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‘We don’t always have to get it right. We just need to wrestle with it’

The Rev. Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert, an authority on African American prophetic preaching, shares experience and empathy with the Synod of the Covenant

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert (photo courtesy of Howard University School of Divinity)

LOUISVILLE — About 20 minutes into Wednesday’s 90-minute webinar on prophetic preaching, the Rev. Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert paused to answer questions. After one about preaching in “purple” churches (a mix of political conservatives and progressives in the pews) Gilbert got this question from one of the 30 participants, a pastor also serving a purple congregation: Have I spent enough time understanding the complexity of the lamentation of these people?

“That’s real talk. It’s a good starting place,” said Gilbert, professor of homiletics at the Howard University School of Divinity and the founder of The Preaching Project, a teaching and mentoring ministry that promotes preaching excellence and effective leadership. Gilbert’s talk, “Preaching Justice and Hope in Turbulent Times,” was part of a preaching series put on during the first Wednesday of each month by the Synod of the Covenant.

One way for preachers to engage a congregation, Gilbert told the assembled preachers, is to “examine their lives as they understand them.”

“Many congregants who hear us want the preacher to do too much of the heavy lifting from the pulpit,” Gilbert said. Questions including “how did your vote work out for you and for our community?” can be best answered over coffee rather than through a sermon, Gilbert said. The preacher’s message can go something like this: “I am accountable to you, but there is something about what I am set apart to do that only a preacher called to shepherd can do.” Sadly, many white churches have “no strong sense of the eldering dynamic, where the preacher is accorded privilege based on [academic] preparation,” Gilbert said. “Some deference has to be afforded to the preacher in that respect … I think God trusts us to be good stewards of the Word, the divine mystery itself. We don’t always get it right,” Gilbert said of each week’s sermonic effort. “We just need to need to wrestle with it.”

Gilbert based Wednesday’s webinar on his book, “Exodus Preaching: Crafting Sermons About Justice and Hope.” According to christianbook.com, Gilbert’s fourth book “is an exploration of the African American prophetic rhetorical traditions in a manner that makes features of these traditions relevant to a broad audience beyond the African American traditions.”

Gilbert says the 2018 book reflects his efforts to discover “the interpretation of divine intent through the lens of justice and hope.” It’s “congruent with the agenda of the Hebrew prophet and is a radical response to injustice and suffering.”

That’s the common thread in all prophetic preaching, Gilbert said: it “traces the recognition of injustice” and relies on the preacher “naming injustice for what it is and what justice should be. African American prophetic preaching is not radically different from prophetic preaching in general.” It is, he said, “filtered through the lens of [African Americans’] cultural experiences.”

Prophetic preaching has four marks, he said:

  • It unmasks systemic evil and deceptive human practices by means of what Gilbert called “suasion and subversive rhetoric.” The preacher’s job is less about bringing about change and more about unmasking and exposing, he said.
  • It “remains interminably hopeful when confronted with human tragedy and communal despair.”
  • It connects speech with just actions “to help people freely participate in naming their reality,” Gilbert said. Preachers “don’t speak on behalf of others. We speak alongside them, assisting those who have been oppressed to name their reality, their struggle. We do that best in dialogue with persons we consider our equals.”
  • It “carries an impulse for beauty in its use of language and culture.” For some critics, that can come across as bombastic, showy or theatrical. Kinder hearers “would assign other performative characteristics to this genre of preaching,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert offered up thumbnail descriptions of the social world of two Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah and Joel. That look back allows preachers to see intersections and diversions between their world and ours, he said.

“If that’s the exegetical map,” Gilbert said, “I think I can also raise questions with how does this cohere with what we are seeing today and why this is troubling. The Scripture has its own political edge.”

Comparisons between today and Joel’s time are readily apparent. Ethnic pluralism is present in both eras, as are health and ecological crises as well as what Gilbert called “apocalyptic expectations.” The differences are also obvious: “Our technologies are different,” Gilbert noted. “We don’t us a shofar. We use the internet. Our tools of war are more advanced and destructive. And sackcloth attire is not the ceremonial vestment of mourning for western Christians.”

Photo by Cassidy Rowell via Unsplash

During the webinar’s second question-and-answer session, Gilbert was asked about biblical illiteracy that’s widespread in some churches. The pastor has to bring people along, he said. Some preachers have been known to use a Bible study as a prompt for the Sunday sermon.

Then he recalled one of the most surprising sights he saw when he first started attending Princeton Theological Seminary: there were no Bibles in the Chapel’s pew racks.

“Toting a Bible to church was my expectation growing up,” Gilbert said. “If I’m going to take your word for it, I have to see it in the text.”

Would it be a sin, he wondered, for the preacher to pause after the reading of God’s Word and ask worshipers to “take another moment to reflect on this passage … You can still be creative in the sermon without crowding it with a Bible study.

“Allow the people you are preaching to to sit with the text,” he recommended. “Then dive right in and preach on the text.”

Learn more about the Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series here.


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