By Corey Stewart, T’17
The presiding bishop’s message made a clear distinction between politics and partisanship, a distinction that is critical for preaching in today’s fractious, fragmented world: being political, that is, addressing the status quo among institutions of power, is not the same as being partisan, allowing bias and prejudice to negate the efforts and interests of others. It is a distinction seconded by the Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis, Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, who explains, “The Gospel has always been political. Jesus’ message of righteousness, of justice, of freeing the poor and the oppressed was a direct indictment against the corrupt power of empire, and it is why he was killed. The Gospel is about our place in the polis, our citizenship in the Kingdom of God that is meant to be viewed as distinctive. There is a difference between partisanship and politics.”
Mind the Gap
What Schade discovered was that preaching about creation care, or any issue that has been sharply politicized in our country, can result in palpable push-back, in the form of angry words or emails, people walking out on sermons, parishioners threatening to withhold their tithes, or even calling for the pastor’s resignation. As a result, Schade set out to create a method for talking about important matters in a way that neither injures the body of Christ nor increases internal divisions.
Schade undertook of a survey of 1,200 mainline Protestant pastors in which she asked what controversial topics the pastors were willing to take on, why, and with what result. She found that nearly half of the preachers, 46 percent, did not feel that seminary or divinity school had prepared them to preach about controversial issues. As a result, she wrote Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), which contains practical guidance for navigating contentious issues within congregations through a form of civil discourse called deliberative dialogue. “My hope is that the book provides insights, tools, and one model of preaching that builds bridges across the different divides in our society and our churches,” Schade says. “The ‘sermon-dialogue-sermon’ process I’ve developed is a way for the Church to ‘thread the needle,’ so to speak. It enables clergy and congregations to listen and learn from each other as they’re discerning how to be the Church during this very challenging time.”
On Common Ground
Schade’s method does not require that a preacher set aside his or her own convictions, but rather that the preacher commits to facilitating conversation and being one voice among many in the discussion. Schade uses environmental stewardship as an example to explain that “the pastor would be very clear that she doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s very interested in exploring these questions together with the congregation. This would lead to an invitation to participate in a deliberative dialogue, which uses a format developed by the Kettering Foundation and an issue guide developed by the National Issues Forum Institute. In this climate crisis example, that would mean presenting three approaches: reducing our carbon footprint, preparing communities for the effects of climate change, and developing technologies to address global warming.” Participants, she says, begin by sharing how climate change issues impact them and their community, which allows each member of the group to appreciate what is at stake in the issue for every other member. The pros and cons of the various remedies and suggestions are then discussed, shared values and areas of commonality are highlighted, and potential next steps are discussed.
Following the discussion, the pastor then preaches what Schade calls the Communal Prophetic Proclamation. “It is communal because it does not arise from the preacher’s exclusive study, but rather from the process of dialogue that takes place within the community.” The pastor’s job is to provide a theological framework for the results of the dialogue, emphasizing how God is working in the process, and identifying possible ways forward. “It is up to the pastor and congregation together to discern how the Holy Spirit is moving among them,” Schade says.
In her original dialogue model, Schade suggested that the pastor moderate the discussion of issues within the congregation, but she is currently evaluating the effectiveness of lay leadership, with the help of a grant from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. In this evaluation, Schade explains, the pastors of the 10 churches in the study received training in the sermon-dialogue-sermon process, but “they brought with them one lay leader of a different political orientation than the pastor to be trained along with them. They had the choice to have either the pastor or the lay leader moderate the dialogue back at church, and they all opted for the lay leader.”
Schade clarifies that the churches in the grant were primarily white congregations, which, she notes, necessitates an expansion of her work to churches comprised of more diverse races and ethnicities. Nevertheless, she found that for this group of churches, involving lay leadership in the discussion of potentially polarizing issues has been very successful. “One of the key qualities of a moderator is learning how to be ‘passionately dispassionate,’ which means not coming to the dialogue with any agenda other than helping the group move through the process in a healthy and respectful way, along with encouraging equal participation, helping people identify the underlying values that inform their opinions, and asking questions that help to clarify what people may be trying to express.” Such moderated discussions, Schade says, “enable clergy and congregations to listen and learn from each other as they’re discerning how to be the Church during this very challenging time.”
The Politics of Power
For Dr. Charles Campbell, the James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School, preaching in today’s politically tense climate is a matter of creating a three-part moral vision—biblical, theological, and ethical—for the congregation. This vision, Campbell says, comes about by engaging the structures of power and preaching texts in profound and interesting ways. “I recommend that preachers focus on the various powers that hold people captive, rather than beating up on parishioners and loading them down with guilt. The goal is to speak a redemptive word that sets people free from captivity and empowers more faithful living.”
As Campbell readily admits, this approach can create conflict when it threatens the power structures that are comfortable and advantageous to certain people or groups within the community. But, as he explains in his book The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching (John Knox Press, 2002), the focus of this preaching is different from sermons that simply criticize people. He often quotes Ephesians 6:12—“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the principalities and powers”—to remind preachers that their charge is to unmask those powers, envision alternatives to them, and nurture practices that enable churches to begin to live toward the alternatives.
Identifying oppressive power structures, Campbell says, creates communities of resistance that are shaped by their own particular needs and context, and these communities can then work to free themselves from the agents and agencies that hold them captive. The preacher’s critical function is to speak a redemptive word to the community, highlighting the avenues that lead away from the deaths brought about by oppression and towards practices that foster life within the community. That redemptive word, Campbell reminds us, may be “a word of grace, given in a sermon that sets people free. It is important for the preacher to stand with the congregation, rather than over against them. The preacher, too, is hearing the word along with the congregation, and that kind of identification with the people can help make the sermon a word that invites response, rather than points fingers.”
David Stark, instructor in homiletics at the School of Theology, points to a recent discussion to highlight a critical component of effective preaching that invites action. In the discussion, the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, Canon Theologian at National Cathedral and Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, spoke about anti-racism work. Stark recalls, “She said, ‘The pulpit should not be the first foray into the topic,’ and I completely agree. On one level, her comment is simply good advice for parish leadership. On another level, Douglas speaks to the important work that must be shown in a preacher’s life as they address any important matter. One of the common denominators among the preachers I look to—preachers who have argued against slavery, supported temperance, fostered women’s suffrage, confronted Nazi policies, challenged civil rights abuses, advocated for LGBTQIA+ inclusion, and pushed for climate action—is a willingness to become deeply connected with those affected by injustice. From Absalom Jones and Jerena Lee to Martin Luther King Jr. and Pauli Murray, Christine Smith, Bill McKibben, and William Barber II, preachers have consistently used preaching to challenge harmful politics and to articulate constructive theologies that open up new ways of living in light of God’s good news.”
These preachers, Stark says, challenge leaders who are abusing authority and actively work with others outside of the preaching moment to change systems, policies, and unjust circumstances. “Furthermore,” he says, “all of the preachers I’ve mentioned proclaim a politic that explicitly benefits those who are marginalized in society. Faithful resistance preaching—rather than the oppressive, self-serving, and exploitative political preaching that is frequently promulgated—seeks not to build up ourselves or our own group alone. Rather, the kind of preaching that follows the examples in Scripture and the faithful witnesses of the Church offers a kenotic, self-emptying, embodied word that acts for and with those who are othered in our day and time.”
Squinting to See
In addition to facilitating constructive dialogue and crafting a vision for the congregation, remembering that we are not the first to live in difficult times is critical, as is keeping our focus God-centered. Dr. Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, says, “Like one of my theological heroes, William Stringfellow, I am driven by the tenor of our time to take very seriously the apocalyptic vision of much of the New Testament. Luke 21, for instance, reminds us that things that seem beautifully permanent (the temple) are subject to being shaken, that events that seem in the moment so crucially important and urgent (kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, and plagues) are not the bearers of ultimate meaning, and that the strident political and religious voices crying out for our attention (“I am he!”) are fleeting and empty. What really counts are the ways that God is gathering up the storm and stress of history and acting redemptively.”
Long often uses the metaphor of squinting to talk about looking at life theologically, and his recommendation for those who preach is to remember the promise of the Gospels, keeping Jesus’s statement in Luke front and center. “As Jesus puts it, ‘People will faint from fear and foreboding.... Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,’” Long says. “In short, when all hell breaks loose, don’t look down, look up. Apocalyptic vision allows one to squint and to see something of God’s loving and saving action in the chaos.”
Long’s apocalyptic vision, his aim to see God in our midst, should not be misconstrued as a willful blindness to reality. Rather, it is about accepting that the Church is a human institution, vulnerable to the same flaws and failings as any other man-made construct, and striving to recognize and repair these shortcomings. “Radical hospitality, for instance, like forgiveness and loving one’s enemies, is an eschatological virtue. It’s something we try to practice, and should, but we are always partial and incomplete in our execution. We will see true hospitality only when God’s reign comes in its fullness. In the meantime, we catch a glimpse of it here and there, now and then.”
Thus, while it is human nature to seek a congregation that shares our views and way of life, Long reminds us that God keeps calling people into congregations who challenge us to practice hospitality to the other. “We keep trying to make churches into fully homogenized units, but God keeps undermining our efforts, somehow bringing people into churches that upset the sorting. I am challenged by the presence of those people to show what the Bible calls ‘hospitality to the stranger,’” Long says, “and I am humbled by the sure knowledge that my own presence in the Christian community forms a vexatious challenge for some, making me ‘the stranger’ whom others must learn to love.”
Pulling, not Pushing
One of the challenges of preaching in these times is the unfortunate bifurcation between pastoral and prophetic preaching,” says Lewis. “Prophetic preaching at its heart is truth telling. The prophets of the Old Testament told God’s people the truth about themselves, which is not always something people want to hear. We especially do not want to hear when we have been complicit, when the Church has been complicit, in the sins that are being uncovered. But we speak the truth in love, as ones charged with embodying God’s divine pathos.” Prophetic preaching, however, is not something that can occur in a vacuum. Lewis reminds us that it requires a reckoning, and this reckoning is necessary across all denominations, at all levels; it is a critical first step in the process of truth-telling. “The Church, and its preachers, cannot suddenly decide to be prophetic, to speak truth to power, to speak the Truth that is the Gospel, when it has a track record of skirting the hard issues in the face of declining membership and diminishing denominationalism.”
Dr. O. Wesley Allen Jr., Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, also encourages preachers to embrace the challenge of differing opinions, even if it means preaching politically in order to tackle difficult subjects. “Oppression and suffering should be named in the pulpit,” Allen says. After all, he says, “the Bible is thoroughly political. But there is a difference between addressing politics—care for the city/polis—and being partisan. Just raising critical issues in society in the same breath as evoking the name of God can be prophetic and open up the possibility of further conversation in a conflicted congregation.”
Allen reminds us that in advancing towards our goal of building beloved community, it is imperative that we not only accept difference, but also speak truth about privilege and those who benefit, both actively and passively, from structures of power. Preaching pastorally deals with the former. Preaching prophetically deals with the latter. Combining these two, he says, is the challenge. “After all, the task for preachers is not just to proclaim God’s good news, but to get it heard. Preachers not only preach to divided congregations, but often preach from a different side of an issue than some of their flock. These preachers want to invite those hearers into the Word, not push them away from it.”
Getting the Word Heard
Inviting those who hear into a relationship with God is at the heart of what the Rev. Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Emery University’s Candler School of Theology, teaches her students. She reminds them that it is necessary to be pastoral before they can be prophetic, and that the primary responsibility of preaching is to recognize “the ongoing presence of God in spite of....” No matter how bleak things seem, no matter how much one might want to critique society and inspire social justice, our connection with God should remain the primary focus.
That being said, Brown is realistic when it comes to the possible consequences of preaching prophetically. As she said in a sermon delivered at Alfred Street Baptist in 2018, “Preaching is a hot coal, singed-lip kind of profession.” Still, “no matter what is happening in the world, God did not die, God did not vacate the throne, and thus we need to use our voices to give thanks to God.” Giving thanks to God as a preacher, Brown reminds her students, requires “doing the work.” This means knowing, and falling in love with, the ancient texts, reading, writing, “soaking up humanity,” knowing the foundations of homiletics and building upon them, asking questions, and recognizing that everyone who’s been “returned to dry ground’ has an obligation to say something for God.
Fred Craddock, legendary preacher, teacher, and author, would agree that the essential mission of a preacher is to “get something heard.” The Rev. Dr. William Brosend, professor of New Testament at the School of Theology, University of the South, and great admirer of Craddock’s approach, agrees that the trick to facilitating the hearing of the Word is finding the middle ground where difficult topics can be addressed in a way that nurtures hope and sustains community. In his book Preaching Truth in the Age of Alternative Facts (Abingdon Press, 2018), he reminds readers that anger and avoidance are equally ineffective over the long haul. “Just because you are angry doesn’t mean you are a prophet,” Brosend says. “A prophet’s primary task is to lead people back to God, and angry preachers only deepen the divide, while preachers who avoid the issues are irrelevant.” Neither of these outcomes, obviously, is worth working for.
Brosend finds that the key to effective preaching in difficult times is the realization that “bridging divides and nurturing hope takes time, requires a foundation, and is best done incrementally, one sermon at a time.” This cannot be accomplished, of course, by the preacher who simply reacts every week to the necessity of providing a sermon. Rather, it requires a considered, long-range approach that strives each week to answer the question underlying Brosend’s work in The Homiletical Question: An Introduction to Liturgical Preaching (Cascade, 2017): What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?
Discerning that answer means looking ahead to the opportunities provided by the lectionary, committing to responsible scholarship, and realizing that effective preaching is a process. “Good preachers know that you can say things in your third year you can’t in your first,” Brosend says, “and even more in your fifth and 10th years, but only if you are laying the foundation to do so. That foundation is relational, but it is also exegetical and hermeneutical. We build trust, and we teach how to read Scripture more richly.”
The Role of Biblical Literacy
The work of Brosend, Allen, Long, Campbell, Schade, Brown, Stark, and Lewis all points to another element of preaching in contentious times that should not be overlooked: the need for biblical literacy in our congregations. “Homileticians and preachers used to distinguish theologically between kerygma and didache,” Allen explains. “This is an assumed knowledge in the pews that we no longer assume. Not only is there significant biblical illiteracy, there is also theological/doctrinal illiteracy, liturgical illiteracy, and denominational and ecclesial historical illiteracy. This means that those leading worship must incorporate aspects of teaching ministry into preaching and leading the liturgy.”
This, then, becomes another pressing practical question for the modern preacher: discerning how to provide appropriate context for Scripture, so that sermons can perform the critical task of delivering the Word in a way that can be heard, without remaining in the pulpit for hours at a time. “Pastors need to not only employ exegesis in their sermons, they also need to teach their congregations to think about Scripture through appropriate hermeneutical lenses and use accessible exegetical methods,” Allen says. “History has shown that people can make Scripture say whatever they want it to say. For Scripture to speak across the chasm of thousands of years, we must listen to it in its ancient context(s) and then draw analogies to our contemporary contexts.”
This is a process, Brosend says, which involves careful planning over the course of the liturgical year. It can also, Long reminds us, benefit from borrowing something that the so-called megachurches seem to do very well: “While I raise an eyebrow at the preaching of these churches, I do think there is something to learn from them. Many of them employ a teaching style of preaching. Part of what draws people to these churches is a feel-good, success-driven message, but another part of their attraction is that they provide at least the illusion of coherence. In a fragmented and restless world, they convey what the drifting culture does not, a comprehensive way of thinking and being, a framework for understanding life.” Long points to the revolution in homiletics that took hold in the 1970s and 1980s, in which the sermon went from being a ‘message’ to an ‘event.’ “This experiential emphasis,” Long says, “was originally a breath of fresh air for an overly didactic mode of preaching, and it allowed the introduction of very powerful forms of narrative preaching, but the emphasis on experience and eventfulness in the sermon often left the task of formation untended.” Thus, while there is something to be learned from the coherence of the megachurch message, it is only effective at advancing biblical literacy when coupled with meaning.
Lewis agrees that increasing biblical literacy is a process. “The answer to biblical literacy is preaching Scripture in such a way that its authority is not assumed, but demonstrated. We show how our world does not make sense without the Bible; that the Bible is a necessary lens through which to interpret our lives, and especially God’s activity in our lives.” She advocates coming to terms with the biases inherent in our theological understanding as an important step to increasing biblical literacy and preaching effectively. “Any biblical text can be challenging if it doesn’t agree with us, especially, if it offers a portrait of God that calls into question our theological assumptions. One of the issues in preaching and biblical interpretation today that contributes to the tension is that our biases go unnamed. We have an embedded theology that is operative for how we expect God to work in the world that we are not willing to admit or of which we are unaware.”
Stark agrees that by many accounts, biblical literacy is at a low point. He cites biblical scholar Brent Strawn, who recently compared the Old Testament to a dying language within the Church, and who argues that the New Testament is not too far behind. This presents a challenge for modern preachers, Stark says, in that references to Scripture no longer evoke the same allusions they once did. “A preacher can no longer assume that ‘the writing on the wall’ will lead people to think of Daniel, or that a reference to Barnabas will imply friendship and support,” Stark says. He points out, however, that “biblical illiteracy offers a new opportunity for the preacher. There was a time when the preacher had to come up with yet another interesting take on a biblical story that the congregation already knew well. Now, with many stories, it might be enough for the preacher simply to tell the story well, give the congregation a sense of the historical context, and then connect the passage to today. That is a lot easier, for example, than finding another angle for preaching the Good Samaritan parable. And, in these days of competing narratives and social media inundation, it is even more important for the stories, poetics, and vision of scriptures to be given space to grow in our lives and missional imaginations.”
In his advice to seminarians, Stark often advocates for focusing solely on one scriptural text in a sermon. “I think what the Church needs is for preachers to take the time to dig into a Scripture passage, wrestle with its context and meaning, unpack the way a text has been used and abused, and let its language begin to (re)shape our lives and language and reflect on how it speaks to us today. The liturgy, especially the creeds and the Eucharist, does a fine job of laying out the “big picture” of what the Church believes. What is missing is a prolonged focus and developed reflection upon how individual texts and voices within the tradition speak to us today.”
Long advocates for a balanced approach to Scripture, readily admitting that there are passages of the Bible that are troublesome. “Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote an essay about two giants in his field,” Long says. “One read the Old Testament in terms of political power, seeing texts as the result of battles between rival ideologies. The other read the Old Testament in theological terms, finding in its larger arc the story of God’s redemptive love. Brueggemann argued that both perspectives are valuable and necessary, and I agree.” Long says that he often views the Bible in the same way one might view an ancestor: recognized for the great work and personal attributes that he or she did and had, but also belonging to a time and place which may not be compatible with modern thought and social mores. “I try to glean the wisdom from Scripture while being unflinchingly realistic about the limitations,” Long says. “At the end of the day, there are some passages of Scripture from which I finally turn away, saying, ‘I know you are Scripture, but at this time I can hear no Gospel in you.’” That being said, it is not appropriate, Long reminds us, to disregard Scripture simply because it is challenging. “If we must turn away from some texts,” he says, “I think it is important to do so at the end of the day, not at the beginning.” He adds, “The importance of biblical preaching today is not the mere impartation of biblical knowledge, but formation. The goal is not to help parishioners do well on the Bible category in Jeopardy! but to understand the world and themselves in the light of the biblical witness. What the preacher wishes to hear at the door is not, ‘Thanks, now I understand the parable of the bridesmaids,’ but rather, ‘I see things differently now.’”
For Campbell, whose work has led him to investigate the limitations of space and place, sometimes effective preaching and teaching requires getting out of the pulpit. He explores this in his book The Word on the Street: Performing the Scriptures in the Urban Context (Eerdmans, 2004), in which he encourages the practice dislocated exegesis. “This involves reading Scripture in unusual spaces,” Campbell explains. “I’m convinced that where we read helps to shape what we discern in Scripture, as well as the ways in which we see Scripture relating to or colliding with the context. I also think it is important for preachers to be involved in some ministry outside the congregation, which may help them engage with the larger context in which they are preaching. Those are activities outside the pulpit that prepare one to preach.”
For Campbell, then, the willingness of clergy to explore effective preaching through unusual methods and ministries is a source of hope, as is the willingness of clergy and laypersons to advocate for positive change. “I am profoundly moved by people who continue to work for justice even in seemingly hopeless situations,” he says.
Stark finds hope in the examples of preachers who have used, and continue to use, preaching as a tool for fostering community, advocating for the marginalized, and re-centering our thoughts and lives on the ministry of Jesus. “Some of the preachers I am most intrigued by are using Scripture to build a more beloved community today,” he says. “Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove draws on Scripture as a source for fostering movements of faith, justice, and active care for marginalized people. Wil Gafney does not shy away from challenging harmful scriptural passages, but she does so often by drawing upon observations in the text to encourage a more constructive and inclusive community. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s preaching about the way of love is not a thematic move so much as a deep dive into the ways in which Jesus’ life and teaching lead us into a different way of being church. I think our world needs to hear and see more of this kind of preaching.”
Stark also finds hope in his classroom. “I find a lot of hope in my students, who not only have identified a vocation to serve The Episcopal Church and the community in times like these, but who are daring to be creative, pastoral, and bold in proclaiming with their lips and lives the Word that they have discerned the Spirit speaking in this moment,” Stark says. “Watching them preach and seeing them lead reminds me again that we worship a God who inspires the subversive songs of Miriam and Mary, the God who raises oppressed peoples and the crucified Jesus, the God who makes all things new—creation and even the Church.”
Schade also finds hope in the work of those who are committed to their causes. Her most recent book is titled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, which she co-edited with her colleague Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). The book is a collection of chapters written by religious environmental activists from all different faith backgrounds, races and ethnicities, genders and sexual identities, and geographical locations. These people, Schade says, all share a passion to address the climate and environmental crises that they believe are the most pressing human rights and planetary issues of our time. “The precious bonds of friendship forged through struggling and suffering together for the causes of peace and justice are what empower me,” Schade says. “My friends in this work enable me to gain perspective, give me courage, and ground me in compassion. Working on this book, continuing my teaching at Lexington Theological Seminary, and partnering with people all over the country on deliberative dialogue infuses me with energy, renews my faith, and helps me create hope.”
Long seconds the importance of meaningful friendships when it comes to remaining effective as a pastor. He tells the story of a friendship begun in graduate school, which began to suffer due to geographical distance. “One day, my friend telephoned me to say that he had read that Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, who lived in different states, would pour a glass of whiskey at 5 p.m. every Friday, get on the phone, and talk for an hour. For 25 years now, we have done just that, albeit in the morning and with coffee. We have talked freely and honestly about our lives, including our faith and all its challenges. It is impossible for me to overstate how much strength I have gained from this friendship.”
For Brown, boundaries help maintain a sense of calm in turbulent times, and she has a hard and fast rule about her home: no negativity. She also reminds young clergy that it is not necessary to wage a constant career-related PR campaign, because “when you put in the work, God will put you where you need to be,” nor is it advisable to always be in charge. Referring to the need to occasionally say no when asked to participate in an event, she says, “My prayers go a lot farther than my presence, after all.” For Brown, the bottom line in all things, and the course of hope, “is to love God.”
Brosend agrees that hope is not only critical, but it’s also what is missing from the lives of people of all ages. “A church is and must be a place of hope, and our sermons must foster and nurture hope in challenging, even desperate, times,” Brosend explains. “When St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always! And again I say, rejoice!” in Philippians 4:4, he was in prison. He didn’t say, “Don’t worry, be happy!” He said rejoice in the Lord.” Brosend is silent for a moment, pensive. “What we have to offer is Jesus. As the hymn says, ‘All our hope on God is founded.’ That is the source of our faith and the ground of our hope. Preach that.”