In my line of work, I think about preaching seven days a week, and for hours on end at that. After a while, someone like me can forget that even churchgoing folks don’t ponder preaching nearly so often. And if that’s true of regular attenders of public worship, one can only imagine how seldom thoughts about sermons cross the minds of those who rarely (if ever) show up for Sunday services. What’s more, most preachers labor in relative obscurity in congregations where the people who hear a given sermon number in the dozens not in the hundreds or thousands. Sooner or later most of us who preach sense the sting of the lyric from that Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” that says, “Father McKenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear. No one comes near.”
But every once in a while something happens that throws preaching, of all things, into the public consciousness. This spring Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the clips of his fiery pulpit talk catapulted him, and one particularly famous parishioner, into a roiling controversy. Suddenly everynewspaper in the countryand everytalking head on television was discussing preaching. Two days before Easter, the front page of the New York Times ran a feature story on how Barack Obama’s March 18 speech on race in America was exercising an inf luence on the Easter sermons of many preachers throughout the United States.
It’s a curious experience to see the semi-obscure topic you ponder ever y single day suddenly eclipse even the latest shenanigans of Britney or Paris. More curious still, however, is the experience of finding that despite your near constant focus on the verytopic ever yone is suddenly talking about, you are not at all sure what to say in response to it all. Some reactions are easy: No, I don’t think partisan politics belongs in any pulpit on the right or the left. And no, I don’t agree with the loopier things Rev. Wright had to say on those endlessly played video clips.
But as disturbing as the surface features to this story have been, there are disturbing undercurrents, too. Because it seems that just underneath the theorythat (rightly) claims a sermon should not be an inf lammatorypiece of partisan rhetoric is another theor y that says that sermons should not be upsetting or challenging in any sense. Sermons should go with the f low. Sermons should affirm what we believed when we walked into church. A good sermon is one to which we can all say a hearty “Amen… bad sermon is one that sends us home with a furrowed brow as we are forced to re-think our position on this or that issue.
A cliché often heard around seminaries asserts that preaching is meant to “comfort the aff licted and aff lict the comfortable,” but not too many preachers put that into regular practice. As Jesus learned after his veryfirst sermon in Luke 4, the comfortable tend to protect their comfort fiercely, even if it means hustling the preacher off the nearest cliff. But this would have come as no surprise to any number of other biblical preachers: Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos, Paul, Peter, and James all knew something about the shattering nature of preaching. Preaching could land you in jail or get you thrown to the bottom of a well or get you exiled to an island or get you showered with stones. Small wonder that even the first generation of Christian preachers wrestled with the temptation to preach only what “itching ears” wanted to hear (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3). A ll of us who preach swallow hard when we read Paul’s words to Timothy about preaching the truth as opposed to presenting what suits people’s own desires.
Nothing seems to have gotten Rev. Wright into more trouble than his suggestion that America has sins of which it ought to repent. True, his rhetoric in expressing that was offensive and over the top, but would his critical words have been any less scandalous had they been delivered in measured tones? How many preachers would get in trouble if they suggested that we cannot say “God Bless America” unless we do so through penance and tears and with a desperation that acknowledges that any such divine blessing comes by grace despite our woeful sins and not through national privilege? Talk to enough preachers and you’ll discover that many endured their first pastoral crisis when they suggested that draping the cross with the f lag may not be a wisest practice for citizens of God’s trans-national kingdom.
No one wants to get thrown off a cliff. But those who preach and those who listen to preaching must now and again wrestle with the sharp angularities that come when Christ’s gospel encounters a broken world. It would be a most unhappy outcome if the recent national focus on preaching led both preachers and congregations alike to retreat to only that which passes cultural muster as safe and pre-approved. Oddly enough, what made the people in the synagogue so furious at Jesus in Luke 4 was his reminder to them that many times God did his best work far outside the insular confines of the chosen nation of Israel. Those who have ears to hear…