Learning How to Preach Again

"Resistance," Image by Julien Sanine via Flickr, Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s good to be back, Dear Working Preachers. Yes, it is always good to come home after an extended trip, but it’s good to be back writing this column (again, my gratitude to Matt Skinner for writing while I was gone). Why is it good to be back writing this column? Because the need for knowing that you are not alone when you get behind that pulpit, when you have to name sin, call out evil, when you struggle to find the courage to speak the truth of the Gospel, is acute right now. I hear it. I see it. I feel it.

Perhaps this perception came into greater focus because of a different locale — often the cause for a change of vision. A move outside of one’s daily perspective is often necessary to correct any myopia that might have set in. An altered reality is just where revelation is bound to happen.

Why do you read this column? You have shared with me that it gets your homiletical juices going. It gives you an idea, or the direction for an idea, that you can then put into the flesh and blood words that your congregation needs to hear. But in my month away from writing, I remembered that another reason you read Dear Working Preacher is because it reminds you that thousands of other preachers are reading it as well. I realized that one of the reasons I write this column is so that I am not alone in figuring out how the Bible helps me make sense of the world.

The solidarity that comes with being a preacher is an oft-forgotten promise because we more often seem to experience the task’s loneliness and isolation. And yet, it is this promise that makes possible the kind of preaching critical for this time and place. To be the Christian (note the italics — the very identity and truth of what it means to be Christian today is at stake) public leaders, teachers, and preachers our world needs today substantiates solidarity. Without it, we won’t be able to speak up and speak out with the kind of boldness and clarity critical for communication that can actually be heard and believed.

These observations, however, are not just about our current homiletical challenges but name the hermeneutical challenges the story of the Canaanite woman’s faith raises. Every once in a while, we need to be reminded of the fact that Scripture is not simply the source of our preaching but also shapes our preaching, guides our preaching, even changes our preaching. How this specific story causes you to preach is as important as the content of the story itself. And the ways in which this woman implores us to be different kinds of preachers can only be realized when we recognize that we are not alone in the kind of preaching she is urging us to do.

In short, my brief sabbatical has caused me to wonder if we are on the brink of a homiletical reformation. That the situation and circumstances out of and into which we are called to preach in these times are such that demand a recalibration of our homiletical trajectories. The Canaanite woman’s faith is just the homiletic we need right now. Her faith is demonstrative of how we need to preach right now.

This faith is summarized in her response to Jesus’ dismissal, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In that once sentence, she embodies and emboldens the kind of preaching that has to happen today, the kind of preaching we used to be able to do. Somewhere along the line, the church devolved into assimilation and cooptation rather than holding onto its roots as a voice from the margins. A voice that denounced violence and hatred and idolatry. A voice that decried discrimination and disenfranchisement. A voice born out of the fundamental rejection of supremacy and power wielded against the poor and the oppressed.

At some point, Dear Working Preachers, you are going to have to decide if you will preach like the Canaanite woman or keep on with a “many-sided” homiletic, deliberately vague in both its content and delivery so as to maintain your base. You are going to have to decide if you are willing to call a thing what it is and be ready to face the defensiveness that will result.

You are going to have to decide if you really want to be a Christian preacher and then take the blame for the church’s demise that will most certainly come your way. Of course, clear speech often results in blame. Clarity has a way of eliciting discomfort, both personal and communal, that inevitably results in accusation rather than accountability.

You are going to have to decide if you want to be a preacher like the Canaanite woman or play it safe. A preacher who preaches what is truly at stake or who, in fear, remains silent. You are going to have to decide if you are going to be a preacher forgotten or a preacher like her — remembered. A preacher known for preaching not only what is at the heart of the Gospel but also how to preach the heart of Gospel.

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” is both a summary of the Gospel and a lesson on its proclamation — resistance, persistence, and vigilance.

This is her legacy. And I pray that our sermons will answer her plea.