politics.”
The fact is, to preach the gospel is to preach politics. This is unavoidable. But when Jesus came as King of the Kingdom preaching the reign of God, he did not come endorsing any brand of earth’s politics.
Any of us might be challenged to insert our own opinions and preferences into sermons from time to time. Our preaching must speak truth to the powerful, but it must never serve as a puppet to any arm of politics.
It is awkward and artificial to hear someone using an outside agenda to drive the text. May we be a people who allow the text to drive the agenda.
“Times are dark. But hope remains in reach…” So begins Kenyatta Gilbert in his Exodus Preaching: Crafting Sermons for Justice and Hope. From there, this homiletics professor from Howard University School of Divinity goes on to write a book that explores the necessity of preaching and introduces strategies for preaching with a “prophetic consciousness.”
There is much to love about this book. I love the way he admits the conflict preachers face while in the conquest narratives. He calls for us to name trouble spots like God’s mercy toward Israel vs. God’s actions toward Israel’s foes. He even offers a helpful sermon intro to those narratives. That is part of the benefit of this book, Gilbert attempts to be practical when it is possible to be practical. Another example of this are the sample sermon excerpts throughout the book. Each of them contain high points such as this from Raquel St. Clair Lettsome “We are not paranoid. There really is a plot to destroy us, a plot that requires us to reckon with powers and principalities…” She goes on to tell us that “Moses was born in the middle of an assassination attempt.”
Gilbert cautions us from saying too much too soon, reminding us that plot unfolds like a good movie. The biblical narrative contains “plots, twists, and turns.” Preaching should include these when present in the narrative. He calls on hip hop artists and tells us there is much to be gained from urban poets who utilize “the ironic to wage war against the status quo.” Another proposed strategy is to use the lectionary. I do not come from a lectionary tradition, but certainly appreciate his reason. He wants “the preacher to preach the whole counsel of scripture, even texts that disturb the preacher’s psyche.” I not only find myself agreeing with things he says, but loving the way he says it.
Another helpful suggestion is to engage with resources that may propose different ways to think about things. He asks “Why impoverish your exegetical imagination by chatting with your regular theological buddies every time you prepare a sermon? There’s much fruit to be obtained from picking fights with commentators who have contrasting opinions…” This spills over into his concern (one that I share) about the term evangelical. It has come to mean “a host of things religiously and politically. The term itself has become politically corrupted and has ballooned into a great source of consternation within and without the body of Christ.”
Exodus Preaching is intended as a primer for African American preaching (although preachers from across the spectrum can gain from his work). He considers it to be “a theorhetorical discourse.” One with a knack for the poetic that “speaks concretely to situations of tragedy and despair” in “daringly evocative and creative ways, drawing on the beauty of language and culture.” Just saying, I love that description of preaching (and that word – theorhetorical).
Gilbert is correct that “Too many preachers shun prophetic preaching for fear of sounding too ‘political.’ The gospel isn’t American politics, but to proclaim the gospel in time and space is unavoidably political.” I could not agree more. He adds that “pairing the right text with an isolated and clearly identifiable issue is critical.” He goes on to say that “If wrongly paired, forced interpretation is inevitable and one’s preaching will mute the gospel and become centered around a personal agenda.” Gilbert enters territory that makes me a bit uncomfortable when he suggests that social injustices may drive the sermon rather than the biblical text. We can agree that it is important for injustice to be named. While I am not opposed to topical preaching, I simply am aware of its dangers. I have heard many topical sermons that have fallen into something other than gospel. For example, as reputable a preacher as Raphael Warnock is quoted as saying in a sermon excerpt “There are things WE CAN DO and MUST DO; Call your congressperson and senators and demand that they fix action 4… Show up to vote in 2014… Start registering folks to vote now… Make use of absentee voting… Prepare to sue every state that will institute severe voting restrictions… Begin raising money in our churches right now!” I would simply suggest that we should shun preaching that sounds too much like American politics.
This leaves me wanting to ask, “Why go to church? Why preach the gospel? Should we have people go to the bother of gathering for sermons when we can hear the same thing on the six o’clock news? As much as we want America to be a better place, such an application runs the risk of suggesting that our hope is in the American kingdom (if we can only get it right). Perhaps salvation is to be found in D. C. after all?
Enough of that, Gilbert concludes with a helpful sermon of his own and then leaves us by telling us that Exodus preaching is “God speech – holy correspondence for dark times. It dares to name a God on the move…” Just saying, I like that. I really like that.
Just a few questions for preachers during a hot political climate (and during any other political climate).
1) what are things related to politics that should be said and what are things related to politics that should be avoided?
2) Should we preach differently when we like the president than when we do not?
3) How do we make room in our preaching for those in the body who have different political views than we do?
4) What does it mean to be a faithful voice to the world regardless who is president?
There are some dangers when preaching starts to sound like American political speeches. Here are a few reasons we need to rethink the way we talk about politics.
1) There are significant sectors of the church (perhaps people from every church tradition and denomination) that have become convinced that their favorite American political philosophies are in alignment with scripture.
2) The integrity of preaching is in danger if preaching does not sound any different than other forms of speech about political ideology.
3) Listeners who trust preachers to proclaim the ways of God may be persuaded to think the bible encourages specific political positions.
4) The one body of Christ is at risk when other allegiances become so important that followers of Christ debate political preferences to the point of division.
5) The witness of the church is in danger when the world observes the church behaving as other entities in the world, clamoring for the same power and fighting one another in order to gain it.
There is a strong possibility that preachers and congregants join with parties, positions, or rhetoric in order to belong to those who appear to hold the power. Although the gospel speaks about power differently than the world does, it remains a temptation for the church to hold some of that power. This is not the first century the church has decided to join the ways of the world in order to accomplish what it perceives to be good. The call to dwell in the world that God so loved in order to influence the world in the ways of God sometimes backfires. Whatever else may occur at this time, it is likely the world begins to see the church as just another group attempting to gain control by grabbing onto the world’s power structures.
The reasons preachers may be tempted to preach a political ideology that is something other than biblical may include; 1) a preacher’s own political bias. 2) an attempt to please congregants. 3) an effort to support a particular political effort. 4) a confusion that some political theory equals the gospel. 5) some other attempt to appear relevant. These may not be the only reasons but I suspect these occur frequently. All of them fall short of preaching the gospel.
On a personal level, this preacher has experienced; 1) many instances of preaching that encouraged alignment with current political power structures. 2) frustration when preaching sounds like popular forms of political rhetoric. 3) concern about the direction of the church as it hears and responds to political rhetoric. 4) a conviction that preaching should reveal a biblical counter-politic to current political rhetoric.
What is your experience? Do you share these concerns? Do you disagree?