(Creative Commons Image by Mustafa Khayat on Flickr)
When you read about the battles between Amos and the court prophets, with whom do you identify?
The answer would seem obvious. Amos was God’s prophet, proclaiming a message of truth. His adversaries were just hired minions of the ruling elite who kept their jobs by prophesying whatever their employers wanted to hear. Clearly, we in the pulpit are modern-day prophets, faithfully speaking a word of God’s truth to a world that often seems reluctant to hear it.
If only it were that simple.
While it is understandable that we would want to cast ourselves in the role of the good guys, a realistic assessment of our role in today’s culture would force us to conclude that most pastors today, myself included, have more in common with the court prophets of King Jeroboam than we do with Amos.
After all, who pays our salaries? That’s right, we are in the employ of the religious powers in our context, just as the court prophets were. To some degree, we are beholden to them, just as the court prophets were. As a practical matter, if the religious proclamations we make do not please those who pay our salaries, we know full well that we are asking for trouble and may possibly talk ourselves out of a job. There is no denying that there is strong economic incentive for us to satisfy or at least not overly offend, those who ensure that we can feed our families.
I think we would do well to quit pretending, and to acknowledge this reality. What I have just said, in fact, is more in the prophetic tradition than most preaching. After all, whether or not this article may offend some readers doesn’t enter into the equation because none of you pay my salary. While I may be in error in what I say, I can at least be fairly sure I am speaking the truth in love to the best of my ability without having to watch my back.
I bring this up because there are times when all of us are called to be prophets of the Amos variety: to speak boldly on behalf of the poor and powerless in a world saturated with selfishness and arrogance. It took a great deal of courage for an outsider like Amos to do this; think how much more courage it would have taken for a court prophet in Jeroboam’s palace to do what Amos did. More courage than most humans have.
I have had a number of discussions lately about “bold” sermons. As best I can tell, a bold sermon is one in which a pastor (i.e. court prophet) proclaims a word of God that might anger, offend, or disconcert some of those who pay his or her salary.
Such a sermon requires tremendous courage. When proclaiming a word from God on a crucial but volatile issue such as racism or changing attitudes toward gays, there is a good chance that some of the court that pays our salaries will be upset and that consequences may be forthcoming.
But the prophetic sermon also calls for wisdom, because we are all members of the body of Christ. We love and respect each other. We do not want to cause division where none is needed, nor provoke hostility that overwhelms prayerful dialogue. I would hold up Pope Francis as an example of a bold preacher who couches his prophetic proclamations in a responsible way.
I imagine most preachers have had the experience of finding themselves preaching on subjects and in ways that they would rather not take on. But if it is truly a word from God, we find, as Jeremiah did, that it becomes like a fire inside us and we simply cannot contain it. When that happens, we can be pretty sure it IS a word from God and that we are being called to preach it, despite the risk involved.
Thank you to all Working Preachers who regularly proclaim in the courts of the religious authorities. God give us all the courage to proclaim what needs to be proclaimed, the wisdom to do it with love and tact, and the assurance that this word of God will not return empty, but will accomplish what God intends.