Synod executive: ‘It is so easy to see that the world is not the way that God wants it to be’
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Given the state of the world, particularly in Ukraine, encouraging preachers to stretch into prophetic preaching seems timely, even during this season of repenting and walking with Jesus to the cross.
The Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, interim executive of the Synod of the Covenant, led nearly 20 preachers through what might be the result of courageous and often difficult approaches to bringing God’s word to the ears, minds and hearts of worshipers during a 90-minute webinar on Wednesday. The talk, “Stretching Into Prophetic Preaching,” is part of the synod’s monthly Equipping Preachers series. Wednesday’s installment drew from Leonora Tubbs Tisdale’s book, “Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach.”
“Christians typically think of Ash Wednesday and of Lent as a time to focus on our own personal sin, and our own need for renewal,” Hardwick wrote in an Ash Wednesday posting on the synod’s website. “This year, however, I have been thinking about the ways that sin still has hold over the world in a grander sense — not just in the sins that we individuals commit, but in the overwhelming brokenness of our culture and environment. It is so easy to see that the world is not the way that God wants it to be.”
While one might think of prophetic preaching as predicting the future — here Hardwick displayed a graphic from the Hanna-Barbera sitcom “The Jetsons” — prophetic preaching in fact draws from the Hebrew prophets, who “spoke in the right way at the right time,” Hardwick said, such as this verse from Amos. Prophetic preaching can also include Paul’s call to the church to live up to God’s calling.
“These are social issues, issues of challenge for the congregation,” Hardwick said, “and it can also do with a church’s need to look beyond itself rather than within its own walls. It’s countercultural and encourages the congregation to look at things differently.”
Be wary, one participant cautioned.
“People speak of prophetic preaching as a plank of a political party, and they preach it as if it’s the word of God,” this participant said. “I don’t think we need to look to a political party as prophetic preaching.”
Prophetic preaching “is not rooted in the newspaper. It’s rooted in the biblical witness,” Hardwick said, quoting from Tisdale’s book, “both the testimony of the prophets and the words and deeds of the prophet Jesus of Nazareth.”
It also “requires the preacher to name what is not of God in the world (criticizing) and the new reality God will bring to pass in the future (energizing),” Hardwick said. “We are joining God in the work God is already doing. It’s not all up to us.”
Prophetic preaching “makes you think about your own personal stuff, and frankly it should,” another participant said. “We will have responses as we write our sermons in the same way people in the pews will have [upon hearing the sermon], and that is raw stuff sometimes.”
Why hesitate to engage in prophetic preaching? Tisdale lists some reasons:
- Hearers may have inherited a model of biblical interpretation that marginalizes the prophetic dimensions of scripture.
- If people are going through a difficult time, is this the time for prophetic preaching?
- The preacher may not want to stir the pot, which could divide the congregation.
- The preacher may fear being disliked, rejected or otherwise be made to pay a price for prophetic witness. “There is a word to be said about frequency,” Hardwick said.
- Discouragement “that our own prophetic witness is not making a difference” in difficult and complicated issues including immigration and racial justice. “In our polarized world,” Hardwick said, “it is the case that people opt out rather than wanting to wrestle with what their preacher is offering them.”
However, as one participant pointed out, “there is the idea that the Holy Spirit is guiding a person to preach a particular sermon in a particular place on a particular day. I think people need to hear what that person is saying. I may not agree with those voices, but the Spirit speaks to different people in different ways.”
Tisdale offers preachers engaging in prophetic preaching any number of strategies. Among them:
- Speak the truth in love. A C+ sermon will be viewed as an A- sermon if the preacher is viewed as a friend.
- Stand in someone else’s shoes to gain a different perspective. Tisdale quotes ELCA pastor Barbara Lundblad, who says if she ever wins the lottery, she’ll purchase a few easy chairs for a nearby Laundromat, “enough for everyone to sit down and take a load off” while their load is spinning dry. “All they’ve got are three old chairs, and two have broken seats.”
- Stand with the congregation rather than over the congregation. Don’t allow the situation where the preacher and the scripture passage gangs up on worshipers.
- Use a congregation’s history as a prophetic bridge for its future. Hardwick said he once served a church “with a great tradition of reaching out to people Jesus called ‘the least of these.’ I was trying to get them to invest their time, energy and leadership around town. I could say to them, ‘This is the church we have always been.’”
- Invite someone personally involved in a concern to participate by preaching on it.
- Articulate the opposing view fairly and accurately.
- When necessary, “be the court jester, lampooning the principalities and powers.” Prophetic preaching “doesn’t have to be a serious finger-wagging event,” Hardwick said. “The stakes may be high, but the shape of the sermon doesn’t have to be. Serious points don’t have to be made in a serious way. But don’t be sarcastic.”
- Take the long view. One parishioner quoted by Tisdale observed that “for three weeks, my pastor will preach about love and pastoral care. About every fourth week there will be a zinger in the middle that really challenges us in some area. And because they come as a part of the whole package, our people are usually very open to hearing them.” Or, as Hardwick said, “a well-crafted little makes more progress than a poorly-crafted lot.”
On Russia’s invasion and war with Ukraine, “one thing to think about when preaching counterculturally is that probably people won’t disagree that Russia should not have invaded Ukraine,” Hardwick said. The trick for the preacher will be “to figure out, ‘Am I preaching against the culture of Russa, which decided it would invade a free country?’”
How will preachers energize people to join God’s work? What can one congregation or worshiping community do to help God’s dream for the world emerge?
We can contact legislators, give money to organizations working for peace and pray consistently, Hardwick noted.
“We don’t want to leave it at criticism,” while engaging in prophetic preaching, he said. “But how can we energize our people to work toward the world God wants us to have?”
The Rev. Dr. Angela Dienhart Hancock, Associate Professor of Homiletics and Worship at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, will lead the next Equipping Preachers workshop, which is set for 10 a.m. Eastern Time on April 6. Hancock’s topic is “Preaching in Polarized Times.” Participants need not live or work within the bounds of the Synod of the Covenant. Register for the free webinar here.
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Categories: Communication, Congregational Vitality
Tags: amos 5:24, Ash Wednesday, barbara lundblad, equipping preachers, Lent, leonora tubbs tisdale, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, preaching in polarized times, prophetic preaching, prophetic preaching: a pastoral approach, Rev. Dr. Angela Dienhart Hancock, synod of the covenant