Each week pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, and religious leaders of all types hold the attention of the faithful to deliver a sermon, homily, lecture, or speech. In many protestant traditions these sermonic moments have become the apex of the church experience. While in the Catholic tradition the Eucharist is the pinnacle of the corporate experience, the homily still holds weight in the way that speech making is central to the Western world. As is the case with many people of faith, I hear at least a hundred sermons per year as a part of one liturgical setting or another, and I am beginning to have a major concern about the content of sermons across the board. I have found that nearly all religious expressions originate in the pioneer work of a spiritual genius (Mohammad, Jesus, Buddha, etc.) who struggles in isolation for a time, amid the opposition of established modes of thought, until an army of lesser intellectuals scatters the new thought broadcast, and it becomes a permanent factor in human consciousness (Quimby 1895). The more preaching I hear the more I am persuaded we have moved past the genius of the founders of our various religious expressions.
I am most familiar with the preaching of the Christian tradition which seems to have completely lost its original prophetic motif. By prophetic I mean the mode of preaching modeled by Jesus in the tradition of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, and Amos who boldly and publicly critiqued the oppressive and exploitative behaviors of the rulers and ruling class in their respective settings in life. Somehow much of what passes for preaching – at least in popular media–has forsaken an eschatological hope of justice in this world for an apocalyptic worldview expressed as a sense of powerlessness to effect meaningful positive change in an unjust social order. We are lacking a truly prophetic critic which holds a principled public critique and opposition to systemic injustice. (Hendricks 2011).
The global rise and popularity of fundamentalism and particularly Christian evangelicalism has shifted much preaching even in other traditions toward self-help emotionalism and messages of individual piety. These messages lack the moral and political judgement that a preacher is divinely compelled to proclaim, particularly to those in political authority. This surely is not the model that was set by Jesus for prognosticators of the message to follow. Jesus’ preaching notoriously challenged the aristocracy of his time and castigated the political infrastructure while always lifting the status of the marginalized and the oppressed. There was no lazy escapism in the preaching of Jesus. The primary concern of the recorded sermons of Jesus was creating a kindom where marginalization, disenfranchisement, and alienation would cease and equality, equity, and equanimity would rule the day.
The liturgical act of preaching is the exercise of communal speech and it gains its importance only as preachers are servants of the assembly (Lathrup 1993). What we desperately need today are preachers who will follow the model of Jesus and preach to the people from the people a culture of resistance. Kelly Brown Douglas is a wonderful womanist theologian and preacher who defines the culture of resistance as one that fosters the struggle for life and wholeness and helps people resist notions and practices that dismiss their humanity (Douglas 1999). The best of the Christian prophetic tradition follows closely and takes seriously not simply preaching about Jesus, but preaching what Jesus preached. A careful examination of the topics of Jesus’ preaching will show that he preached a transcendent God before whom all persons are equal and this equality endows the well-being and ultimate salvation of each with equal value and significance. What is normative in the preaching of Jesus is that every individual regardless of class, country, caste, race, or gender should have the opportunity to fulfill their potentialities (West 1982,2002).
The prophetic preacher seeks to paint a picture of a new world characterized by a preferable future. They paint the world with the toolkit of oral performance, imagination, and keen intellectual investigation (III 2015). The power of Spirit moves within the artist and with all their preparation a masterpiece is born. I challenge you to ask yourself and ask of your leader, what are we preaching?
Peace Is Possible,
Bishop Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Douglas, Kelly Brown. 1999. Sexuality and the Black Church. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Hendricks, Obrey M. 2011. The Universe Bends Toward Justice: Radical Reflections on the Bible , the Church, and the Body Politic. MaryKnoll: Obris Books.
III, Otis Moss. 2015. Blue Note Preaching in A Post-Soul World. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Lathrup, Gordon W. 1993. Holy Things. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Quimby, P.P. 1895. The Philosophy of P.P. Quimby. Boston: The Builders Press .
West, Cornell. 1982,2002. Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. Louisville: John Knox Press.