Preaching As A Social Act: Theology and Practice by Arthur Van Seters (ed.)
Arthur Van Seters is Principal and Associate Professor of biblical interpretation and preaching at the Vancouver School of Theology, Vancouver, British Columbia; 1986 president of the Academy of Homiletics; and author of several papers for the Academy on social dimensions of preaching. Copyrighted by Arthur Van Seter, 1988, and published by Abingdon Press, Nashville. This material prepared for religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 1: The Larger Context by Justo L. Gonzalez and Catherine G. Gonzalez
(Note: Justo L. Gonzalez is visiting professor of theology at the Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, Ga. Catherine G. Gonzalez is professor of church history, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA.)
Any sign is capable of different meanings according to the various contexts in which it is placed. A kiss, usually a sign of love, becomes a sign of betrayal in the story of Judas. Law and order, values which every normal human being cherishes, in certain contexts become code words for privilege and oppression. Likewise, the meaning of a sermon is greatly determined by the context in which it is preached.
More precisely, one should say that the meaning of a sermon is determined by the various contexts in which it is preached, for every act of preaching takes place in a series of contexts. Some of these multiple contexts are wider expressions of one another, as, for instance, the series of concentric circles that goes from the local community to the wider community, to the nation, and eventually to the entire globe. Others intersect one another at various levels such as social class, liturgical setting, economic conditions, personal struggles, racial prejudice, and denominational traditions. The result is that each act of preaching takes place within a unique constellation of contexts and that the more that constellation changes the more will the meaning of the sermon itself change, even if it is repeated verbatim.
In addition, the traditional context of preaching is the sacramental life of the church. From very early times, the church gathered both to hear the reading and exposition of Scripture, and to partake of the sacrament of Holy Communion. During the Middle Ages, preaching was relegated to such a point that eventually it became relatively rare, and the regular worship of the church was almost entirely reduced to Communion — the Mass. Seeking to correct this imbalance, the Protestant Reformers emphasized the importance of the exposition of Scripture, and insisted that Christian worship ought to consist of Word and sacrament. Eventually, the pendulum swung to the other extreme, and most Protestant churches have come to the point where preaching is the central act of worship, and Communion is rarely celebrated. As for baptism, it has often become a parenthesis in the service, after which we return to the "regular" acts of worship.
In spite of such extremes, the proper context of preaching is the sacramental life of the church. Preaching, as part of the worship of the church -- in contrast to the preaching that takes place outside the church and is addressed mostly to nonbelievers -- is addressed to the people of God. It is addressed to people who have been baptized and who seek to live their life out of that baptism. It is addressed to people who live through the nourishment of the Table. Therefore, even when there is no baptism and no Communion in a particular worship service, preaching takes place within the wider context of those two sacraments.
This is of crucial importance, for when we seek to place preaching within the context of the "wider community," meaning by that both the local community in which a congregation exists and the global community, part of what we seek is a theological understanding of that context. It is certainly true that in order to understand the nature of a community, we must look at the statistics that describe it. Such statistics are relevant and should not be avoided, for they provide data that would be difficult to gather from other sources. This is true of any given local community as well as of the global community that is always the context of preaching. But, for us Christians, the nature of a community, just as that of an individual's life and promise, is also a theological question. Therefore, when inquiring about the larger context in which preaching takes place -- the human community at every level, from the neighborhood to the globe -- it is helpful to begin by placing that inquiry within the sacramental context that is also the implicit or explicit context of every act of preaching in Christian worship.
As we look at the eucharist, the first thing that strikes us is that from very early times the sacrament of the Table was a sign of the unity of the church. Paul declares that "because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (I Cor. 10:17). This unity is also the theme of one of the earliest prayers to be said over the bread, which looks forward to the time when the church will be gathered from all over the earth, just as the wheat, which was once scattered over the hills, has become this one loaf (Didache 9.4). Soon it became customary, at least in the city of Rome, to take a fragment of bread from the celebration of Communion at the central gathering place (where the bishop presided over the service) and place it with the bread for Communion at the other worship services. Later, again as a sign of the unity of the church, the practice arose of keeping in each church a list of bishops of other churches and praying for them during Communion. The act of erasing the name of a bishop from such list -- the diptychs -- was a sign of a breach in the unity of the church.
What all this means is that in the act of preaching, which takes place either directly or indirectly within the context of Communion, the entire body of Christ throughout the earth is part of the context. The church with which we worship is not only the congregation gathered at a particular place to hear a sermon; it is also the church universal, scattered throughout the earth. The context of a sermon is not only its immediate hearers, but also that church whose faith we share and with whom we worship. Concretely, this means that preaching should always take into account, not only the immediate context of the congregation, but also that wider context of the community of faith throughout the world. Preaching should certainly address the situation of the hearers. If it takes place, for instance, in a middle-class suburban congregation in the United States, it must deal with the issues and concerns of that congregation, but it must not do so at the expense of its catholic context. Preaching must be addressed to the needs of a parish; but it must not be parochial, for one of the needs of every parish is to be connected to the church universal. People in the above-mentioned suburban parish need to recognize that they are part of the same church that struggles for justice in South Africa and gathers for worship under a thatched roof in a village in India.
The catholicity of Communion, however, goes beyond geography. It certainly cuts across geographic and political borders, but it also cuts across the borders of time. When we celebrate Communion, we are joining the entire body of Christ, not only present, but also past and future. Christians in affluent countries in the twentieth century have grown used to such a fast pace of life and to such constant changes in the material environment that we tend to think that our problems are unique, that the past is worthless as a source of wisdom for modern times, and that our ancestors in the faith have little in common with us. And yet, Communion, as the context for preaching, reminds us that in those things that are most important, our being part of the body of Christ, we are one with our ancestors in the faith. Furthermore, this unity through the ages is part of what it means to be a faithful Christian today.
It is, however, the future-oriented dimension of Communion that most needs to be emphasized. The earliest Communion prayers that have survived have a clear eschatological dimension. Communion is not only the remembrance of the death of Jesus, it is also the remembrance of his resurrection and his coming again in glory. In other words, it is a reminder of the future order of peace and justice for which we wait. Therefore, Communion, with its eschatological announcement and pre-enactment, is a reminder to the church that we have a particular vantage point as we look at the entire context of our preaching and our life. The horrible statistics of famine and injustice are, as far as they go, a true description of our world. We must take them seriously and seek to do something about them. But the reason why we confidently undertake to undo injustice and promote peace is that we know that the world has a different future from the present reality; a different future which places reality under a new light.
This temporal catholicity of Communion and of the Christian faith is also the reason why the context of our preaching cannot be only the worldwide community of those who already believe. If such were the case, we would seek justice and peace only for those who are also believers in Jesus, but that is not the case. The eschatological expectation of the Christian church looks forward to a time when the meaning and significance of every human life will be revealed in Christ. Since this is our expectation, the context of our preaching and of our faith and living must go beyond the community -- even the worldwide community -- of those who presently believe and embrace all those who are invited to believe in Jesus Christ -- the entire human race.
Finally, the catholicity of communion also includes the whole of creation -- even inanimate objects. Too often we make the mistake of forgetting that God is the Creator of the entire universe and that the entire universe is part of God's plan of redemption. Such a mistake contributes to our callousness toward the rest of creation, as if we could treat animals, fields, and forests in any way we please. After all, we tell ourselves, we are intelligent beings with a higher goal, spiritual beings with a particular kinship to God, and therefore the rest of creation must stand aside when it comes to our goals and interests, but Communion tells us otherwise. The sacraments are one of many signs God has given us that even in our most spiritual undertakings we are tied by an umbilical cord to the earth. Just as our physical bodies need the earth to be nourished, so does our spiritual life need the bread and wine of Communion -- and the water of baptism -- to be nourished. Therefore, the context of preaching is not only the human community, both local and global; it is also the entire community of God's creation. And just as in our preaching we must proclaim justice for the human community, so must we also seek justice for the entire community of creatures.
The sacrament of baptism is also part of the context of preaching. In our regular worship services, we are normally speaking to those who are baptized, and part of the purpose of preaching is to unfold the meaning of our baptism. Baptism is the beginning of the Christian life, not simply as a ticket that allows us to enter into this fellowship, but rather as a birth that determines who we are for the rest of our lives. Just as our birth in a particular nation and setting is a constant factor throughout our lives, baptism is the point of departure, the definition of our selves, to which we must constantly return in order to understand who we are and who we are called to be in Christ.
Normally, it is within the community of the baptized that we are preaching. As such, we are, or at least we ought to be, a people with a different vision of reality. As people who are born again through water and the Spirit, we must see all of reality under a different light. Paul spoke of how his values had changed to such a point that what he had earlier sought and cherished he now considered of little worth (Phil. 3:7-8). The light of the gospel had given him a different vision of the world. What we seek to do through worship is, among other things, to renew and clarify the vision that derives from our new birth.
This is the wider context of our preaching. It is not simply the world around us. It is the world as seen and judged from the perspective of a people who have been set aside for a mission, born again into a new people. This is not otherworldliness. It is not a matter of believing that our real context is some other world. It is, rather, a matter of accepting and affirming this world as the proper context for our preaching and for our entire Christian lives, but at the same time seeing it under a different light or from a new perspective.
All of this sounds very abstract, but does have some concrete and radical applications. If we look, for instance, at the international economic order apart from our baptism and Christian faith, we could look at it simply as North Americans, and our main concern would then be how to preserve those elements in that world order that benefit our economy and how to change those that do not. On the matter of Japanese imports, for instance, our question could be posed in terms of what are the best policies to ensure that such imports do not undercut American industry and employment. But if we look at the same question from the perspective of those who have been baptized into Christ and who live out of the hope of a new order of peace and justice, our question would have to include concern for Japanese as well as for North American workers -- and for Third-World countries whose citizens may suffer due to the policies of both Japan and the United States. If we take our baptism seriously, we have become sisters and brothers of all those all over the world who have been baptized, largely due to our past missionary efforts. And we have become potential brothers and sisters to the rest of humankind, whose human condition as well as faith is part of our present mission. Their well-being must be our concern just as much as that of our own families, and this places every issue in the contemporary world under a different light!
Social Factors in the Preaching Context
When we preach to a congregation in a particular community in this country, we are very much aware that members of our congregation are concerned, not only about the issues of the local community, or about those relatives who live with them, but also about loved ones who may be far away. Parents may be worried about a child in another city whose marriage is going through difficult times. Another member may be thinking about a parent in a distant city who needs special attention. Still another has not heard from a spouse in military service in Central America. All of this is part of the context of our preaching, and appropriately so. What we must do, however, is to make certain that part of the context is also our concern for our black sister in South Africa and for our struggling Asian brother.
In spite of all this, and of the catholicity of the church, there is no doubt that specific social, political, and economic contexts affect both the sermon itself and the manner in which it is heard. Given that fact, it is important for a preacher to learn to analyze how the context of an act of preaching affects what is said and what is understood. No word is ever spoken apart from a context. No word has meaning apart from a context. Therefore, in order to be faithful, the preached word must be faithful in its context. This means that it is of fundamental importance for preachers to learn to analyze the setting in which their preaching takes place. This is to be done, not simply in order to speak to that setting, which we have been told over and over, but also in order to make certain that our words, spoken and interpreted in that setting, are responsible.
Given that task, a useful approach is to list some of the specific elements in common preaching situations, to show how they affect the meaning of what is said, and to seek ways to correct the misinterpretations that such contexts may produce. By way of example, we shall briefly discuss four levels at which these dynamics take place.
1. Social Status. One of the most common blind spots for preachers who come from backgrounds that have traditionally implied power -- for instance, male, white, North American, or any combination of these -- is the degree to which who they are affects the way people hear them. Those who come from the opposite end of the scale of social acceptance are more readily aware of such matters, for they experience them daily. A black woman, for instance, is very much aware that she is given different degrees of credibility and authority in various groups. How she is heard depends on whether she is addressing black women, black men, white men, or white women. For her, this is such a daily experience that she does not have to be told that such relationships are part of the context of preaching. A white male pastor, on the other hand, can easily ignore such dynamics, although they are no less present when he preaches. The first and most immediate social context of preaching is thus the inevitable intrusion in the dynamics of preaching of the social relationships between preacher and hearers. To ignore this is to risk being misunderstood or speaking the "right" word to the wrong people.
The way to correct this should be quite obvious. We must analyze our own social standing before those to whom we speak. Are there social factors-race, culture, class, gender, education-that give us a certain status, positive or negative, vis-a-vis our congregation or part of it? How does that status impinge on what we are saying? How will we be heard by people who consider themselves our equals? How will we be heard by those who, for whatever reason, grant us special status? How will we be heard by those at the other extreme? Do we have these various situations among our listeners? If so, we must make certain that our words address each of them.
A second and more crucial way to respond to this first issue is to take steps to make certain that, to the highest possible degree, our words are spoken, not on our own authority but on that of Scripture. The more a sermon rests on the authority of Scripture, and the less on the status of the preacher, the better. Preachers who speak on their own authority are credible only to those who grant them superior status. In the modern world, where the status that is automatically granted to preachers is declining, it is particularly important that we do what preachers should do in any case: speak on the authority of Scripture, and not simply on our own.
2.Catholicity of Focus. Naturally, factors such as class, race, culture, and nationality also affect the dynamics of preaching. Unfortunately, many of our churches have allowed themselves to be stratified by class, so that various congregations are comprised of people of specific classes. This makes for a more comfortable social life within the congregation, but it does not make for clearer listening to the Word of God. We all need the various perspectives that the universal church can bring to our understanding of the Word. This is part of the meaning of catholicity: a vision of the word cath'holon, "according to the whole." A group of Christians with a particular social, political, and economic perspective, no matter how learned or earnest they are, can never listen to the entire message of Scripture with the same degree of freshness, or find in it the same level of challenge, as a more diverse group. Unfortunately, part of the given context of most of our preaching is the narrowness of our Christian communities, segregated as they are by class, race, and levels of education, and, in too many of our activities, also by age. Thus, the second contextual factor that must be taken into account in most situations of preaching and Bible study is the lack of the variety of perspectives that should enrich the church catholic.
The obvious way to respond to this challenge is to do all we can to make certain that the church at each place is as much a representation of the church catholic as possible. This is particularly important for congregations composed mostly of those who are relatively powerful in a society --more specifically, in our society, of white affluent North Americans -- and who therefore in their daily dealings are not forced to listen to or to learn from those who are less fortunate. A segregated suburban congregation is deprived of the richness of perspectives on the gospel that a more varied congregation enjoys or the richness forced upon an ethnic minority congregation that constantly hears the perspectives and interpretations of the dominant group.
Since, however, it is not possible for any congregation to embrace the rich variety of the church catholic, it is important for pastors to include that variety, both explicitly and implicitly, in their worship and preaching. Explicitly, one includes it by making reference to Christians living under other circumstances whenever possible. Implicitly, one includes it by making certain that nothing is said that one would not dare say before those other Christians who are not present. In a Thanksgiving service, for instance, we must be ready to repeat in the presence of our Native American sisters and brothers whatever is said about ownership of the land.
3.Fear of Change. Third, and to some degree a specific instance of the foregoing, we must be aware that for various reasons some people favor change, and others fear it. This goes beyond the natural fear of the unknown and has more to do with the social standing of various individuals and groups. Generally, those who are favored by the existing order wish to preserve it and resist any change that they cannot call "progress" -- which means change in the same direction as before, more of the same, rather than something radically new. Those who suffer under the existing order sometimes fear that change will bring greater suffering and sometimes hope for a change that will somehow ameliorate their situation. In between, a vast number are afraid of losing whatever control they have over their own lives, and therefore idealize the past, and fear that the present may be leading toward a chaotic future.
These various groups tend to view God in different ways. While for some, God is the sustainer of the order that exists, for others God is the great agent of change and the reason for hope in a new order. Most of our congregations, and a great deal of our theological tradition, lean against change. Therefore, Scripture tends to be interpreted in that direction. Generally, our churches are either in a situation of social stasis, or wish that such were their situation, and most of what we say is interpreted within that context.
Perhaps we ought to realize that neither change nor stasis is the basis on which we must judge what the will of God is. In Scripture, that will is shalom, love, peace, and justice. Therefore, in a situation where either change or the lack of it are considered values, we must insist on these biblical criteria. It is on this basis, and not on our likes and dislikes, that we must judge both every existing order and every change that interrupts it. Where there is no justice, change toward a more just situation is good; but change can also be evil when it curtails justice~as, for instance, when economic and political power is being concentrated in the hands of a smaller number of people.
4.A Theological Heritage. A final context that cannot be ignored is the theological upbringing that is a part of our heritage and of the heritage of most of the congregations in which preaching takes place. Under this heading, it is particularly important to underline two nefarious theological traditions that are part of the negative context that we must take into account.
The first such tradition is the false spiritualization of the gospel. From very early times, the church had to struggle against interpretations of the gospel that turned it into a religion of spiritual salvation. There were many such religions in the Mediterranean basin, and there were also many Christians who wished to reduce their faith to another such religion. Although the church officially rejected such notions, they have reappeared frequently. As a result, many of us were brought up thinking that, according to the Bible, God is primarily concerned about "spiritual" things, that the gospel is good news only for the soul, and that themes such as social and economic justice are the concern only of a few portions of Scripture, such as Amos and James.
In some instances, a similar role is played by another theological tradition which teaches that whatever is must be God's will. If such is the case, what God expects from those who suffer injustice is not that they seek to change the existing order, but rather that they accept it with resignation. From this perspective, to "take up our cross" is not an active taking up of the challenge of the gospel, but rather the passive acceptance of whatever ills befall us. While such views are not prevalent in the dominant culture in the United States, they are widespread in oppressed communities both in this nation and abroad.
The change in this perception is probably the most revolutionary discovery of the new theology in Latin America. It is expressed, not only in theological treatises, but also in the worship of the people, such as in the following song from a Salvadoran peasant mass (1):
Nosotros pensamos We truly believe that God's
Que a Ia verdad Word has come to us and
Vino su Palabra made us change.
Y nos hizo cambiar.
Me dijo mi abuelita, My grandmother told me
"Si te quieres salvar that if I wished to be saved I
Las cruces de Ia vida would have to bear the
Tens que soportar." crosses of life.
Pero resignaciones But what God wants is not
No es lo que quiere Dios resignation. God wants your
El quiere tus acciones actions as works of love.
Como obras del amor. (Coro) (Chorus)
"Conf6rmense y trabajen," "Be content and work," the
Nos ha dicho el patr6n, hoss has told us, "for only
"Que s6lo en la otra vida in the next life will you be
Tendran la salvacion." saved." But God cannot
Pero Dios hoy no aguanta stomach a new Pharaoh, and
Un nuevo Faraon orders all the people to work
Y manda a todo el pueblo out liberation.
A hacer su liberacion. (Coro) (Chorus)
The traditions of spiritualizing the Word of God and of accepting whatever exists as God's will are part of the context of preaching. They are part of the social and economic context, for they do play a role in the social and economic ordering of society. Indeed, these are not simply theological notions; they are also ways in which we unwittingly justify our lack of concern for justice and for the physical needs of the poor and the oppressed. They are also one of the instruments whereby the poor and the oppressed have been traditionally kept from claiming their rights. No matter how much we believe we have left these things behind, they are part of the inevitable context of our preaching.
Let us then apply these principles to the analysis of a specific sermon.
Sermon: The Setting
The general content of this sermon was originally developed by the two of us as part of a Bible study on the whole Book of Jonah. It was given at a national gathering of Presbyterians strongly involved in social action. The form that is presented here is a sermon given by Justo at an Annual Conference(2) of The United Methodist Church, where he was specifically asked to address the issue of ethnic minorities in the church.
"Sign No But the Sign of Jonah"
Among my many fantasies, there is one in which I see myself preaching at the closing service of Annual Conference and choosing as my text Jonah 4: "God appointed a worm"(3) (verse 7).
I lack the necessary fortitude to do that, but still, I would like to draw your attention this morning to the Book of Jonah. This is probably one of the books most avoided by preachers. It is easy to see why this is so. Who has any desire to get embroiled in controversies about whether the book is historical data or literary fable, or about whether it was a whale or a fish that swallowed Jonah?
In passing, it may be interesting to note that this book has been controversial since ancient times, although for different reasons. Back in the fourth century A.D., Jerome decided to translate the Bible into the Latin that was in common usage in his time. This is what we now know as the Vulgate. When he came to the passage in the fourth chapter of Jonah in which we are told that God caused a plant to grow and shelter the prophet, he translated the name of the plant as an ivy. The traditional translation, however, said that it was a gourd. And we are told that when the bishop of a certain church in North Africa was reading Jerome's text, some protested that there was a mistake in the reading, for the plant was a gourd, not an ivy. The controversy became bitter. Letters flowed back and forth between North Africa, Rome, and Palestine, where Jerome was then residing. Soon there were two parties, the "gourdites" defending the old translation, and the "ivyites" defending Jerome's version. Jerome himself became exceedingly angry -- which was not difficult for him to do -- and declared that his opponents were drunkards and that the reason why they insisted on a gourd was that they wished to have a place to hide their liquor. Today, scholars tell us that the best translation is probably neither a gourd nor an ivy, but a castor bean!
It would be funny, were it not that it is so tragic. Because, you see, the point of the controversy is that they missed the point of the book.
The book is not about an ivy or a gourd or a castor bean. The book is about God's care for the Ninevites:
-the Ninevites, who were famous for their cruelty
-the Ninevites, who did not know God
-the Ninevites, who did not even know enough to be either liberal or fundamentalist
-the Ninevites, who had no idea whether Jonah had come by camel or by whale
-the Ninevites, whom one would expect to be the last people on earth to repent
-the Ninevites, who were the cruel enemies of Israel, and whose destruction should have caused any good Israelite to gloat and rejoice.
But even more important, the Book of Jonah is not about a whale or a fish or a gourd or a worm. The Book of Jonah is about this strange God of salvation who appoints Jonah, and appoints a storm, and appoints a great fish, all so that Nineveh might not perish.
And it is about the prophet who knows full well the extent of God's mercy and grace, and does not like it. In effect he says, "Lord, I wish I could die. This is why when I was in my land I did not wish to come. For I know that you are a gracious God who repents from evil." Jonah did not refuse to go to Nineveh because he was afraid. He was no coward. Actually, when the storm threatened the ship it was he who suggested to the sailors that he be thrown overboard. Nor did he refuse to go to Nineveh because he did not like the usually unsuccessful role of a prophet or because he did not understand the purposes of God. On the contrary, he understood too well. He knew that God is a gracious God. He knew that God wanted to save Nineveh. He understood that God's mercy is such that he could well be successful and save Nineveh. He understood, and he didn't like it. Can you imagine what it would be like for Jonah to return home and have to tell his neighbors where he had been, and that he had actually saved their most dangerous enemy?
So, the Book of Jonah is about this strange God whose chosen ones may have to be tossed by wind and storm, robbed of all security, and even thrown to the depths of the ocean, all so that faraway Nineveh, enemy Nineveh, might be brought under the wings of God's gracious love.
Actually, this is how Jesus interprets the text. It is well-known that he declared that this "wicked generation ... asks for a. . . sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah" (Luke 11:29, NIV).
When we hear those words of Jesus, we immediately think of the three days in the belly of the whale, and of the parallelism with the time Jesus lay in the grave. And that is part of what the Gospel says about the sign of Jonah. At least, that is what the Gospel of Matthew says. But we forget that there is more than this to the sign of Jonah. Matthew and Luke both offer more clarification as to the meaning of this sign:
For as Jonah became a sign to the (people) of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation. The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with the [people] of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The (people) of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here (Luke 11 :30-32).(4)
The sign of Jonah is the Ninevites repenting and calling on the mercy of a God whom they do not know, while the prophet who does know God, bemoans that mercy.
The sign of Jonah is in the Queen of Sheba coming from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon when the king's sons refuse to follow that wisdom.
The sign of Jonah is in the harlots and the publicans going into the Kingdom ahead of the religious leaders of their time.
The sign of Jonah is in One who was rejected as a blasphemer by the religious leaders of his time and condemned to death as a criminal by the political leaders, rising up from the dead and sitting at the right hand of God, and being given a name that is above every other name, so that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Phil. 2:10), and even those of the religious and political leaders who condemned him. (In a way this gives deeper meaning to the connection between the sign of Jonah and the three days in the belly of the whale, for the connection is not simply in the numerical parallelism of the number of days, but even more in that Jonah, after sinking to the depths of the ocean, rose again to call the mighty city of Nineveh to repentance.)
And, we might add, the sign of Jonah is in Cornelius, the military officer of the Empire that killed Jesus, becoming the occasion for Peter and the early church, like so many reluctant Jonahs, to discover the wideness of God's mercy.
And this sign of Jonah may well be in us, an unlikely crowd of different origins and races, in us, who were once "separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise" (Eph. 2:12), in us being brought together under this one roof, into this one body, under this one promise of our salvation. Just as the sign of Jonah was in Jesus being raised from the dead, so is the sign of Jonah in our being born again through the waters of baptism, and through those waters rising to new life in Christ.
Today, people are again asking for signs. We want signs that the church is truly the church of God. So we look at our statistics: Is the church growing? Are our offerings increasing? Why is our membership declining? And we deceive ourselves into believing that the sign of Jonah is in our bright statistical spots, in our growing suburban churches, although we know full well that the reason why most of them are growing is simply that they are receiving members from other churches. Or we admire our own theological acuteness, or our plans for evangelism, or our organizational ability, or some thing or another at which we consider ourselves particularly adept.
But it may well be that no sign will be given to us but the sign of Jonah. It may well be that the sign of a church in which the Spirit of God is at work is precisely that the most unlikely folk are brought in, like the Ninevites at the time of Jonah or like the Queen of Sheba in the days of Solomon, or like the publicans and sinners in the time of Jesus. The sign of Jonah may well be that barriers of race and class that close and divide so many other communities are broken down in this community of the Spirit.
We may look for signs in our tall steeples, in our organizational charts, or in our quadrennial plans, but if the sign of Jonah is lacking every other sign is in vain.
This is what the Book of Jonah is all about. And, when seen from this perspective, it is a very important book for our total understanding of the biblical message.
But the book is not only about the Ninevites. It is also about Jonah. It is about a prophet who knows and understands about the grace of God, but wishes to limit that grace. It is about a prophet who rejoices in God's salvation, but who wishes to die when that salvation is offered to the wrong kind of people.
In this sense, there is a negative side to the sign of Jonah. Jonah is the prophet, a member of the household of God, who knows God's mercy but wishes to circumscribe it to include only those whom he likes. The same sign appears at the time of Jesus, in the Pharisees and the scribes who also know that mercy, but wish to control it and therefore reject Jesus and plot against him. The sign of Jonah has repeatedly appeared in the church with all its talk about love and openness, in contrast to its racism, classism, and private club mentality.
It may well be that on this point too we shall be given the sign of Jonah. The sign of Jonah may well be a call to obedience to a church that is full of evangelistic talk, but knows its complacency would be shattered if that talk ever resulted in action. It may be in a church that is willing to accept all kinds of people, as long as they play by the rules of the right kind of people.
If such is our church, when the sign of Jonah is made manifest in our midst we too will be angry, perhaps even to the point that we will wish to die. Perhaps members who feel about ethnic minorities the way Jonah felt about the Ninevites will leave the church or will withhold their funds. In any case, it will be a painful process, just as Jonah's process was painful. But, the again, no sign will be given to us but the sign of Jonah.
You see, the message of the Book of Jonah -- indeed, the message of the entire Scriptures -- is about a God who has a strange set of priorities, a set of priorities that do not always agree with the priorities we as individuals or as The United Methodist Church set for ourselves. The entire Book of Jonah is about a God who appoints a prophet to go and save a people who do not even believe in God.
But, if you think that is strange, just look at the last verse of the book, and you will come to the conclusion that God's priorities are really mixed up: "Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"
Any of us could understand a God who would not wish to destroy a city that had become a center of civilization, whose king ruled over millions of people, whose architectural wonders would awe archaeologists for centuries to come, and whose roads spread in every direction.
But those are not the reasons why God wishes to spare Nineveh. The reasons are, quite simply, the one hundred and twenty thousand infants who are not yet old enough to know their right hand from their left, and the many animals in the city.
When this strange God of ours looks at Nineveh and decides to spare it, God is not looking at its king, but at its children; God is not looking at its armies, but at its animals.
Those who do not know this God of Jonah will most likely believe that the security of Nineveh lies in its armies, in its treasury, in its leadership, and in its king. But God tells Jonah otherwise. Nineveh has been spared because of its children and its animals.
The God who spared Nineveh, the God who in Jesus Christ told us that the last shall be first, has more respect for children than for armies, for animals than for buildings, for the poor whose lives are ruled by others than for those who boast of their power.
If this passage truly depicts the nature of God, it follows that each morning, when God decides to let this nation of ours stand one more day, God is not looking at the Pentagon, but at the Washington zoo; not at Wall Street, but at Harlem; not at the missile silos in the desert of the Southwest, but at those who pass by those silos as they seek in this country safe haven from oppressive regimes. And it follows also that each morning, when God decides to grant the Soviet Union one more day, God is not looking at the Kremlin or at the Russian missiles, but at the babushkas and their grandchildren.
And what is true of nations is also true of the church. The church does not stand or fall on what someone might do or not do at 475 Riverside Drive.(5) The church does not stand or fall on what the bishop and the cabinet might decide. The church does not stand or fall on the plans and pronouncements of General Conference. The church stands on the stone that the builders rejected, but has been made the cornerstone of the entire building -- a sign of Jonah indeed! The church either stands on that foundation, or it falls.
If this is a building built on that Cornerstone who, being in the form of God, took the form of a slave, it follows that there must be a very special place in this building for those who come out of an experience of slavery.
If this is a building built on that Cornerstone who had nowhere to lay His head, it follows that this building must be first and foremost a home for the homeless and a sanctuary for the refugee.
If this is a building of the God of Jonah and the God of Jesus Christ, whose priorities, strange though they may seem to us, are crystal clear, it follows that there must be a special place in this building for those who bring to it the experience of a reservation, the experience of an internment camp, the experience of a ghetto, the experience of a barrio, the experience of being last, and forgotten, and persecuted.
No sign will be given to us, but the sign of Jonah, the sign of Jesus, that the blind see, that the poor have good news, that the unlikely are brought in. This we cannot change, for this is God's work. The question for us is, as this sign is given, what role will we play? What stance will we take? Will we, like Jonah, wish we could die, because we deplore God's mercy? Or will we remember that we also live by that mercy and join God's gracious work, and rejoice in it?
Although this sermon was prepared and preached by one person, it draws on material that was developed by two. It bears the mark of organization by one mind, yet it contains that which originally occurred in dialogue.(6) The setting for the dialogue was a national gathering of Presbyterians with deep concerns for issues of social justice and ecology. The sermon itself was preached later at an Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, to an audience with more varied interests. Neither setting was a local congregation, and the needs may well have been somewhat different from those found in a congregation. Yet many concerns obviously are common to both kinds of settings as well as to many in local congregations.
In both cases, there were in the audience people who were quite aware of the larger context in which the church lives its life. They were strongly committed to global issues of justice, to specific ministries with those at the margin of our own society, to peacemaking, and to environmental concerns. In fact, in both settings, there were probably more such people than are to be found in many local congregations. The sermon and the original Bible study needed to address them.
What are the particular needs of socially committed people that the sermon must address? Such people are well aware of the context that surrounds the church, but are often alienated to some degree from the church, precisely because of its frequent apparent lack of awareness. Therefore, a sermon that addresses only those who need to become aware of the wider context often does not directly address the issues that are on the minds and hearts of these other hearers. In addition, there may well be a question as to whether the frustrations, the loneliness and the isolation that come from being concerned with long-range, difficult issues are really worth the struggle, since the problems seem insoluble. The call to be concerned -- chiefly addressed to Christians who are not -- does not deal with this reality either.
Yet in the setting in which the sermon was delivered, there may also have been a large proportion of those whose vision of the church reached hardly at all beyond the institution itself. In this respect, the sermon faced the same problem as would be found in most congregations, namely, that not all members are at the same stage in their Christian pilgrimage. Some need to be made aware of the wider social context and called to feel concern there. At the same time, others are strongly committed to the wider issues of peace, justice, and -the environment. How does one preach in such a situation? This sermon has sought to do that in several ways.
First of all, there is the matter of the selection of the biblical text itself. So often, when the preacher wishes to make the congregation more aware of the wider social context, a biblical passage explicitly dealing with such concerns is chosen. The congregation then can relax, knowing what the preacher is planning to do, and wait until next Sunday, when the "real" concerns of the church come back into focus. What may be far more helpful is to preach from passages that are not so obvious and to show that such concerns are not an occasional tangent for both Bible and preacher, but are rather at the heart of almost all of the biblical message.
Here, a very familiar passage was chosen. In such a case, the preacher must take into account what assumptions about the meaning of the text the congregation already brings to the hearing. In the case of the Book of Jonah, many people assume the chief questions have to do with the controversies over the fish and the need to be obedient to God. Most commonly, people realize that there is a dimension of universality in the message of the book, but take for granted that such a dimension was significant for the people of Israel, who supposedly were more exclusive than we are. The verses on which the sermon focuses are usually glossed over. Focusing on them means that a new dimension can be seen. This requires a close reading of the text, over against what people remember from the story. It may mean printing the text and pointing out specific verses or quoting them with sufficient frequency that it becomes clear that these verses are present, that the ways in which the passage was remembered -- the past interpretations brought to the present hearing -- have overlooked these verses, that these are not the creation of the preacher but are the biblical text.
The task is to be biblical. It is to show that the concerns for global issues, for justice in the local community, and for the environment, are not recent issues, mere private matters that appeal to some Christians and are quite optional, but are part and parcel of the heart of the Bible itself. Our congregations are not biblically literate. Clear education must be done. To insist on looking at a text, to take seriously all the verses, to preach from that text in a clear and obvious fashion is to do such education. Optional use of pew Bibles is not enough. We must be more clearly biblical than the memories of the congregation, and perhaps even subtly raise the question of why the church had provided them with unbiblical traditions.
Using the lectionary as the basis for preaching does have the virtue of dealing with a wide variety of passages not chosen out of the pastor's list of favorites. In the present case, the lectionary was not used, originally because what was needed was a three-hour Bible study rather than a traditional sermon, and we wished to do a whole, brief book. In that original setting, we did hand out copies of the text and followed it along closely. In the sermon given here, the constant references to the text are clear.
Whatever text is chosen, the preacher must ask the question, even before developing the sermon, What understanding of this passage does the congregation bring to the hearing? is it a familiar text? What will their reaction be to hearing it read as the Scripture lesson? The preacher's awareness of his or her own past attitudes may well be the starting point, and can be a way of identifying with the congregation. In the present instance, the sermon begins with a history of some of the controversies surrounding the book and places the issues about the fish in the long line of such questions. Obviously, as soon as the Book of Jonah is announced, the controversies will be in the minds of the congregation. They must be dealt with and put aside. This sermon seeks to accomplish this by showing that such controversies miss the major point of the book and then by moving to the issue that will be the concern of the sermon. The issue is identified as God's concern about Nineveh and Jonah's dislike of that concern. There is a second set of clarifications of the text (over against memories brought to it) in the list of false reasons given for Jonah not wanting to go. In every case, it is the text itself that is used to show that such reasons cannot be true. This helps narrow the focus to the central issue: Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because he did not want Nineveh to be saved, and was sure that God did want Nineveh to repent.
Therefore, in the face of a familiar passage that the congregation would assume they already understood, some undoing of those false understandings is necessary. Furthermore, such challenges must be from the text itself, not a matter of the preacher's preference for one interpretation, or of a psychological reading into the text of the supposed motives of people in such situations as Jonah's. What is needed is a staying with the text that says why Jonah did what he did and failed to do other things. In addition to dealing with the biblical text, there may also be a need to show how this one passage is related to the central issues of Scripture. In the present sermon, this was made natural by the Gospels' use of the phrase, "the sign of Jonah." Jesus' application of the phrase to his own situation made it possible to show that this strange and controversial book from the Old Testament is directly related to the chief issues of the gospel itself.
Establishing how constantly Scripture shows the relationship between the people of God and the wider social context in which they live serves a twofold purpose. For those who are not yet committed to such a vision, it helps clarify that such involvement is not an optional part of the church's life. For those who are so committed, it reenforces the importance of what they are doing and gives them further theological and biblical support for their work. It may help alleviate the sense of isolation and hopelessness such commitment can engender.
With this as a general background, let us look at the four specific elements of analysis raised in the opening essay.
First is the need to be aware of the dynamics of social status between the preacher and the congregation. On the occasion of this sermon, the preacher was a Hispanic male, with sufficient accent to show English was not his first language. That does not lead to high social status in this culture. The congregation was largely Anglo-Saxon, white, and male. There were some women, and some minorities, mostly black. It was the minorities who had urged that this preacher be invited. Many of the members of the majority culture were committed to evangelism, but not necessarily involved in issues of justice.
With all of this in mind, it was necessary for the preacher to establish that the authority for what was being said rested not with the preacher, not with the power of the minority groups, but with Scripture itself. Furthermore, it would be helpful to show that the existing concern for evangelism and church growth could not be pursued apart from the issues raised by the wider social setting without doing damage to the biblical understanding of mission This also had to be done from the text itself, and not from any intrinsic authority given by the congregation to the preacher. The preacher sought to do this by trying to be as directly and transparently related to the text as possible.
The second element discussed in the opening essay is the need for catholicity of focus. There may be greater catholicity in church gatherings above the level of the local congregation, and that was the case when this sermon was preached. But even so, it was not fully catholic. In an attempt to provide such a wider perspective, the sermon brought in reference to groups not present~specially ethnic minorities not there, other nations whom we view as the enemy, children, and the animals. Since most of these were already explicitly in the text, these references were quite natural. One wonders, however, how often they are present and we do not notice them.
The third element raised was the fear of change, especially, though not only, by those who benefit from the status quo. The sermon points out that God is working for change in the situation of Nineveh, and it is Jonah who wants nothing to do with it. Jonah wishes to maintain the present situation of enmity, and God wishes to end it. The sermon therefore raises quite specifically the choice that faces God's people in every generation: to follow a God who does wish some things to be changed or to try to keep things as they are, even when that is opposed to God's will. Jonah poses the question quite clearly, and the sermon seeks to leave the congregation with exactly the same choice that Jonah faced, though it hopes for a different response
The last element of analysis has to do with the particular theological heritage that has influenced many of our congregations, especially in regard to two issues The first is the false spirituality that sees little connection between faith and questions of material well-being, the environment, and so forth~ The sermon deals with that by stressing God's concern for all of creation, even the animals. Salvation is physical as well as spiritual. The second issue is a false view of Providence that assumes that whatever is, is God's will, and ought not to be changed. The passage has fairly complex implications for that issue. On the one hand, God is working for change and using a human agent, Jonah, to accomplish this. Clearly, Jonah is resisting God by refusing to be involved in this change-effecting activity of going to Nineveh. On the other hand, however, throughout the whole Book of Jonah it is obvious that God's will is going to be done, whether Jonah likes it or not~ Although whatever takes place now is not necessarily God's will, God's will is ultimately going to triumph. The sermon dealt with the first half of this paradox, but not with the second. It may well be that, given our particular theological heritage and the weaknesses that it has, the first side of the paradox is helpful. The second could be too readily misunderstood as implying a kind of fatalism. It could take an entire sermon to deal with that issue.
The function of a sermon in the setting of a worship service is to clarify and confirm our vision of what it means to be the people of God in our present setting. Since that vision includes God's purposes for the whole of creation, it is also a new vision of the context in which we live. The goal, therefore, is not simply to interpret the Bible in the light of our context, but even more, to interpret ourselves and our global context in the light of Scripture.
1. Transcribed by the authors from a recording of a mass in El Salvador.
2. In The United Methodist Church, the Annual Conference is a governing body, often statewide, composed of approximately equal numbers of ministers and lay delegates.
3. Traditionally, one of the main items of business of an Annual Conference has been the reading of pastors' appointments, usually toward the close of the session.
4. The parallel text is in Matthew 12:41-42.
5. 475 Riverside Drive, in New York City, is the address of the Interchurch Center, where a number of general agencies of The United Methodist Church are located. An Annual Conference is presided over by the bishop, who ,jointly with the cabinet, decides on pastoral appointments. The General Conference is the highest governing body of The United Methodist Church, meeting every four years.
6. We often speak or preach together, using a form that we call "dialogue." This term, however, is used rather inexactly, for what we do are really lectures, Bible studies, and sermons in which we speak alternatively to the audience, rather than to one another.