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 3: The Preacher as a Social Being in the Community of Faith, by Edwina Hunter
(Note: Edwin Hunter is associate professor of preaching, Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA.)
Social scientists and psychologists have long known the value of telling one's story and of sharing personal descriptive histories.(1) It is essential, historians tell us, to know where we have been in order to project where we want to go. Narrative theology and narrative preaching are opening new vistas in theological education. Theologians and professors of preaching are saying that awareness of our own histories helps us discover how our personal narratives intersect with biblical narratives.(2) We can discover how to "own" the texts we preach as we : know ourselves better and discover the journeys that make us who we are.
If we claim our own histories, if we know who we are and why we are, and if we know how to reflect on those influences that have shaped us, then we may be able to initiate change. We may even be able to transform ourselves and our immediate concrete situations.(3) The preacher who undertakes reflective and critical self-analysis may well be on the way to the greatest freedom he or she has ever experienced: freedom to preach; freedom to challenge theologies that would claim God's love is limited to the rich and the powerful while excluding the poor and the powerless; freedom to act tout a commitment to social justice; freedom to envision new faith communities and new ways of being faithful to God, to God's people, and to self.
Self-re flection would appear, then, to be a first step for the preacher who is committed to growth. And self-reflection is best begun with autobiography -- with the stories of the preacher's existence and formation which will include the actors and the relationships that are a part of that personal history. In order to illustrate this narrative process as graphically as possible, two preachers were interviewed. Both are male; one is black, the other white.
These two persons were chosen for several reasons. The first is that they are both widely regarded as prophetic preachers. The second is that they are well-known to me and an element of trust is needed for more candid storytelling. The third is that they are men and, although I might wish it otherwise, male preachers have been primary role models in my own faith journey.
The interviews took place in offices of the churches where the two men pastor. Both interviews were recorded on cassette tapes and notes were taken as well. They were both asked to speak as fully and openly as was comfortable and to tell and reflect on the stories of their calls to ministry, their formative faith communities, their spiritual formation, and their social consciousness. Only rarely were they asked questions once they had begun speaking, because interruptions tended to break into the flow of images and memories in a way that did not appear helpful to the reflective/analytical process.
Two Journeys to the Pulpit
James Alfred Smith, Sr., is pastor of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California, and is president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. He serves as adjunct professor at three different seminaries in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dr. Smith carries the image of pastor/prophet in his East Oakland community. This image extends well beyond the immediate community because of his leadership in Allen Temple and because he is invited to preach in churches and seminaries across the country. He preaches social justice and leads his faith community to participate actively in many social justice enterprises in East Oakland. These include: developing prenatal care for expectant mothers, providing low-cost housing for the elderly, forming political coalitions with Hispanics, Asians, and Caucasians, waging war against drug traffic, and conducting a Job Information Center for all unemployed persons.(4) In addition to leading the church to address social justice concerns in such practical and far-reaching ways, Dr. Smith has served a term on the Oakland School Board after being elected by more than 80 percent of the vote.
There is a special mark of this great man that seems unusual in a preacher of his stature. He is totally unselfish of his pulpit; for him, it is truly God's pulpit. He makes a practice of inviting the greatest black preachers (both men and women) of the nation to preach at Allen Temple so his people can hear them. Allen Temple has been host to Bishop Desmond Tutu, as well. Dr. Smith also invites Caucasian preachers to preach, again both men and women. Student preachers find a warm welcome to the pulpit of Allen Temple and response and encouragement from the congregation, which has become a teaching congregation under Dr. Smith's leadership. He always makes a practice of using language inclusive of race and gender and is an advocate for women's ordination.
Dr. Smith's sermons have three primary themes: spiritual and economic liberation for his own people, helping them develop what some would call black pride, but what he terms "self-esteem, a sense of somebodiness"; the church's mission as the Body of Christ in the world; and reconciliation and relationship -- "Relationship is what the gospel is all about for me." Sermons on these themes are undergirded by carefully selected biblical passages. Moses and the Exodus event are almost always, explicitly or implicitly, present in his preaching. Closely allied to these themes are the writings of the eighth-century prophets. Luke's Gospel and the Jesus of Matthew 25:35-45 keep his sermons tuned to the mission of the church. A growing edge for him is to be found in Paul's writings ("I used to have a lot of trouble with Paul," he says); particularly important now are such passages as Galatians 3:23-29 and II Corinthians 5:14-20.
When Dr. Smith talks about preaching, it soon becomes evident that a rich spiritual component supports and permeates all he does and says, and that worship, including music, is the essential framework for preaching. He says the preacher is like a jazz musician who improvises on a theme. The jazz musician receives the signal that it is time to play solo for eight bars or maybe sixteen. He or she must then take the theme and improvise, play out all the feelings and expressions of the theme, letting the music soar into the very beings of those who listen so they are no longer listeners only, but themselves become part of the music. Now, what can we and Dr. Smith discover about how he came to be the preacher and prophet he is? What narratives from his earlier faith communities reveal how this social and theological development has occurred because sociology and theology are inextricably linked? Why does he preach the themes he does? Can we see reasons from experiences in his early faith community? The first theme is, in his own words, the theme of "self-esteem, of somebodiness" preached for his own people.
Young Jimmy Smith was born out of wedlock to a mother who worked as a domestic in Kansas City. His mother, grandmother, and an aunt and her husband pooled resources, shared what they had, and survived -- more than survived. It was from his grandmother Jimmy heard the Bible stories instead of nursery rhymes and such stories became the stuff of his childhood imagination. The stories of the Exodus of the children of God under the leadership of Moses were the earliest tales he heard and the most often repeated, and they are central in his preaching today.
His mother's work as a domestic meant that she often had to live away from home during the week, but on weekends she was at home and showered Jimmy with love. As he grew, she also showered him with experiences that pervade his preaching. She purchased black newspapers for him to read, introduced him to black history, and, most importantly, made sure he heard in person all the great black leaders and preachers who came to Kansas City. She encouraged him to keep a scrapbook on these orators and ensured his exposure to the great liberation leaders of his race. He remembers, particularly, Dr. Daniel Arthur Holmes,(5) a Kansas City pastor, whom he describes as a "great giant of a preacher, poet, and scholar." He was a brave man and one of the few black men who could tell racist politicians they were racist, and they would not do anything to him. He saw Holmes as the "clarion voice, speaking out on behalf of the black community, pointing his finger at racists." Jim was strongly attracted to the ministry because of the prophetic voice of this preacher.
His community of faith was further expanded in an unusual direction when his mother began working for the family of "a humane Jewish lawyer named Levy." Jim would frequently go to their house with his mother and he worked there helping with parties. Through the Levys he met a rabbi with whom he had a number of conversations. He once overheard the rabbi talking with his mother. The rabbi told his mother of the Jewish teaching concerning the possibility that any son born to Jewish parents may be the Messiah. Then the rabbi told Jim's mother, "Give your son a sense of somebodiness."
That experience, together with one Jim had a little later, increased his own "sense of somebodiness." There was an older man, a Mr. Boswell, in the church he attended. One day, as Jim walked down the street, he saw Mr. Boswell on a porch and he called out a greeting. Mr. Boswell called back, "Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, come here. Jimmy, there's a place in the world for you. You repeat it. There's a place in the world for you." Dr. Smith says, "When I get discouraged now I can hear it -- that old man saying it, ringing across the years."
A second theme in Dr. Smith's preaching is that of social justice for all. It is clear that, for him, the preaching of D. A. Holmes and Martin Luther King, Jr., was not just for those members of one church or one race. Through the stands they took and the risks they ran, James Smith has been inspired to work for social justice in the larger community. When his "call to preach" came, it came filled with the content of the totality of the church's mission.
But it is necessary to go back and sketch the setting in which another stage in Jim's call took place. The child Jimmy was so drawn to the great preachers he heard from so many different denominations he would slip out in the backyard and "preach" in imitation of them. However, as a teenager he became disillusioned by what he saw in his own church: a congregation composed of "a young pastor, old deacons, and all women," a congregation that did not sufficiently support pastors and their families either emotionally or financially. He began to rebel. By then he loved jazz and decided to become a jazz musician. Jazz was "the thing" in Kansas City at that time with Count Basie and others making their mark. As a junior and senior in high school, Jim played professionally with adult musicians. In the summer after his junior year, he was invited to play with a band that needed a "good E-flat alto saxophone player."
Grandmother said it was sinful; I was gonna go to hell. Mother said, you have to live your own life. Go. So I went.
It was there in that context that all those biblical stories became more than stories. It was there I really understood what sin was. Before then sin was just a Bible verse I had memorized. . . . The prodigal son story was just a story, but playing in a band, being out on the road, one night stands in western Kansas, southern Missouri, and Oklahoma helped me to understand the Scripture. . . . One night while reading the music (down in the pit) and looking at the dancing girls (on stage), I became so unhappy, so miserable, so sick, so joyless, so dull because the Scripture I had memorized in my Sunday School came to me: "What would it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?" So, I decided then, I didn't want to be a jazz musician. And I said, I've got to preach the Gospel. But it can't be a sweet bye and bye Gospel. I've got to deal with the problems I see all people facing; basically the problems of injustice in the black community. I knew it was possible for us to live and work for the Kingdom of God.
Then Dr. Smith told of a YMCA conference the year he was a junior in high school. He was the only black student delegate to be chosen from Missouri to attend the conference that met on a college campus in Iowa. He recalls:
I remember two young white gentlemen saying, "Come on James, let's go to the show." We got down to the movie theatre. They got their tickets and told me to come in. I was still standing there, scared. Then the lady selling the tickets said, "Come on in. You can go. Come get your ticket." And I lived in that integrated environment for a week and I knew the Kingdom of God was possible because of that experience, and so that helped me dedicate my life to the Kingdom of God.
This story bridges themes two and three. Dr. Smith preaches a gospel that takes the church beyond its own wall -- to wage war against drugs in the street, to form coalitions of Hispanics, Asians, and Caucasians to work for changes in social systems and structures. He also preaches a gospel of reconciliation and relationship. He knows such is possible because he knew a Jewish family and a rabbi, because he attended a YMCA conference where he knew one full week of integration, because he is able to see with eyes made clear through the preaching of prophet-preachers such as D. A. Holmes, Mordecai Johnson, A. Philip Randolph, Mary Bethune,(6) and because the young pastor who befriended him as a small boy and taught him, "It's all right for a Christian to play marbles." He said:
Christ has to do with relationship to God, to each other, to self. That's what the Gospel is all about for me. I find that theme in my preaching. For me there is a new family alignment that transcends blood, race, and nationality. Because I didn't know my father, Jesus is my big brother and God is my father. . . . I don't understand the hatred between some blacks and the Jewish community because I remember the Levys and I remember the great rabbi who stood with D. A. Holmes in Kansas City way before Martin Luther King, Jr., brought that kind of ecumenicity.
He went on to quote II Corinthians 5:18 about our being given "the ministry of reconciliation." Then he said: You never know where help is going to come from. You never know who your friends are going to be. There was William Lloyd Garrison(7) and Frederick Douglass(8) and all through history you see those parallels. There is Pharaoh but there is also Pharaoh's daughter. And there is Ahab but there are saints in Ahab's palace who have never bowed their knees to Baal. And even Paul said, "The saints in Caesar's household greet you." . . . I preach this: the Pharaoh's very own daughter may be a saint incognito!
And preach it he does! It is a preaching firmly grounded in a family and faith community history that was rich in spiritual elements, where a grandmother prayed aloud and woke him each morning singing a gospel song, and where the whole family prayed together each evening. His social and theological beginnings were woven together in a manner that produced one whole cloth. His seminary education (where "I could concentrate on critical biblical scholarship because I already knew the biblical content and narratives so well") and his later faith experiences and human encounters made it possible for him to analyze and interpret his own history in a way that has freed him to preach from the totality of that experience to the totality of human experience, encompassing as it does suffering and celebration, alienation and reconciliation, sin and redemption.
Dr. Smith's socialization took place in an arena considerably different from that experienced by most Caucasian preachers. From the beginning he knew what it meant to be discriminated against because of his race and because he had no father. He knew what it meant to work in the homes of the wealthy and see his mother cleaning up after them. It is little wonder, then, that he has taken up the cause of social justice and the spiritual and political fight for racial equality. The wonder is that he also loves, that he also preaches the gospel of reconciliation. Somewhere there have been those who served as Pharaoh's daughter to rescue him from the stream of bitterness and the river of hostility that might have flowed toward those who decreed he had no right to live in their world.
The personal story of a white male preacher may demonstrate how a person whose beginnings were in a totally different social milieu may arrive at a strong commitment to and theology of social justice. The story is that of Dr. David L. Bartlett, a former professor of New Testament at American Baptist Seminary of the West, United Theological Seminary in St. Paul/Minneapolis, and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He presently serves as pastor of the Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, California, and as adjunct professor of Preaching and Field Education at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.
David was born into a white middle-class preacher's family. Both his grandfathers had been preachers, as was his father. All three demonstrated more social consciousness in their preaching than was typical of American Protestantism of their generations. Dr. Bartlett remembers most vividly his father's strong stand on matters of war and peace. As the elder Bartlett spoke out against the draft and against any form of universal military training, he also took a stand against Senator McCarthy and his anti-communist activities. This resulted in the FBI sending agents to attend worship and monitor his sermons. Dr. Bartlett recalls that his father served as pastor of two churches that integrated white and black people. Both his parents had a strong appreciation for social justice issues. The elder Bartlett had been a student at Colgate Rochester Divinity School after Walter Rauschenbusch(9) was no longer there, but Rauschenbusch's students were still there mediating his influence.
The two congregations Dr. Bartlett remembers best from his early years were "struggling with the whole issue of inclusiveness." The members, in his view, "represented conservative forces who were upholding the best values they saw around them while, at the same time, giving permission to people who were going to be more renegade, so that by and large, the church people I was around growing up were not models of radical social action."
What David learned early from the example of his parents (and the FBI visitation in worship) was that there may well be consequences for taking a stand that goes against societal norms. It was an important lesson and one he was to verify through his own later experience. While living in New Raven, Connecticut, he was involved in the peace movement and became a resister to the Vietnam war. A number of people in the church of which he was a member and of which he had been pastor could not accept what he was doing and so became estranged from him, some of them remaining so to this day. He notes that they felt that it was all right to disapprove of the war but it was not all right to break the law.
Within this framework, it becomes important to discover if there are growing edges for David Bartlett, if there are areas for him that are different from those that concerned his parents. Two primary areas he identifies immediately are the role of women in church and society and the acceptance of gays by the church and their role in the life of the church.
He reports that women students in his classes and women theologians impressed him with the rightness of their cause and so intellectual assent came early. It took longer to use inclusive language and to internalize the cause of women.
For him, the gay issue was harder. Why? He says, "I think because it was an issue that people had not thought about very much and I came to it without any mentors or forebears to help me think it through, whereas in issues such as race relations and war and peace, there were a lot of folks of my father's generation who pointed the way."
This thought led him to recall a third growing edge:
The whole move from acceptance of black people to the Black Power concept came when I was active in New Haven as the Executive Secretary for the Black Ministerial Alliance; that forced me to have to rethink where I stood, whether a white person had any right to have that job in the first place and what Black Power meant vis-a-vis those of us who were part of the white establishment. That's one that I'm still working out. As long as we are freely associating, both in my present position and my theological position I think the fact that we have white churches and black churches is a scandal. I understand that the black experience is rich and important, but I think, somehow, that ought to be brought into the mix and not segregated and separated. I know a lot of my black brothers and sisters stand against me on this one.
When it was suggested to him that too often when churches integrate, the white mode of worship dominates, he replied, "I admit the puzzlement. We've thought, if we move, one thing we would like to do is to be white members of a black church since we have always seen it the other way."
Asked if he considers himself a prophet, Dr. Bartlett answered, "Only on the days I feel despised and rejected which aren't many." He recalled a "prophet" he knows who is never happier than when stirring up people, and added:
I don't particularly like conflict and I don't particularly enjoy controversy. When I get up and say something controversial I do it dreading the consequences rather than kind of reveling in them. So I need to be on to myself to make sure I don't back off. . . No, I don't see myself as prophetic. I see myself more as a traditional preacher in the Reformed mode who tries to interpret Scripture to the needs of the congregation. But there is no way you can do that without getting involved in social and political concerns. You just can't. If you pretend you can, you haven't really dealt with the Gospel and significant issues.
It became evident in further discussion that Dr. Bartlett sees his attitude toward, and use of, Scripture as a primary difference between him and his father as preachers. Whereas his father's training was shaped in the classical liberal tradition and his sermons tended to be topical, Dr. Bartlett's training at Yale and his own experiences have moved him to ground his preaching more directly in the Scriptures and, as he said, "When you do that, you have to get involved in social and political concerns."
Analysis of Personal Histories
The first step for the preacher who is committed to growth is personal reflection -- remembering and telling the stories of call to ministry, formative faith communities, spiritual formation, and social consciousness. The second step is to analyze how these experiences have shaped the preacher's spiritual and social consciousness. Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, two practitioners of social analysis, put it this way: "Effective pastoral planning necessarily involves this movement from anecdotal to the analytical. "(10)
Call to Ministry. Both James Alfred Smith and David L. Bartlett grew up in Christian families. Both were members of a larger faith community from an early age. The economic circumstances of the families and the nature of the faith communities were different and yet both acknowledge the role of family and faith community in creating the framework in which a call could be heard. Dr. Bartlett's call appears to have been a gradually emerging consciousness that the path his father and grandfather had walked was a good path for him. Dr. Smith, on the other hand, while deeply influenced by the strong, prophetic black preachers his mother made sure he heard, exercised considerable resistance to the call initially. He clearly saw what a young black pastor's life was like. He saw how poor pay and living conditions affected not only the preacher but the preacher's family as well. Scripture verses were the seed that had been planted in him; at the right moment they burst into growth and opened his heart to the call of God.
But the whys must be asked. Why did these two respond as they did? Other young men have grown up as David did, the sons and grandsons of preachers. Many have been embittered by the experience. Many have left the church refusing to return. And how many young black men reared in similar conditions to those of young Jimmy Smith have found their way to education and ministry and the respect of so many people that he has? Why was J. Alfred Smith called to preach and led by God to the place he is now when so many in like beginnings have fallen by the wayside?
Faith Community. It is impossible to ignore the role of cultural socialization experienced by J. Alfred Smith. That culture was transmitted to him by every member of his immediate family and by the music that was a way of life, by all the preachers he heard, by the very nature of the family structure, and by the society in which he lived. He received all sorts of messages from that cultural milieu. Some of these directly contradicted others. Some messages said, "You are poor and black and illegitimate -- not much of anybody." But the contradictory message was louder because it was different and because it offered hope. The rabbi, his mother, Mr. Boswell, and all those brave black leaders he heard gave him the message: "You are black. Be proud of it. You are somebody. You can do something." And in one week at the YMCA Youth Conference he discovered the possibility of becoming bilingual and bicultural -- of living in a wider world than the one he had known.
He attended an all-white seminary where his black culture was considered something to rise above. He was taught to think critically and rationally and in an orderly way. He was taught to "preach white." He left that seminary having lost the immediacy and power of his "native tongue." He could no longer speak the language of his own people. It took self-analysis and great intentionality for him to relearn his native tongue and to rediscover his cultural roots and embrace his cultural heritage. Now he is proficient in the language of his own culture and people. Now he is truly bilingual.
As a bicultural, bilingual person he is well-equipped to fulfill a much more clearly defined call than that which he originally received. He is now a molder and shaper of a faith community that affirms and celebrates rich traditions of black worship, music, and preaching but also lifts up the equality of men and women in the sight of God and the liberation of all oppressed people -- particularly people of color.
It is equally impossible to ignore the role of cultural socialization experienced by David Bartlett. He grew up in white middle-class America, a "preacher's kid." Family members were well-educated, and David had role models to follow which pointed him to liberal and just causes and the best education possible. His study of the Bible particularly, and his capacity to interpret Scripture in the light of contemporary social movements and political and world events have sensitized him to the need and demands of persons very different from himself.
David Bartlett has discovered multiple ways of living in a faith community. In his own family he and his wife are truly partners, collaborators in writing and creating, joint care-takers of their children. In the church in which he is minister, an ethnically mixed church, he is pastor to all and is guide to a faith community that seeks to invite and acknowledge the full and equal participation of all persons: men, women, straights, gays, people of color, and whites. He preaches the gospel with integrity and he challenges the faith community to be a community of justice.
Spiritual Formation. Here again, culture plays a strong role. Prayer for Dr. Smith comes as naturally as breathing. From earliest childhood his grandmother prayed aloud and the family prayed together daily. Black church tradition, when untampered with, encourages the expression of feelings. Joy and sorrow are equally expressed. The dialogue of the sermon with the people vocally encouraging and affirming the preacher is a spiritual movement all its own. Celebration is an extremely important part of worship because hope is seen as both a gift of God and a way of keeping faith with God. What is overtly present and observable in the black worship experience of Allen Temple is also present in Dr. Smith. His spiritual formation, his way of relating to God, is both a personal and corporate manifestation.
Rarely can Christians from white middle-class North America claim the same sort of relationship with the spiritual life of the corporate body. Individualism(11) plays a more decisive role for us in all parts of our lives and is, unfortunately, manifest in the way we function in church as well. So many hymns of the less liturgical churches are filled with singular personal pronouns. Even though they are sung collectively, they are the expression of personal individual piety.
David Bartlett's spiritual formation was affected by this individualistic tradition. Prayer had certainly been a part of his personal life; however, personal and faith community experiences of crisis are now making the corporate dimension more important. By his own testimony, time in prayer and a deepening spiritual life provide both courage and energy to preach publicly what he believes to be the Word of God on matters of social justice.(12)
Social Consciousness. It is clear that early childhood experiences helped shape the social consciousness of both Dr. Smith and Dr. Bartlett. What is equally clear is that injustice and oppression continue to call forth deep commitment from both of them. Each has developed a facility for self-reflection and critical analysis. Each has the spiritual integrity to deal honestly with difficult questions. Each reads widely and places himself deliberately in situations where personal biases can be challenged and critiqued. Each has become skilled in asking himself the "why" questions that challenge the status quo. They know that "we must move from issues ... to explanations of why things are the way they are."(13) They have learned what Robert McAfee Brown calls "hermeneutical suspicion."(14)
Here is where the preacher who is committed to growth begins a third step -- asking the why questions that help us understand who we must be and how we must act to challenge the status quo. We have done the reflection. We have told the stories of call and faith community, of spiritual and social consciousness. We have attempted to analyze how these experiences have shaped us. Now we ask the questions that will reshape us and re-call us.
What if, in our own development, we have resisted becoming involved in social justice issues? Brown asks: "How adequate is our hermeneutics, our method of interpretation, if it leaves us complacent with the way things are, or committed only to tepid changes that fall far short of the Bible's radical demand for justice? Must we not engage in hermeneutical suspicion?" If an anecdotal analysis of our social consciousness and spiritual formation leaves us with the realization that, as Brown says, "there are some selective lenses by means of which we read Scripture, and . . . those lenses need to be torn from our eyes,"(15) then how do we tear them away? How do we change and develop a radical social consciousness? How do we even begin to want to change?
If preachers have been socialized in ways that blind them to the reality of social injustices, then healing of sight can best come through personal exposure to these realities. Just as our earlier personal experiences and the persons we knew shaped who we are now, we need to expose ourselves to new experiences and persons. We need new stories to tell. So many preachers have returned from El Salvador, Nicaragua, or the Philippines having experienced a social and theological conversion. Closer to home, many have shed their blindness when confronted directly with the homeless on the streets of their own city or with the emotional and physical deprivation to be found in nursing homes throughout our country. Many others, reared to believe in an exclusivistic "god" at the beck and call of the white race only, have had their eyes painfully pried open when the social situation demanded a one-to-one encounter with a person of color who grew to be a friend. Books can help; listening to others who "have been there" can bring intellectual assent; but once we have met the Jesus of Matthew 25:35-45 and Luke 4:18-19 in the hovels and barrios and streets of our own and others' lands, we can never again read the Bible in the same way.
We may say, "Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn't been opened; sometimes I wish I could no longer see," but once our eyes are opened, once we do see, we are forever changed. We cannot go back. We must then begin to ask the "whys" that challenge the systems of our world and the world of those we have come to care about. Why are people hungry? Why are so many living in poverty? Why does our government spend billions on weapons of war while so many go homeless and without the bare essentials of life? Why do we give millions of dollars to other countries for weapons? Why do Americans expand multi-national corporations abroad and exploit the poor and suffering of other countries? Why are there still pockets of hatred and oppression of Blacks and various other ethnic groups within our own society? Why do some churches still refuse to ordain women or grant women full equality before God? Why do so many Christians hate gays and deny them full fellowship and personhood in the community of faith? Why-? Why? "Whys" are dangerous questions for preachers to ask.
The Sermon: Preparation and Setting
Nowhere are preachers more a part of their faith community than at the time they are preaching in those communities. I have, therefore, chosen to include a sermon that has been preached in two different settings, with two different faith communities, and with different illustrations.
The first setting was Senior Chapel, the final chapel of the 1985-86 year at Pacific School of Religion. I believe preaching is at its best as a dialogue and the listeners and setting are vital parts of the preaching moment. For this reason, the primary setting visualized for this final written version is the PSR chapel and the listeners are the members of the PSR community, persons with whom I have almost daily contact.(16)
A committee from the senior class planned the worship and selected the theme of "Holy Ground." As is true for most preachers, this theme was not a new one for me. Exodus 3:1-15 had furnished the inspiration for more than one sermon because my own history causes me to identify with the entire Exodus event. However, the Senior Chapel setting affected me deeply. Here were persons I knew and loved who had already made firm commitments to God regarding social justice issues. There were those among them who had been arrested because of civil disobedience in protest against nuclear research or U. S. involvement in Nicaragua. Now many of them were about to graduate and go out from seminary to God knows what! Not only did I know them but they knew me. Most had taken at least one class with me. Almost all had heard me preach before. "Holy Ground" was an excellent but scary theme. I did not want to speak in cliches. To preach dialogically and with integrity was extremely important to me.
The choice of Acts 7:17-34 as the primary text rather than Exodus 3 helped me look at the original story in a new way. I saw Moses' story through Stephen's eyes and experience.
It is altogether probable that Luke composed Stephen's sermon and we have no guarantee that the results of that sermon were those recorded in Acts. However, in the world of Luke's narrative, Stephen preached to a hostile crowd. He reviewed the history of the Hebrew people and he recalled for his listeners Moses and Moses' call out of a burning bush. He told how Moses led the Hebrew people forth from Egypt. Then he reminded those who listened how the people refused to obey Moses and longed to return to Egypt. He used this example to accuse his listeners of even more reprehensible actions. They had rejected Jesus, murdered him, and betrayed him. Stephen's direct preaching inflamed his audience; they were angered to the point that a kind of savagery was unleashed. They reacted in a manner that calls to mind the image from network television when people, similarly enraged, turned dogs loose on Martin Luther King, Jr., and his followers as they knelt in prayer. The mob stoned Stephen to death.
The second text, Exodus 15:22-25, 27-16:3 is the narrative reminder of the kind of behavior about which Stephen spoke. It relates graphically the very human tendency to blame all adversity on the one who leads. The people had cried out for deliverance, for freedom, but in the wilderness they decided that the price was too high and turned in wrath to blame Moses for their predicament.
"Burning burning burning burning"
(Exodus 15:22-25, 27-16:3; Acts 7:17-34)
It is both a joy and an honor to participate in this Senior Chapel. You see, however aware or not aware of this fact you seniors are, I entered Pacific School of Religion as a full-time faculty member three years ago. So this class may well be my class in a way no other ever can be. Yes, this is special and difficult. Something tells me that I have led preaching classes in critiquing too many of your sermons to be other than vulnerable standing here right now!
In addition,you have given me the theme of Holy Ground.
I don't know about you, but when I hear the words "holy ground," I don't have to be skilled in word association to think immediately: "Take off your shoes!" Now that is an occasion for vulnerability. I remember a little poem written some years ago about a child who ran in crying from play, having stumped his toe while running barefoot. The poet listened while he cried out his distress and then told him if he wore his shoes he would not stump his toe. She watched while he considered this for a long moment. She rejoiced when suddenly he dried his tears, turned, and ran back outside still barefoot. Her comment was,
"He ran back to the grass
and the rocks, vulnerable but free!"
I know something personally about how vulnerable being barefoot can make me. A couple in a church I served did not want a woman pastor -- not at all! They told me so in no uncertain terms, and then added, "Not only are you a woman but you're too short!" There are a few of you here my height or even shorter. And you know, and I know, that we need our shoes, especially shoes with heels when we stand in some of these massive pulpits. But what if, when you stand there -- all poised and proud because you look taller than you are -- what if the voice comes, "You are standing on Holy Ground. Take off your shoes!"
(At this point I do take off my shoes and drop my
height some two or three inches, rendering me
almost invisible behind the pulpit.)
Perhaps you can see me better-
While you stand there, think. Taking off your shoes is what you do on holy ground. Is this holy ground? Where we stand right now? Why, we have classes in here and all kinds of programs in here. How can it possibly be? How can it possibly not be?
I can remember sitting right back there just a few rows from the back in worship when there was a time of silence, and all of a sudden I knew I was on holy ground -- such a glow within me and around me as I became aware of the invisible presence of all those who have stood in this place and heard God's call, of all those who have made life-changing decisions right here.
I remember a young man who used to sit in preaching class, right back there, just a short time ago. Already he is being spoken of as "the most loved gringo in El Salvador."
I remember a Good Friday when Bob Brown and Daniel Berrigan led a day of prayer and education concerning U.S. involvement in the nuclear arms race.
I remember a preaching class making a decision that they did not have to complain and wait for someone else "to do something" but they could reserve this chapel and set a time and plan a worship experience that permitted the community to come together to grieve and share concerning the U. S. invasion of Grenada.
I remember that I was one of the many who, at different times, were commissioned and prayed for and sent out from this community to Nicaragua and the Philippines for exposure to the pain and poverty lived every day by our brothers and sisters in those countries.
I remember some of the dreams that have been dreamed here and the innumerable times God has spoken saying, "I have seen how my people are treated; I have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. I will send you -- or you -- or you -- to Egypt."
But sit, sit again. It is all right to sit on holy ground, too, if you continue to see and hear!
(The congregation sits down again. I leave it up
to them whether or not to remain barefoot but I
remain without my shoes in the pulpit)
See what? A burning bush. Now that's attention getting! Burning that will not be consumed. Hear what? What God has to say Out of the burning bush. What are the requirements of this God who speaks out of a burning bush?
To go where we are afraid to go.
And, when you are finally heard, finally doing what I call you to do, finally released, and are leading the people toward freedom and new vision, you can expect to be rejected by them, by the very people you seek to lead-the very ones I heard crying out for deliverance. Many will want to go back.
Back to captivity.
It's easier just to stay in a seminary classroom,
Wait! Are you equating the church
Maybe, maybe. If people are bound there.
Maybe. If every time God tries to call the people forth, they run and hide -- beneath a pew -- or in a pulpit -- or in the library -- and cry, "We are so comfortable here, so safe. Here we are learning so much!
Here we can pray and sing and talk about God and how
Here it is (mostly) easy to tell the truth and be kind and generous and loving and ethical.
Don't make us try to be Christians in the world.
It's a desert out there!
Why am I standing here barefoot on holy ground? Stephen, you did it, too. Moses wasn't the only one. You stood on holy ground. They set you aside to wait tables because the apostles were too busy preaching!!! Wait tables, indeed! As though you were not capable of doing anything else. As though you, too, were not called by God, even if you weren't an apostle. Stephen, your problem was you remembered Moses. You remembered Abraham and Sarah and you remembered Moses and Moses' burning bush and how he stood barefoot on holy ground and listened to God. Stephen, be careful. You've found a burning bush, too. You are listening to God, too. And that's dangerous. You know it's dangerous, if you re really listening to God. You, too, are standing on holy ground.
Stephen, is that why you had the courage to preach as you did? The courage to say what you had to say? Is that why your face shone as you stood there?
Is that why they killed you?
In the name of God, look at all the burning bushes! Look at all
Why Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Why Oscar Romero?
Why Karl Gaspar?(18)
Let me tell you about Karl Gaspar. He was a college professor, quite ordinary, somewhat committed to Christianity. But one day he saw the burning bush of his people's oppression. His people, Filipino people, were shut up in Egypt, in the captivity of poverty and hunger, in prison for daring to criticize the Marcos regime, because of false accusations when they had done nothing. And Karl Gaspar, Christian teacher and layman, brought some of his college students together and began teaching them how to do improvisational protest drama. The result? Karl Gaspar spent twenty months in prison as a political detainee. He said, "It is long past the time for the church to do acts of charity. It is time for the church to challenge the system that makes acts of charity necessary."
Why Karl Gaspar?
Or why Robert McAfee Brown, theologian and seminary teacher?
Why did he see a burning bush? Why was his life turned upside down? By his own telling, for a long time he saw himself "as a middle-class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, born and reared in the United States -- a vintage WASP."(19) He tells how his entire socialization was shaped by his life experience: the son of a clergyman, he grew up in suburbia, attending predominantly white schools, including both high school and college, and then what was considered a "liberal" Protestant seminary. He knew himself to be part of the majority and was comfortable in all he had "absorbed" from his various communities -- none of which included more than the token presence of
Catholics Blacks Jews
His burning bushes came gradually, distances between each. They came with "World War II, seeing Nagasaki after the bomb, participation in the Freedom Ride, various acts of civil disobedience in response to racism and Vietnam resulting in brief spells in a variety of jails, and other events that shattered my comfortable world."(20) He became increasingly aware that there is not yet true freedom for Blacks in America, that "the land of the free and the home of the brave" is not truly free for black people, not yet. And he drove across the United States and, again, a bush caught fire and blazed as he saw what we have done to Native Americans. By now bushes seemed to be catching fire from other bushes: women and their stories, the stories of Vietnamese and Chileans, the stories of Nicaraguans -- bush after bush after bush burning for one whose eyes have been opened.
Why Bob Brown?
Or why a second career minister
Why did she come to believe that God wanted that church to offer full equality under God to Christian gays and lesbians? Why did she have to preach it? Why did she have to challenge that church to fulfill its own statement of purpose:
"As a church we will know no circles of exclusion, no boundaries we will not cross, no loyalty above that which we owe to God."
Earlier she had asked the diaconate of that all-white church in a town 98 percent white to invite a black seminarian to become a student assistant and worship leader every Sunday for a year. And they voted to do it. And he accepted. Many people grew to love him. But many people she loved, and had listened to, and had sat down to table with, left that church for another and tried to convince others to leave with them.
Why that particular pastor?
Maria was a sixteen-year-old girl from a country in Latin America. Bob Brown tells about her in his book Unexpected News.(21) Maria was a member of a Base Christian Community and there she studied the Bible with many others; with them she learned to pray; with them she came to know Jesus Christ. She also came to participate in social action with her friends in the community. Maria came to the time when she wanted to be baptized and confirmed but the priest thought she should wait a while until she fully understood the risks of being a Christian in that country. The priest said, "I'm not sure Maria is ready to die for her faith." Before her eighteenth birthday, she had been baptized and confirmed, and had died for her faith. Why Maria?
Why you, Joy?
Because when you stop for the fire that burns outside you, and you take off your shoes and you stand there vulnerable on holy ground and you hear God's words clear and ringing:
I have to speak! It was inside Jesus.
And at Pentecost, the fire came in tongues and rested on heads.
Holy Spirit fire power got inside Peter and all the rest of the disciples, men and women, people of every color and race.
Fire burning inside.
A bush that will not be consumed?
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
As noted earlier, the theme of "Holy Ground" was selected by the seniors who planned the chapel service but the Exodus event had come to mean a great deal to me in my own life and so I welcomed the choice. This is also a story on which I have done considerable theological reflection. Recently, I have been engaged in a study of 1987 lections from Acts which include the portion of Stephen's sermon in which he retells Moses' burning bush experience. It seemed appropriate to use as the Scripture for this sermon a portion of another sermon, especially one that had resulted in the stoning of a preacher!
The context of the sermon is extremely important for every sermon and this one is no exception. I have kept the opening remarks as they were at the time of delivery, because they reflect the closeness of my relationship with these seniors and to demonstrate how these remarks weave together an awareness of the setting, the experience of the listeners, and the specific concept of vulnerability. Clearly, then, a part of my purpose was to acknowledge relational elements and to speak personally. That desire helped set the tone and encouraged the taking-off-of-shoes section which was received with general laughter and great good humor.
How does the sermon reflect my theological stance? I believe deeply in God's call to some persons to preach, as well as to all Christians to minister in many different ways. I have a strong commitment to social justice, particularly in the matter of inclusiveness of all persons in the community of faith. I most profoundly believe God's love is for all persons. I believe that God calls us and uses us because of, and not in spite of, our past experiences of failure and sin. I maintain a clearly held conviction that God is with us. I also believe that the stands we take for justice are scripturally mandated and can set us free to do what God calls us to do. I believe that for the one who is called, the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit within compels him or her to speak. This compulsion is like "a burning fire shut up in my bones" (Jer. 20:9).
How does this sermon reflect my socialization? I am a woman who grew up as a Southern Baptist in Louisiana. The call I experienced at twelve years of age was a call to preach, but there was no way I could understand that or claim it, even for myself, until I was forty-three years of age. I am divorced. The process of ending a marriage is much like death, perhaps even like "killing" someone or something. During the final year of the marriage, I ran away from my friends and my community of faith because of the pain and shame and the feeling that, if I even considered divorce, no one would trust that I still belonged, or had the right to belong, to the faith community. After the divorce was final, I knew the personal meaning of being in a desert, a wilderness, and that I was being led to a "promised land" and a new beginning.
My ordination means that my hometown church, where I first heard God speak to me, made my profession of faith, was baptized, and made my commitment to vocational Christian service, will not permit me even to speak to a Sunday school class, much less preach. This is not because I am divorced, but because I am an ordained woman.
I grew up in a racist community of faith. (How can those two concepts exist together?) Members of my immediate family were taught to be racist by a Bible-quoting, Bible-justifying community of faith. Black people had their place and were supposed to stay there. It was preached from the pulpit and practiced by the pastor. My entire family subscribed to this. Why have I come to such a social justice stance so that I feel I was "reared a stranger to my own people"? Not that I am now a stranger, but that I was reared a stranger, because now I feel my "own people" are black and brown and all the people of color, and all those Christian gays and lesbians who struggle for acceptance -- all those who know what it means to be discriminated against because of who they are, where they were born, or how much money or education they have. The story of the gray-haired, second career, woman pastor in the sermon is my story. This is an area in which I must speak; I have no choice, whatever risk is involved.
Other faith communities and experiences have contributed to my socialization as revealed in this sermon. For example, I worked in a Hispanic community as student missionary when I was nineteen years of age and made a number of close friends my age. I dated a Korean man from Hawaii. When I was twenty-five, I worked under a black woman supervisor at Northwestern University library. Throughout my life I have attended black churches and heard the sermons and music of these churches. For the last several years I have known the friendship of Dr. Alfred Smith, as well as of Allen Temple Baptist Church as a whole. My present church membership is in the integrated faith community of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland. Since 1976 I have been associated with the faculty, students, staff, and administration of Pacific School of Religion, where an entire academic community is also a faith community struggling with a multitude of social justice issues in personal and corporate ways. Eight students from PSR and I traveled to the Philippines in January of 1986 for a seventeen-day intensive exposure tour. I am now an American Baptist, a member of a denomination whose membership, nationally, is more than 39 percent non-white. As a denomination we are struggling with what it means to be fully inclusive and to take dangerous stands on matters of social justice.
How did the sermon minister to the community of faith? The PSR community, particularly students, were addressed as co-ministers; their journeys were recognized, as were their calls, their fears about the future, their need for courage, and their compulsion to speak out for social justice. Out of a biblical mandate, the sermon challenged them to respond fully to God's call to them, to hear, with God, the crying of God's people. It reminded them that it would not be easy, that some people would not want to be free, and others would even protest the preacher's right to try to set anyone free. It sought to shake them loose from a felt need to stay in the safety of the seminary community, and it reminded them of God's ability to provide nourishment for the journey.
1. For a recent example of narrative method employed by a social Scientist see Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). For an example of narrative method employed by a psychologist and pastoral counselor see Archie Smith, Jr., The Relational Self (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982). Karen Lebacqz., a Christian ethicist, uses a single narrative as the unifying thread in her Professional Ethics: Power and Paradox (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985).
2. James W. McClendon, Jr., Biography co Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today's Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1974). This book has become a standard work in the growing area of narrative theology. A more recent work in this vein is C. S. Song, Tell Us Our Names: Story Theology from an Asian Perspective (Maryknoll, N. Y.; Orbis Books, 1984)
3. Smith, The Relational Self, 86-88.
4. For more information on the involvement of Smith and Allen Temple in social justice concerns see J. Alfred Smith, Sr., For the Facing of This Hour: A Call to Action (Elgin, Ill: Progressive National Baptist Publishing House, 1981). This book also contains sermons and lectures delivered by Smith in a number of contexts.
5. The Reverend Daniel Arthur Holmes was born September 22, 1876, in Macon, Missouri. His parents were former slaves in Randolph County. He was licensed to preach in 1889 and ordained in 1901. He earned a B.Th. at Des Moines College in Iowa and a B.D. from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He was pastor of Paseo Baptist Church in Kansas City for forty-six years.
6. D. A. Holmes, see Note 5. Mardecai Johnson was a graduate of the University of Chicago and the first black president of Howard University. He was an eloquent Baptist preacher who often held business people spellbound by sermons of over an hour in length. Martin Luther King, Jr., said he was the single individual who influenced him to study Gandhi. A. Philip Randolph was born in Crescent City, Florida, the son of a circuit-riding African Methodist minister. He was founder and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and urged the major black organizations of the country to organize a march on Washington, D.C., to spur Congress to immediate enactment of Kennedy-administration civil rights legislation. In 1941, he exerted pressure on President Roosevelt that resulted in the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Later he was instrumental in persuading President Truman to order desegregation of the U.S. Army and, ten years later, he met with President Eisenhower to impress upon him the need for greater speed in enforcement of civil rights laws that brought about integration of the schools. Mary McLeod Bethune was a black American educator who dedicated her life to helping her own people. She taught in mission schools and founded schools for black children. One school she founded bears her name. Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, is an accredited co-educational college. From 1936 to 1944 Mary Bethune served as the director of the National Youth Administration's Division of Negro Affairs. In 1945, she was a consultant on interracial understanding at the San Francisco Conference of the United Nations.
7. William Lloyd Garrison was an American newspaperman who worked against slavery. In 1833, he and others helped organize the New England Anti-Slavery Society. He was outspoken in his denouncement of slavery as a moral wrong and may be considered a pioneer in the area of civil disobedience. He publicly burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution because it did not denounce slavery. Until his death in 1879 he also crusaded for women's rights and for other causes.
8. Frederick Douglass, born about 1817, was a Negro slave who learned to read and write as a child. He escaped and went to Massachusetts where he became prominent in the Anti-Slavery Society founded by Garrison. He made public speeches against slavery and published an autobiography. This book became known in England where he spent two years lecturing against the evils of slavery. British sympathizers raised money to buy his freedom and to establish an abolitionist newspaper that Douglass published for over ten years. In 1889, he was appointed U.S. Minister to the Republic of Haiti.
9. Walter Rauschenbusch was an American Protestant theologian, an American Baptist minister, and a leader of the Social Gospel movement in the United States before World War I. He applied Christianity to the social and economic ills of his day and wrote several books including Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). He taught at Rochester Theological Seminary in New York.
10. Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, S. J., Social Analysis, Linking Faith and Justice, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983), 10. This entire book is recommended.
11. See Bellah, Habits of the Heart, particularly pages 142-63, for an extensive discussion of individualism. He identifies four traditions of individualism: biblical, civic, utilitarian, and expressive. He says, "Individualism lies at the very core of American culture" (142). His discussions of "Communities of Memory" and "Community Commitment" are especially relevant to our discussion of the preacher as a social being in the community of faith. See also Archie Smith, Jr., The Relational Self, 49. Smith States: Sociological information and social analysis have not played a strong enough role in preparation for ministry. Individualism and individual salvation have been a pervasive theme in American Protestantism. True, there have been strong advocates of a social gospel orientation. But the social dimension has been a minority position within mainline Christian denominations and has been effectively countered by a very strong individualistic strain in American Christian life.
12. For an entire book that deals with the interconnectedness of spiritual life and active participation in matters of social justice, see Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984). For a moving and unique approach to Interpretation of Scripture by persons most involved in social justice issues, see Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, 4 vols. (Maryknoll, N.Y. Orbis Books, 1982).
13. Holland and Henriot, Social Analysis, 10.
14. Robert McAfee Brown, Theology in a New Key (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 81.
15. Ibid., 82.
16. The second setting was the "National Pastor's Convocation: Empowering the Whole People of God for Ministry," a conference at Green Lake, Wisconsin, in July 1986. The congregation was composed of approximately one hundred pastors and twenty-five spouses.
17. The title of the sermon is taken from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, III, "The Fire Sermon," lines 308-11.
18. I met Karl Gaspar during an "Exposure Tour" to the Philippines in January of 1986. He has written a most provocative book, How Long? Prison Reflections of Karl Gaspar (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1985).
19.Brown, Theology in a New Key, 136.
21. Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), 152-53.