Preaching: What a Quaint Idea!
Dwight A. Moody, President, Academy of Preachers
PREACHAPALOOZA Sermon, January 4, 2016
We launch this series of public addresses on the theme, SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF PREACHING. Like an underground river it runs unseen beneath all that has blossomed these last seven years. It came to my attention while teaching and mentoring college ministerial students. They were smart and talented. They loved Jesus and wanted to make a difference in the world. But they were not convinced you could do that from a pulpit. So research, and legislation, and community organizing enticed them away from the art and science of public rhetoric.
But this suspicion about preaching is not limited to college students. After we were launched in 2009, the Academy of Preachers searched for a suitable institutional home. I spoke to one campus minister who arranged a presentation to the university president and his cabinet. It is a church-related school, with graduate programs in theology, spirituality, and communication. Just the right mix of things, I thought. After a 15 minute pitch of who we are, what we do, and why it is important, I stopped, and waited for his response. He leaned back in his leather chair, studied me for a minute, then said, “Preaching, huh? What a quaint idea.”
Quaint: is that the word you use to describe the preachers who have shaped your life? Quaint: is that the word you select to define the practice to which you have been called? Quaint: is that the word Jesus had in mind when he said, “Preach the gospel.”
I think about the preaching I have heard at these National Festivals. Who was in that soaring Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville when Fr Jeff Nicolas stood in the pulpit? He recounted his call to preach while a student right here. He challenged us all with his ordination appeal to “believe what we read, preach what we believe, and live what we preach.” There were many words that came to mind as I sat beside the archbishop, but quaint was not one of them.
A year later Alyce McKenzie abandoned the pulpit in Atlanta and came down to the floor among us. She unrolled that remarkable story with the title, “Welcome to Tucson.” I wrapped up that word quaint and sent it back in the postage paid box in which it came.
You were there last year, in Dallas, when H Beecher Hicks climbed the four steps into that tall pulpit in Highland Park United Methodist Church. You were there when he unleashed that homiletic whirlwind, “This is my Story,” We were all at a loss for words to describe its soul-stirring, mind-stretching, life-shaking power, but I promise you, we were as far from quaint as a is from z.
How is it that some people seek to dismiss preaching as secondary, or irrelevant, or inconsequential?
It’s not just the old preachers that challenge this disparaging description of the university president. Reggie Sharpe was only 18 when he took the floor in the fellowship hall of a Baptist church in Louisville. I had wandered in, picking a venue at random. But I sat spellbound and never once muttered the word quaint.
There were only 16 of us in an activity center in West Point Georgia. Rachel Brooker Langford got up on Saturday morning with the language of God dancing in her head. She both described and dramatized the gospel in ways I will never forget, under the umbrella of “Is There Any Good News.” “That sermon was worth 16,000 listeners, I told her later. Quaint? I don’t think so!
And this afternoon, I heard a sermon to add to that all star cast of gospel tellers. Brad Bickerstaff from Trevecca Nazarene took a text from Job and celebrated lament as a means of grace. I was shaking my head in unbelief.
I sometimes see things I receive as quaint: a country cottage, a turn of phrase, a picture from a bygone era. I know what quaint is. And I know when it is used is a disparaging way. When a friend tells you your interest in life is quaint, he is trying to discourage you from preaching. When a sister uses the word quaint to introduce your career to another you know she is diminishing your call. Or they will say: “You can’t make any money.” Or, “You are wasting your talent.” and sometimes, just, “Really?”
It is a two-sided coin our critics want to discard. Sometimes they ridicule our message, the gospel itself, as an outdated remedy for what ails the human race. They prefer political solutions, scientific discoveries, and military strategies or educational initiatives, economic plans, even benevolent organizations. Each in its turn is paraded as a more appropriate investment of your talent and energy. And most of these can be a good thing.
But it is the gospel that needs telling: a gospel that announces the presence of God everywhere in the world; a gospel that tells the story of Jesus as rabbi, radical reformer, redeemer, risen lord; a gospel that calls us to renounce prejudice, meanness, selfishness, and violence; a gospel that lifts up Jesus, crucified, buried, and raised from the dead; a gospel that envisions the renewal of heaven and earth with a tsunami of faith, hope, and love. This is the vision of human life on planet earth that can comfort, inspire, mobilize, and transform.
Sometimes it is the practice of preaching they despise. Church? You mean, on Sunday: with singing, and praying, and taking my money? You mean with somebody getting up and talking some long boring religious stuff?
Can one person standing alone on a platform with no gadget, no prop, no tool, nothing but her voice, her vision, her vital link to the mission of God make a difference in this world?
Every day somebody has posted on Facebook a Ted Talk. They started out with a small group of specialists speaking to one another about Technology, Entertainment, and Design: TED. But today, the recorded Ted Talks have been viewed by billions of people. What is it? One person; on a platform; no props; no movies; not even a pulpit or stand; one person with passion, intelligence, and skill. It is the power of the human voice. Quaint? I don’t think so!
Here we are in the middle of a never ending political tussle. What is it? Advertisements, yes, but we discount all of that as propaganda. No, it is 20 people—now 15—traveling around the country talking: getting on a stage, often without notes and with only a microphone. Talking, speaking, testifying, preaching: describing a vision, condemning this behavior and that, calling for…well, change, new direction, about face. You know the Bible word for that is, don’t you? Repentance!
Preaching is quaint? Tell that to all those radical Islamists who populate the cyber world. What do they do? Make videos of people speaking: from city mosques and sandy stumps. They do what you do: articulate a vision of human life on planet earth and call people to a radical action. What they say matters. It is shaking up the world. I am reminded on the phrase used of the first Christian preachers; “Turning the world upside down.”
We are all stumped by ISIS. What shall we do? Planes in the sky? Boots on the ground? Bombs falling from one to the other? We have tried all of that. The survival of civilization and civility depends upon the preachers. Yes, the Christian preachers, preaching Christ, inviting converts; but more than that, Muslim preachers: countering the angry, hate-filled, violent laden sermons of ISIS with another Islamic message, truer to its heart but just as radical in its demands for justice, hospitality, and peace.
I’m sorry Mr. University president. Far from quaint, the practice of standing and speaking to a moral vision of human life on planet earth is in fact the most powerful force shaping world culture and history.
Consider the two most influential people in the world: a Pope and a President. The Pope is Francis, bishop of Rome. I went to Rome to hear him. Friday night we arrived from Istanbul. Saturday night from 7 to 11 we peddled our bikes around that great city. Then on Sunday morning we took a taxi to St. Peter’s square and joined 35,000, 45,000, maybe 50,000 people, standing for hours on solid rock, waiting. At the appointed time, noon, on the 6th floor, on a small balcony, he comes out. It was too far away for me to verify it was Francis. He spoke for 13 minutes in a language I did not understand, in a language most of us did not understand. Why? 50,000 people: why? Because what he says matters.
Three months later on September 6 he stood in that same place and called upon every Catholic parish in Europe, all 120,000 of them, to provide Christian hospitality to at least one Syrian refugee family, it makes a difference.
The President is Obama. He won election on the basis of his oratory. All of us were moved first to tears then to music when he went to Charleston in June. He voiced the aspirations and ambitions of a nation: to be a place safe for all undergirded by justice, compassion, and freedom.
The AME church murders happened on a Wednesday. The president went to Charleston 9 days later on a Friday. But in between, on a Sunday, June 21, I was home watching television. I was recovering from surgery. First I watched and listened to as much religion as I could handle for one day. Then the political shows came on. Face the Nation. John Dickerson was the host, and his guests were Hugh Hewitt and Gwen Ifill.
Dickerson asked Hewitt about the murders; and Hewitt said: “I start with the nine saints who were assassinated. I was at mass this morning at the Cathedral of St. Matthews down the street and the pastor preached on these people….But the Bible reading today was about the sea, and being in the middle of a storm, and the apostles being afraid.”
Then Dickerson turned to Gwen Ifill, and said, “Gwen, you also went to church this morning.”
And Ifill, the host of PBS Newshour, said: “I did. And my pastor preached from exactly the same scripture. Many people, including my pastor, knew Reverend Pinckney and had connections in South Carolina. So there was a lot of emotion. We had a vigil there on Friday….My pastor at Metropolitan AME Church pointed out how the disciples had questions: who is this person who appeared and calmed the seas?”
I confess: I was stunned. Two nationally known media elites, preparing to provide political and social commentary on a national broadcast, preparing for this gig by going to church and listening to a sermon!!
I don’t know the names of these preachers at Metropolitan AME church and the Cathedral of St. Matthew. I’m sure some of you do. They stood in the background of major events, reading scripture, telling Jesus stories, declaring the gospel, shaping the minds and imaginations of people high and low.
Most people touched and changed by your preaching are not going to know your name. You and I will stand and speak in the background of national and local drama, of public and private struggles. But what you say when you take a text and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ touches the lives of people: who are contractors and corporate elites, judges and jailers, politicians and plumbers. The young people who listen to you will grow up to be governors and playwrights and entrepreneurs, they will become fathers and mothers, evangelists and preachers. Your word fitly spoken shapes their imagination and fills their mind, moves their will and motivates their behavior. You are speaking into them the wonderful words of life.
Woe unto you if you preach not the gospel!
I gave a challenge to Muslim preachers a few minutes ago. We Christian preachers have our own job: to discern the times and hear the Word of God. We need a word from the Lord! We need voices crying out in the wilderness of greed and violence in which we live, calling out over this ocean of fear that threatens to overwhelm our people.
We are to take up the most persistent and ubiquitous command of our own holy book. No, it is not “Love God” thought that is important; it is not “Follow Jesus” though that is our gospel; it is not “Walk in the Spirit” though that is sorely needed. It is this: DO NOT FEAR. More than any other word from the Lord this comes to us from poets and prophets, the apostles and story tellers of Scripture. And we need that word today.
These are anxious and unsettled times. From every voice we are confronted with our fears. Advertisers sell us security systems to ease our fears of invasion. Commercials proffer portfolios to address our fears of running out of money. Drug companies offer us medicines to address what might happen to our bodies and minds. Politicians stoke our fears of immigrants and terrorists, bankers and businessmen, and even of each other: “Fear the Democrats; Flee the Republicans.”
Ministers also teach us to be afraid. “Fear the fundamentalists,” some say, and others, “Watch out for those liberals, or the Catholics or the Pentecostals, or the Muslims, or the secularists, or just any stranger within the gate.”
The smog of fear blankets our country and cokes the civility right out of us. Fear distorts. Fear paralyses. Fear destroys. Fear blinds. Fear robs us of our faith in God, corrodes our love for one another, and drains our hope in the promises of God.
In this cauldron of social conflict, the gospel has a word; and gospel preachers have a task. Woe unto you if you do not stand and preach the gospel of hope: “Do not fear.” What does the Word of God say? “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27.1) In the words of Isaiah the preacher, put to music by the hymn writer:
“Fear not, I am with them, O be not dismayed.
For I am your God and will still give you aid.
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”
When I feel within me the swelling storm of doubt and fear, when I sense the dance of demons that seek to destroy my sanity and endanger my salvation, I pray that Jesus who came to his disciples in the middle of a storm walking on the water will say also to me, “Do not be afraid. It is I, the Lord Jesus.”
When I am discouraged and defeated and despair of making a difference in the world, I want the Risen Lord to come to me and say to me, as he did to Paul when the great apostle was depressed and alone in the city of Corinth: “Do not be afraid, keep on speaking, do not be silent, for I have many people in this city.”
When preachers, politicians, and pundits seek to blow up my hope and fill my mind with their litany of woe, I remember what the angel said when she surprised those shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, “Do not fear! For behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy. For unto us is born this day in the city of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord!
Here is the gospel irony in this whole quaint episode. As that smug and condescending university president tilted back in his leather chair workers in leather gloves were moving dirt on the national mall in DC. As he was denigrating preaching as the quaint artifact of a medieval culture, a memorial was taking shape to celebrate the impact of that very practice. As he led his education cabinet to dismiss the sermon as unworthy of university study, thousands of young men and women were hearing the voice of God, asking, “How shall they hear without a preacher?” Two years later that Memorial was finished and dedicated: to the memory: of a president? A general? A politician? A university president? NO!! A preacher! The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
In the words of that itinerant preacher of antiquity, “Woe unto me if I do not preach the good news of God.”