Where are preachers to find hope for their vocation in this week’s lectionary readings? The Old Testament, Gospel, and Epistle lessons all seem to provide cautionary tales for anyone trying to bring the word of God to the people of God.
First, in Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Moses assures the Israelites that when they have entered into the Promised Land, God will appoint prophets to speak on God’s behalf. This responsibility is deeply consequential for the prophet, since “any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die” (Deuteronomy 18:20). Moses’ admonition brings a bit of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” feel to so-called “prophetic preaching,” the summons to proclaim God’s justice, judgment, and hope in a world that has turned away from God’s righteousness. If you do it right, the people might kill you; if you do it wrong, God will.
Walter Brueggemann has written about the preacher’s role not as prophet, but as scribe: the one who transmits the tradition—the texts—to the people.1 The role of scribe does not absolve the preacher from the responsibility to speak truth to power or to speak a hard word to the congregation. After all, the textual tradition we inherit is one in which God freed the Israelites from enslavement to a tyrannical leader and organized their new life in community around commandments to care for the vulnerable.
But in the reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:21-28), we see the pitfalls of the scribal life, the way it is so easy to slip into the patterns of preservation rather than liberation. Jesus’ rebuke of the unclean spirit earns him “street cred” in contrast to the established authority of the scribes. While the role of scribe has much to commend it, particularly in its Old Testament manifestations, the Gospel reading this week nonetheless pours a bit of cold water on the title.
We turn, then, to the Epistle lesson (1 Corinthians 8:1-13), in which Paul reminds the church at Corinth that their actions have a profound effect on others. While many Corinthians know that idols are empty and powerless, and therefore eating food offered to them is inconsequential, their willingness to eat that food might encourage other believers to do the same, bringing about their fellow believers’ destruction (verse 11). Moreover, Paul asserts that if the Corinthians lead others astray in this regard, they have done nothing less than sin against Christ (verse 12). Paul’s words remind us that, like it or not, Christian leaders’ actions are an example to others. Our own freedom to act must be constrained by its possible influence on others—something we have to consider every time we step into the public eye.
The Old Testament, Gospel, and Epistle lessons remind us, in distinctive ways, of the profound challenges of Christian leadership. But now we come to the psalm. Ah, the psalm! Psalm 111 reminds us that with those challenges of public leadership also comes profound joy.
After the psalmist’s initial cry of “Praise the LORD!” the psalm proceeds as an acrostic; each line begins with the next successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The first-person shout of praise at the beginning—“I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart”—fits nicely with the acrostic form, since first-person-singular imperfect Hebrew verbs begin with aleph. Yet that “I” there at the beginning with no clear antecedent, no authorial signature, also helps us, the readers, step into the poem.
As we step into the poem, we also step into the sanctuary, into the community assembled to praise God (verse 1). We unleash our testimony about the greatness of God, first in general terms (verses 2-4) and then with specific examples (verses 4-6, 9). Psalm 111 calls us back to the fundamentals of worship as we lead the community in making a joyful noise to the LORD, testifying to all of God’s wondrous mercies we have seen. At the heart of the call to ministry is this glad shout in the congregation of the faithful as we come together (even virtually!) to give praise to God.
By examining these four texts together with an eye to the preaching vocation, I by no means wish to imply that we should sift through the lectionary texts each week until we find one that make us feel comfortable—absolutely not! Rather, the joyful reverberations of the psalm in the midst of otherwise ominous texts remind me that amid all the difficulties of the call to ministry—and of the call to discipleship in general—we have nonetheless experienced the overflowing goodness and mercy of God. When all else fails, praise God. When all succeeds, praise God. In everything, praise God.
So, Working Preacher, I petition you to remember the psalms regularly—not only for worship, but also for preaching and for reflection on your own vocation. The psalms give us words for our biggest feelings when we run out of ways to describe them: grief, sorrow, guilt, fear, abandonment, joy, and praise. They intersect in one way or another with nearly every thematic category we might identify throughout the Bible: worship, wisdom, exodus, monarchy, prophecy, exile, lament, sin, repentance, hope, freedom, grace, and more.
Psalms aid in our understanding of the biblical tradition, even as they nourish our spiritual lives. They can even remind us why we took on this call, where we are privileged to profess to the world that “God’s praise endures forever” (Psalm 111:10).
- Walter Brueggemann, “The Preacher as Scribe,” in Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, ed. Anna Carter Florence (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), 5-19.