March 23, 2020
Preaching is a primary tool of leadership for a pastor, so argues retired bishop Will Willimon in his latest book, Leading With the Sermon. Brother Will is one of the most faithful gadflies the church has both enjoyed and been annoyed by over the years. His pushing and prodding continually urge us to either remember or redefine what we think we are about. And so, when it comes to preaching, he states that “a faithful sermon aspires to be more than a cool consideration of interesting spiritual ideas.” Like you, I have sat through my share of sermons in which a pastor offered interesting answers to questions that I and others were not asking, all in the service of filling compulsory worship time. I admit to having preached my share of those sermons.
Preaching needs to be more. It needs to lead. It needs to point to ways to be different in the world because of our faith. While we as a denomination have been worried about institutional health and congregational vitality, we have not equally given ourselves to the unique Christian perspective that we should be living and preaching about in this current cultural moment. It is a perspective that describes our world and our communities quite differently than news outlets and the competing cultural/political voices would have us believe.
Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann tells us that the biblical text provides an alternative narrative that God would have us live – alternative to the dominant story that any current political conversation would have people believe. So, Brueggemann notes, when the dominant story that the Israelites faced was that Pharaoh was all powerful because he owned the land, led whole armies, and enslaved lesser people; the alternative narrative of the biblical text was that God would have the last word, there was indeed a promised land for God’s people, and the mumbler named Moses was worth listening to. It takes a lot of courage to tell an alternative story; even more courage to listen and act in an alternative way.
Our own current dominant narrative is a story of cultural fear, a conviction that there is not enough for everyone, a belief that some people are worth more than others. We build walls, point fingers, assign fear-based blame, and disdain “the other” (whoever that might be from our political perspective). While we busily construct this cultural narrative, I was interested to read James and Deborah Fallows’ journalistic book Our Towns about the many smaller towns and cities across the United States that have found new ways to thrive. One of several shared markers of these newly thriving towns is that they embraced the immigrants that came to live and work in their boundaries. It often wasn’t a tidy or comfortable story of including immigrants that were so different from the residents. But they were stories of how towns and cities needed these people and how they learned to accept and be enriched by one another.
Were there preachers in these towns who turned to the book of Galatians to tell the alternative story of the Christian people for whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free? Were there laity who joined in the singing of “In Christ There Is No East or West”? One would hope.
Narratives must be based on truth. They are more than just the “spin” of a story that people intentionally tell to their own advantage. A favored description of leadership for me begins with the notion of giving people an honest description of their current reality. Surprisingly in these days of competing and alternative truths such honesty is hard to find, hard to recognize when found. Consider that according to research from the College of Communication at Boston University more than 9 out of 10 Americans can’t tell the difference between online news and paid promotion. What then are we to do as we head into a political election cycle where millions of dollars will be spent on the intentional creation and distribution of “disinformation” in the service of the election of a president? The March issue of The Atlantic and the March 16 issue of The New Yorker both carry fact-based reports of intentional political strategies of disinformation – truths misrepresented to support particular political narratives.
If preachers can hope to lead with their sermons, if laity seek to lead with their actions, it now requires the hard work of intentional searching for actual fact-based information free of the overlay of cultural narratives of fear and populist patriotism. Thought must be given to what standards of journalism are followed by the sources from which we accept our news and information. The pulpit must be more than a platform for the preacher’s or the community’s opinion.