For the preacher who defines herself as a “social justice” preacher, there is an unfortunate abundance of sermon material from which one might draw these days. Everyday, it seems, we are regularly accosted with an endless barrage of human rights abuses, government corruption, wanton abuse of marginalized community, racist-statements-reinforcing-racist-policy-radicalizing-racist-people-to-do-racist-things, and egregious moral failings that call the character of the American President into serious question. Let’s be honest – this is a golden age for progressive Christian preaching.
And therein lies the problem. Too many Progressive Christians or Christian Progressives seem to have staked their claim and their voices in this space in opposition to this current regime (and rightly so) but have either willfully ignored how our current reality falls in the trajectory of human rights abuses from our nation’s past or they failed to connect the opposition to the current regime to the principles espoused in the Gospel. Often it is both. This is not to shame anyone who has awakened to the existential dangers of racism and white supremacy, patriarchy and homophobia, xenophobia and naïve patriotism. Sometimes it takes something to rattle us free from the engrossing false-narrative that is America. On the contrary, this is to make clear that our voices cannot solely be in opposition to the current President. Jesus was more pro-Kingdom of God then he was anti-Roman Empire in part because it is the nature of “kings and kingdoms” to rise and fall. We must locate and immerse our voices, trembling though they might be, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ or else we who tend towards progressive politics risk becoming the religious arm of the Democratic Party.
That might not sound dangerous to some, but I am clear that Christianity in the service of any nation, state, or political party ceases to be Christian. In as much as our Lord heralded the Kingdom of God alone – not any earthly authority – he makes clear that his reign is to be lived outside of, within, and along side civil governments, not enacted through them. This is something our white Evangelical brethren have failed to acknowledge. The Gospel is political in the sense that it impacts how we live our lives together in community, but it can never be partisan or else we sacrifice our witness on the altar of political expediency.
“The preacher was a rhetorical quilter, taking and reworking the raw materials of people’s lives, our civic context, and the Gospel, and creating amazing works of art in the process.
So, what does this have to do with preaching? Well, it seems that one of the things that happens on social media on a fairly regular basis is a phenomenon where, in reaction to something that has happened or is currently unfolding in our nation or world, Christian ministers make statements like:
If your pastor doesn’t say something about [blank] this Sunday, leave and never turn back.
If your pastor doesn’t preach about [blank] tomorrow, they’re terrible Christians, apostates, heretics, smug, privileged bastards who are mishandling the Gospel and should rethink Christian ministry altogether.
The last one is a little bit dramatic, but you get my point. The phenomenon often comes from people who identify as white progressives and is often shared and affirmed widely in the white progressive Christian community. I only mention race because, after reflecting on a conversation (a rather dramatic one) that I had with a ministerial colleague on Twitter, I realized that one of the reasons I react against this phenomenon so strongly is because of its racialized tone. “If your pastor doesn’t preach THIS” Twitter is basically white Christian progressively sanctioned tone policing – it’s people dismissing the actual preaching context and bullying preachers to say what they deem as appropriate. It is people using their privilege to center their righteous indignation, context be damned, and ignoring the experiences and work of others. What’s sad is how quickly this idea spreads and how it draws an unfair and unnecessary line in the sand. People on one side are deemed the true “progressives” while folks on the other are silenced and anathematized.
I grew up in a black Baptist church and up until the age of 23, I don’t remember worshiping in a congregation that wasn’t at least majority people of color. In the communities in which I worshiped, prayed, and was formed, the preaching regularly wove themes of hope and despair. The preacher was a rhetorical quilter, taking and reworking the raw materials of people’s lives, our civic context, and the Gospel, and creating amazing works of art in the process. It was nothing to walk into church and hear a sermon that spoke about the shooting that killed a community youth, God healing someone’s hypertension, and what was at stake in the upcoming city council election. I don’t even know that these pastors would’ve defined themselves as “political,” “progressive,” or “prophetic,” but it could be argued that their preaching most certainly was. The faith that nurtured me was complicated and didn’t require anyone outside of the community to determine what the community needed. The pastor had his (because until recently it most certainly was always a he) finger on the pulse and knew how to respond with “thus saith the Lord.”
“She knew that people aren’t changed because of one encounter with one sermon on one day but molded over time through a regular exposure to the power of the Word of God.
The problem with “If your pastor doesn’t say THIS” Twitter is that is doesn’t have a finger on the pulse; it has an ear to the news and an eye to “likes” and “retweets.” Don’t get me wrong, I tepidly affirm the statement often attributed to theologian Karl Barth, that we must “do theology with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.” I believe that the Gospel must be relevant and timely if it has any hope of taking root in people’s lives and bearing any fruit whatsoever. I say I “tepidly affirm” the statement because theology isn’t simply a mashup of the Bible and the daily news. Each person who walks into a church on Sunday morning brings a whole host of life with them: the joys of marriages and births, the anxiety of work or the uncertainty of a job loss, the fear of a medical diagnosis, the grief of a broken relationship, the happiness of a new home, and so much more. This doesn’t include those who aren’t there, but are still members of the community. Preaching must take ALL of that into consideration if it is going to mean anything at all to anyone at all.
The preaching I grew up with was saturated in this awareness. It came out of the community and went back into the community. It was a balanced ecosystem. It was a cycle, a holy dialogue, a call-and-response exchange where the preacher was so ingrained in the lives of the community that she knew how to break open the words of life to her people in life changing ways. She knew that just because it is in the news now, doesn’t mean it must be addressed now. She practiced holy patience and wasn’t afraid to go into her secret closet to hear a word from the Lord before she spoke. She knew that preaching is a long game, that it takes a long time to form people around the values of the Gospel. She knew that people aren’t changed because of one encounter with one sermon on one day, but molded over time through a regular exposure to the power of the Word of God.
So, when white Christian progressives get on Twitter and begin the “If your pastor doesn’t say THIS” tirades, I often want to (and did) push back by asking people to remember the long game. Twitter is a platform that rewards the shocking and the immediate. The posts that get the most likes and retweets are seldom deep or thought-provoking. They’re sensational. Like the seed scattered among the rocks in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-17), they spring up quickly but soon wither because they have no root. “If your pastor doesn’t preach THIS” Twitter ignores the complexity of faith communities, not only politically and ideologically, but also at the human level. These folks miss preaching as a “long game” and instead see it as a series of separate, unconnected bursts of activity. Preaching for them is primarily catharsis, not catechetical.
I am currently enrolled in a Doctor of Ministry in program focusing on preaching. I have also been preaching for well over half of my life (I gave my initial sermon when I was 14, 18 years ago). I have preached in small black Baptist churches, large predominantly white Mainline churches, on street corners to a congregation of folks experiencing homelessness and addiction, in a hospital chapel to a congregation of 5 (2 of whom had just suffered a miscarriage), in a campus ministry setting, in a seminary chapel, in ornate cathedrals and run-down storefronts. I have preached sermons I thought were good, sermons I knew were terrible, sermons I thought were good but bombed, and sermons I thought were abysmal but found resonance with one person. I may not know everything about preaching, but I know something about it, and I know that preaching one sermon very seldom changes anyone. I know we in Mainline churches are obsessed with (and fetishize) white Charismatics and black Pentecostals for their ability to preach incredibly moving sermons that result in dramatic action on the part of the hearer, but overall, most sermons fail to achieve that level of impact (and it might be helpful to interrogate that impact before we seek to emulate it). Most preachers work their entire lives to move their congregations millimeters from where they begin. It’s why in the Parable of the Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29), we find that even the one who sows the seed has literally no idea how or why it grows. The sower goes to sleep and wakes up – literally dies and is resurrected – and over time discovers that it just grows. It’s why preachers often have “greatest hits” or themes they return to repeatedly, because it takes a lifetime (or multiple lifetimes if the parable is to be believed) of repetition to get people to buy into it and allow it to take root in their lives.
One sermon about a particular issue that is divorced from a larger narrative that supports it does more harm than good. I have said in other places that, if you don’t have the knowledge or language to properly speak to an issue, you probably shouldn’t since your lack of awareness can cause damage. Speaking about an issue without a broader framework of awareness either exacerbates the anxiety of the community by giving them enough to make them scared or anxious without giving them something to do with those feelings or it lulls them back into a space of complacency because their pastor said something and they went to church, so that’s all they’re responsible for. In her recent book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, writer Austin Channing names clearly what I have long felt to be a problem with these episodes of passion. Writing specifically about performances of “racial reconciliation” in predominantly white churches, she says, “too often dialogue [about race/racism/racial reconciliation] functions as a stall tactic, allowing white people to believe they’ve done something heroic when the real work is yet to come.” I think the same can be said about sermons about sensational news divorced from larger narratives of justice or larger networks of action. By preaching/listening to sermons about the issue at hand, we can be seduced into thinking we’ve “done something heroic when the real work is yet to come.” Reactive preaching, liturgical virtue signaling, is a symptom of a church whose sole expression of and engagement with justice is in their liturgy.
“He preaches and lives a consistent ethic of compassion, justice, and righteousness which provide the context for these other stories. They fit together and can therefore inform one another.
Preaching is a lot of things and certainly should be a place where the moments of great import of our times meet the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If black preaching has shown me anything, it is that cathartic preaching has a place; but, if we merely react to the news every time we step into the pulpit, we cede the power of the moment to those who already have power. We allow the news and those who can’t keep themselves from making it, not the Spirit, to determine what words our community hears to sustain their spiritual journeys.
Christian preaching is about Jesus. Yes, Jesus has something to say about the poor, the oppressed, the refugee, the prisoner, the lonely, and the persecuted; but, Jesus couches this in his broader vision for a new world. He doesn’t just speak about the poor, oppressed, refugee, and prisoner as unconnected episodes or personalities. All throughout the Gospel, Jesus weaves the stories of persecuted women, the corruption of Second Temple Judaism, lepers, Roman Imperialism, tax collectors, hopeless mothers, righteous pharisees, and spiritual seekers into the larger narrative of the Kingdom of God. He’s a quilter. He preaches and lives a consistent ethic of compassion, justice, and righteousness which provide the context for these other stories. They fit together and can therefore inform one another. He speaks in parables and refuses to do the heavy lifting for his audience. He trusts that if says “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” his audience is able to know what that means. Good preaching doesn’t have to make all the explicit connections. It’s poetic; it trusts the audience to do the work too.
The truth is that so often our preaching is reactive because it is neither consistent nor abiding. We engage in virtue signaling because our world demands it. We have to prove that we are the right kinds of Christians who say the right things about the right issues. So many people have said it to properly attribute it, but it is true – if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. If the only time you bring up how our immoral and broken immigration system and pathological xenophobia dehumanizes brown immigrants is when it is in the news, you’re too late. If you can only talk about the abuse and harassment women experience in the workplace, home, and at church, when it is on the front page of your local paper or when your fave has been cancelled because of accusations of sexual abuse, you’re too late. If the only time you can talk about the existential danger of white supremacy to the soul of our nation and the bodies of people of color is when police have shot can killed another unarmed black person, you are too late. Reactive preaching only reacts to the news. Rather than seeking to set the temperature, it only records it.
“Our sermons are always, perpetually, continually inadequate. That they are “the Word of God” is a mystery of the continued unfolding of the Incarnation
In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King intimates that we should recover the day when “the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” Christian preaching must go beyond simply measuring and assessing society. Christian preaching must set about changing society. For God’s sake, the Gospel is more than a diagnostic tool; it is the words of life! Unlike so many of our white Evangelical brethren, the change we seek can’t happen from the top down. We can’t look for any hall of power to sanction the Reign of God; Rather, following our Lord’s most blessed steps, we must build a grassroots movement to catalyze the Reign of God in our midst, one worshiper at a time. Throughout the Gospels we hear, time and time again, the Kingdom of God compared with seeds, and sowing, and farming. The point is clear: the Reign of God begins small and takes time to grow.
If preaching is, as Bill Brosend says in his book The Homiletical Question, the preacher “proclaiming the good news of God’s reign in the midst of a wonderfully rich liturgy” while asking herself the question “what does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion,” then preaching must always take into account a context and a people or else it is nothing more than the preachers projection of self into the community. In the words of Lauren Winner, the preacher is doing more than speaking in her own voice. “The preaching of the Word of God,” she says, “is the Word of God.”
Let’s face it: our sermons are always, perpetually, continually inadequate. That they are “the Word of God” is a mystery of continued unfolding of the Incarnation (Inphonation?). We are always Isaiah in the divine throne room, bemoaning that we have “unclean lips and we dwell among a people of unclean lips.” We are Paul, faced with our mortality and utter inability to complete the task, crying out “wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death!” We are always unfit, and yet the righteousness of God makes us fit to do the work to the best of our ability. If our clumsy words and stammering tongues have any power at all, we must always rightly name that it is “Christ who lives in me.”
I am often asked why I linger in the pulpit a little too long after I preach. One reason is to upload the recording to my podcast. The other reason is to recite a few words I learned from Renita Weems:
And now, go out and preach with a bad conscience, knowing that for everything you choose to say in the pulpit, there was something you chose not to say, could have said, but for your own desperate reasons chose to ignore. Preach your best, dear friends, and then be quick to sit down forever looking over your shoulder at any moment for the disapproving tap of an angel.
Maybe we can cut preachers a break. We are often managing more than meets the common eye – culture change, church management and anxiety, demands from parishioners, demands from bishops and others in authority over us, not to mention our own life stress, loneliness, anxiety, shame and guilt. The world is spinning out of control at every level and every level is worthy of naming. Sister Bertha’s cancer might not impact the world as much as a refugee crisis in the Middle East, but it matters a great deal to Bertha. If your pastor didn’t name the thing you thought of paramount importance, maybe it’s not that they are “doing church wrong” and should’ve “cancelled service.” Maybe we can sit back each Sunday and trust that our pastor did the best they could with what they had and, if we have that much a problem with what they said or didn’t say, approaching them with humility and respect and ask questions.
I think we’ll find a ready ear and a willing, if exhausted, hand to help further the work of the Reign of God in our midst.
 Austin Channing. I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World made for Whiteness (New York: Convergent Books, 2018), 170.
 Bill Brosend. The Homiletical Question: An Introduction to Liturgical Preaching (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2017), 5.