As I left the recent Alliance of Baptists annual meeting and its excellent workshop on “Prophetic Preaching,” some reflections on the topic of prophetic preaching came rushing to the surface. William Barber‘s prophetic teaching and preaching had set the tone for the meeting. Are there guidelines for such preaching?
Prophetic preaching follows the path of the Hebrew prophets, who were given a vision from God and sought to apply that vision to the realm of “plain history, real politics and human instrumentality,” to use the phrase of Paul D. Hanson. It seeks the welfare of the city, as Jeremiah urged, while avoiding what Will Campbell and James Holloway called “Politics as Baal.” As important as it is, the ultimate realm is not the political realm.
While prophetic preaching has not dominated my preaching through my forty-something years of ministry, I have addressed such issues as the Iraq War, the church and homosexuality, the national neglect of the poor and most vulnerable, same-sex marriage and the Inauguration of President Trump. It has never been easy and has required much pastoral work alongside it. Here are some reflections on prophetic preaching gained through my years of experience:
First, prophetic preaching has tears, what Ben Boswell, pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., named “lamentation.” George Buttrick used to say that the kind of humor appropriate for sermons was the humor close to tears. I think true prophetic preaching is close to tears. We preach in identity with God’s people and the people of our nation, not pontificating from above. Jesus wept when he prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem.
Second, prophetic preaching comes from our life with God — a deeper place than the morning newspaper. Novelist Andre Dubus has a character reflecting on three kinds of priests entering seminary. The first group enter the seminary like young cadets entering West Point looking to move up in the ranks. The second group enter seminary to work out their neuroses. The third group enter the seminary to live their life with God. This third group, he says, have a vocation. We may all have some ambition to move up in the ranks of our profession. We may all have neuroses to work out. All God’s children have neuroses. But we want to minister and to preach from a deeper place, from our life with God. There’s where the best prophetic sermons come from. It will give the preacher both conviction and humility, a requisite combination.
Third, prophetic preaching comes, as Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., suggested, from the context of pastoral relationship and pastoral preaching. “They hear not the voice of a stranger.” There is, as Wayne Oates used to say, the “over-against-ness of God” and the “along-side-ness” of God. Without a healthy balance of these two, our preaching becomes either too oppositional or too comfortable. A prophetic sermon can have pastoral overtones and a pastoral sermon can take prophetic excursions.
Fourth, sometimes, as Fred Craddock used to say, sermons preach what the people need to hear, other times what the people need to say. Prophetic preaching gives voice to what people need to hear lest they ignore the purposes of God. And at other times it strengthens those seeking the purposes of God by saying what they need to say or have said on their behalf.
Prophetic preaching is both perilous and necessary in these times of a divided nation where one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. We witness the clash of two narratives, the narrative of the right and the narrative of the left. Let us preach a larger narrative than that of the left or right, the biblical narrative that challenges and redeems all our smaller stories. It is what William Barber called being given a new tongue.