A MILLION YEARS ago, when I was 23 years old, I sat in a lecture hall, flanked by college students who tutored at the youth program where I worked. They had invited me to their campus ministry’s worship service. An Asian-American woman named Susan Cho—young (about my age), tall, straight-backed, clear-voiced, and refreshingly funny—stepped to the podium and began preaching.
I sat transfixed. She dove into the scripture and it came alive! She explained what was going on in the world of the biblical characters in a way that made it feel as if they were living today. I felt like I knew them—I understood them. And then she brought home the meaning of the text for our lives in Los Angeles, months after the 1992 riots. This woman gave one of the most dynamic and biblically accurate sermons I had ever heard.
But then a familiar thought came into my head: “This is heresy,” it whispered.
You see, in college I was part of an evangelical ministry in which women could lead behind the scenes and share their testimony during worship services, but we could not preach or, for that matter, teach the scripture—especially to men. Ideas of male dominance were never taught outright, but they were observed like tenets of the faith.
Alongside programs like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, Netflix now offers users another type of content: Christian sermons. The online video streaming service added lectures by four popular Christian pastors in early December.
“I believe if Jesus were on planet Earth today in the flesh he’d be on Netflix,” said Ed Young, one of the pastors, in a phone interview.
[Editor's note: This article is adapted with permission from Otis Moss III's book Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair, published by Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.]
IF WE ARE to reclaim the best of the preaching tradition, then we must learn what I call the blue note gospel. Before you get to your resurrection shout, you must pass by the challenge and pain called Calvary.
What is this thing called the blues? It is the roux of black speech, the backbeat of American music, and the foundation of black preaching. Blues is the curve of the Mississippi, the ghost of the South, the hypocrisy of the North. Blues is the beauty of bebop, the soul of gospel, and the pain of hip-hop.
Before we can speak of the jazz mosaic or the hip-hop vibe for postmodern preaching, we must wrestle with the blues. In his song “Call It Stormy Monday,” T-Bone Walker laments how bad and sad each day of the week is, but “Sunday I go to church, then I kneel down and pray.”
Walker’s song unintentionally lifted up the challenge that the blues placed before the church and that black religiosity still seeks to solve. “Stormy Monday” forces the listener to reject traditional notions of sacred and secular. The pain of the week is connected to the sacred service of Sunday. There is no strict line of demarcation between the existential weariness of a disenfranchised person of color and the sacred disciplines of prayer, worship, and service to humanity.
This blue note is a challenge to preaching and to the church. Can preaching recover a blues sensibility and dare speak with authority in the midst of tragedy? America is living stormy Monday, but the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday. The world is experiencing the blues, and pulpiteers are dispensing excessive doses of non-prescribed prosaic sermons with severe ecclesiastical and theological side effects.
The church is becoming a place where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag. In his book Where Have All the Prophets Gone? Marvin McMickle, president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, asks what happened to the prophetic wing of the church. Why have we emphasized a personal ethic congruent with current structures and not a public theology steeped in struggle and weeping informed by the blues? McMickle’s book is instructive for us. He demonstrates the focus on praise (or the neo-charismatic movements) coupled with false patriotism—enhanced by the reactionary development of the tea party, the election of President Barack Obama, and personal enrichment preaching (neo-religious capitalism informed by the market, masquerading as ministry).
The blues has faded from the Afro-Christian tradition, and the tradition is now lost in the clamor of material blessings, success without work, prayer without public concern, and preaching without burdens. The blues sensibility, not just in preaching but inherent in American culture, must be recovered. We must regain the literary sensibility of Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, Ernest Hemingway, and James Baldwin; the prophetic speech of Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and Ella Baker; along with the powerful cultural critique of Jarena Lee and Dorothee Sölle.
The blues, one of America’s unique and enduring art forms, created by people kissed by nature’s sun and rooted in the religious and cultural motifs of West Africa, must be recovered. The roots are African, but the compositions were forged in the humid Southern landscape of cypress and magnolia trees mingling with Spanish moss. It is more than music. The blues is a cultural legacy that dares to see the American landscape from the viewpoint of the underside.
PREACHING A SERMON on an issue debated in the public square: It’s complicated. Make that issue the climate crisis, and it’s really, really complicated. Even in congregations where climate change is not broadly disputed, a pastor faces the challenge of crafting a gospel-informed message that doesn’t swing either to naïve ways we might “make it all better” or pessimistic apathy.
But there’s evidence it’s worth the work and risks: In terms of policy issues, climate is one where a clergy leader’s word has proven impact. According to a 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion, Americans with a clergy leader who “speaks at least occasionally about climate change” are more likely to be concerned about the issue than those “who attend congregations where the issue is rarely or never raised.”
So where does a preacher begin and with what goals?
Leah D. Schade’s Creation-Crisis Preaching equips pastors to name the present crisis and preach a call to action and healing. She describes one theological path to sermons infused with both testimony of the sacredness of God’s creation and our call to be agents of the world’s healing. Schade is a Lutheran pastor and anti-fracking activist who has also done doctoral work focused on homiletics and ecological theology. Appropriately, in this book she explores both the theoretical underpinnings and the practicalities of climate-crisis preaching. Her approach is clear-eyed about the current dire situation of creation, but also committed to hope: “Because I am a Lutheran homiletician,” she writes, “I am compelled to find a way to preach the eco-resurrection, even when most signs indicate that Good Friday may be the fate of our planet.”
Schade sketches the sometimes contentious and damaging history of religion’s relationship to the environment, some different approaches to ecological theology, and a “‘green’ hermeneutic for interpreting scripture.” She explores briefly how social change theory can inform the vocation of preaching and the role sermons might play in a social movement.
The Syrian crisis is escalating in unnerving ways with the arrival of Russian troops and the beginning of direct Russian military intervention. What had been a local and regional humanitarian disaster now risks becoming a superpower confrontation between Russia and the United States. Undoubtedly the introduction of Russian firepower on the scene will bring more civilian suffering, dislocation, and death.
If I were looking for handles for prophetic preaching on the Syria situation, I might select the following.
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Rhonda Rowe and her team gathered around a diagram of the nursing home’s floor plan and determined how to split up to avoid praying with anyone twice.
Rowe made her way to a room where a 93-year-old woman lay in her bed while her 87-year-old roommate sat in a wheelchair. Rowe knelt between them and went through her “Nursing Home Gospel Soul-Winning Script.”
“Fill me with your Holy Spirit and fire of God,” the 93-year-old repeated. “I’m on my way to heaven. I have Jesus in my heart.”
Rowe was soon off to the next room, but before she left, acknowledged that she might never see them again on earth. “I’ll see you girls in heaven!” she chirped.
Welcome to the world of nursing home evangelism, where teams of lay evangelists target senior citizens for one last chance in this life for glory in the next.
Thou shalt not steal another pastor’s sermon?
Recent cases of high-profile pastors who have been accused of lifting others’ material are raising questions about whether pulpit plagiarism is on the rise — and whether it has become a more forgivable sin.
Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll was accused last year of plagiarism in material he wrote with Tyndale House Publishers and InterVarsity Press. “Mistakes were made that I am grieved by and apologize for,” Driscoll said in a statement. Most recently, popular Oklahoma City-based megachurch pastor Craig Groeschel has been accused of plagiarizing the work of writer and comedian Danny Murphy.
On his blog, Murphy suggested Groeschel used material that Murphy wrote in the now-defunct magazine The Door in 2000. The material was later used by Groeschel in a sermon and in a book now titled Love, Sex, and Happily Ever After, printed by Multnomah Books. Murphy’s name never appeared with it.
Every time I go to restock my face cream at the cosmetics vendor, inevitably the sales ladies point out the fact my skin is particularly dry. Oh wait, not just dry, they say, they are also seeing signs of crow’s feet and — gasp! — some dark circles under my eyes. They masquerade as skincare health professionals with fancy dermatology equipment to properly diagnose the ills of my skin. All this, of course, so they can sell me the magic anti-wrinkle cream. And do I buy it? I do. (Dang it, you weak-willed creature.)
I recently read a book titled, Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, who pinpoints this trend over the last hundred years of advertising coined “inadequacy marketing.” He summarizes this form of storytelling as follows:
“Inadequacy stories encourage immature emotions like greed, vanity, and insecurity by telling us that we are somehow incomplete. These stories then offer to remove the discomfort of those emotions with a simple purchase or association with a brand.”
The first step in adequacy marketing is to create anxiety.
ST. LOUIS -- As Drew Burkemper got up to preach, the weight of his task was evident. His classmate at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Adam Maus, had just pretty much killed it.
Like Burkemper, Maus and other Catholic seminarians were told to prepare and deliver to his class a homily for an imaginary event.
Maus’ scenario had been a wedding between a 42-year-old bride with four children and her groom, who had recently returned to the Catholic Church. The nine other seminarians in the room loved his approach, showering him in glowing feedback.
Burkemper was up next, faced with a preaching scenario that would challenge any 23-year-old priest-to-be. His homily was for a marriage between a Catholic man and a Jewish woman.
As he began, he worked hard on his delivery, as his professor had taught him. "Father Wester is big on delivering the homily,” Burkemper said later. “Not just reading it.”
The Rev. Don Wester, pastor of All Saints Catholic Church in St. Peters, Mo., is Kenrick’s lecturer of homiletics -- the art of preaching.
The impact of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) is experienced with increased intensity as we approach Election Day. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions have a First Amendment right to independent political expenditures, certain portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act were reversed.
As a result, the voices surrounding political campaigns have risen in strength and size. And so, while a variety of viewpoints exist on the consequences of Citizens United, most agree that it has dramatically altered the culture of U.S. politics, and has thus sparked major discussion on the reach and limits of freedom of speech.
Due to the ramifications of Citizens United, we should indeed recognize and critique the role that freedom of speech holds within a mature democracy. However, as we focus on free speech, the time has come to also consider the contributions of its equally important companion, the responsibility to listen. In other words, as we ponder the primary ingredients of a healthy society, the delicate balance between freedom of speech and the responsibility to listen should be held as a critical priority.
“Words! Words! Words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through, first from him, now from you. Is that all you blighters can do?”
So, Liza Doolittle challenges the hapless Freddy Eynsford-Hill at the height of a dramatic confrontation in My Fair Lady. Freddy has come to her rescue, with his flowery, long-winded protestations of love, but poor Liza is fed up with words:
“Don't talk of stars, burning above. If you're in love, show me. Tell me not dreams, filled with desire. If you're on fire, show me.”
And you know, Eliza has a point. A well-turned phrase won’t keep you warm at night.
It’s ironic that this drama was penned by one of the great wordsmiths of the English language. The play turns on the transformation of a poor Cockney girl into a proper English lady through the manipulation of her ability to master the English language. One argument put forth in the course of achieving this goal is that it doesn’t matter what you say as long as you say it properly. Style can compensate for the absence of substance.
In contrast, I listened this week to a powerful sermon preached by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber to a gathering of some 34,000 Lutheran youth gathered in assembly in New Orleans.
On the road?
Under the weather?
O could you just not get yourself together to make it to church this weekend?
Bless your heart. We've got you covered.
Here for you edification and instruction, are three good lessons in video and audio form, from pastors Tripp Hudgins, Jeff Tacklind and Grace Imathiu ... inside the blog.
The crowd in an Atlanta church on Wednesday night was mostly Protestants, mostly preachers.
The speaker was a professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City – one of the icons of the mainstream Protestant world.
Yet Barbara Lundblad’s message was a call for the 1,000 or so people gathered for the annual Festival of Homiletics to “stand with these courageous Roman Catholic sisters.” She was referring, of course, to the recent crackdown by the Vatican on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization that represents about 80 percent of the nuns in the U.S.
Lundblad drew on the famous story of Mary, having just learned she was pregnant with Jesus, visiting her cousin, Elizabeth, who was also improbably pregnant.
The Gospel of Luke says that Mary “entered the house of Zechariah and visited Elizabeth.” Lundblad pondered why Luke felt it necessary to put Zechariah in the story at this point. She let that hang unanswered.
Then she noted that when Elizabeth saw Mary, the baby leapt in her womb in recognition of Jesus – a sign that women often come to theology through the experiences of their bodies. Lundblad said wryly, “Surely Elizabeth would not have been allowed to testify before the Congressional committee on contraception” – an all-male committee with all male witnesses, all representing church groups that do not allow the ordination of women.
NEW YORK CITY — Today and Wednesday, I have the privilege of attending a private gathering here in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan with Eugene Peterson, the 80-year-old theologian and prolific author best known for his para-translation of the Bible, The Message.
The two-day event, Q Practices, is part-retreat, part-seminar on the theme of how we might cultivate our inner lives in an age of epic distractions.
I'll be reporting more fully later, but wanted to share with you a few gems from Peterson, who recently published a marvelous memoir titled, simply, The Pastor, from this morning's sessions.
Peterson, who is a Presbyterian minister (now retired from the pastorate after 30 years), grew up in Montana in the Pentecostal Christian tradition. His mother, in fact, was a preacher who later founded and pastored her own church.
What was most telling about the disagreement between the two men was their discussion of Luke 4. Mohler argued the passage should be understood in light of how he interpreted the preaching and teaching of Paul and the other apostles. This means that when Jesus said that he came to bring good news to the poor that good news was personal salvation.
Wallis argued that yes, personal salvation is one part of that good news, but that the other part is the Kingdom of God breaking into the world and transforming societal relationships as well. When the Gospel is proclaimed, it is good news for a poor person's entire being, community and world -- not just his or her soul.
First, it was encouraging to hear Mohler spend a lot of time emphasizing that working for justice is essential to fulfillment of the Great Commission. Throughout the night he repeated his concern that a lot of Churches are REALLY bad at making disciples who actually do the things Jesus told us to do. As the president of one of the largest seminaries in the world, it will be interesting to see if he is able to train a generation of pastors who will do things differently. My concern is that he is missing the connection between his theology and the failure of Christians to actually do justice.
Scripture constantly should be challenging our assumptions about our lives and in every aspect of society. Transformation is needed on a personal and also a political level. Scriptural priorities shouldn't be glossed over in order to protect political ideologies and comfort zones.
If we believe that what Jesus taught remains just as relevant today as it did when he physically walked among us, then it should still be a comfort to those on the margins of society and offensive to the wealthy and powerful. That doesn't mean that the wealthy and powerful can't be good and faithful followers of Christ, but Jesus did warn them that their walk will be a hard one. Wealth and power bring unique and difficult temptations ... If you never feel uncomfortable when you read the Gospels then you aren't paying attention.