Why Do I Preach?
My young preaching life has been a journey to say the least. I was reminded of that as I recently made the trip to the Festival of Young Preachers last month in Atlanta, Georgia. It was at this same festival two years ago that I preached one of my first sermons ever – a long, meandering dissertation on the importance of Sabbath and the Exodus journey of the Hebrew people which causes me to cringe when I think about it these days. And here I was making a return journey, three preaching classes later and this time with fellow classmates Terrinae Watson and Dominique Grate for company. All along the way, I thought of how much it had taken for me to get from there to here – to preach once again.
If you had asked me three years ago, well before the Festival, what I thought of the preaching act, I would have probably responded in absolute bewilderment and disdain. “Why preach?” I’m sure I thought at least more than once. Why preach when people are hurting and hungry and in need of help? Why sit around and listen to someone talk about Jesus when we should really be out there living lives like Jesus? Why preach when there is so much going wrong in our world and so little time to fix all of it? These are valid reactions to be sure. (And I should also admit that I just wasn’t listening to the right preachers at that time!)
And after three years and all those courses and experiences I still have to ask the question to myself from time to time. Why do I preach? Why has it become not just an interest of mine but an absolute obsession? Why do I keep trying to do it better, to engage in it more creatively, and to push myself to newer perspectives on something that was once such a curious act of worship for me? In my time at Wake Forest, I’ve come up with at least a few answers to share with you here:
I preach because I think words have the power to shape the world and change it. Things begin to happen when we attach words to what we see or believe in the world. Just a few hundred years ago, this country put into words the beliefs they found to be self-evident – words like equality and justice. It took the words of another prophet (and Baptist preacher) to bring those words back to life and help the nation to live them out more fully. With preaching, with words, we can name justice and injustice in the world, we can see new values, hear new voices, and be challenged to new callings. With preaching, we can be reminded of the old, old stories that still have very much to say to the stories of our lives as they unfold before us and within us. We can imagine the world as God would see it and strive to live more into that world with preaching.
I preach to challenge and to be challenged. The foolishness of preaching in particular and the ministry of the church broadly is that it clings to the hope that a large group of people can be transformed. In the preaching act, I am constantly thinking of the challenging and liberating nature of the Gospel. A Gospel that is good news to the poor and weak and infirmed and imprisoned is not very good news to the rest of the folks who live very comfortably. Yet it didn’t stop Jesus from preaching it. It should not stop me either. But we’d all do well to remember that people don’t listen to preaching in order to get smacked in the face with the harsh truth of the injustices they are a part of. They listen to preaching so that they can get a handle on it, name it for themselves, and begin to work their way out of it. They listen to preachers who love them as they are and love them enough to stay with them as they become who they will be in the Commonwealth of God. In that uncertain tension, I am also challenged as I try to preach the Gospel to others.
I preach because I hear the words of St. Paul echoing in every sermon: “How will they hear without someone to preach?” How can people know justice, mercy, and grace if they do not hear it and feel it for themselves? How can they know the needs of the world, how can they join in on the work of the redemption and reconciliation of all creation if they don’t hear someone telling them where to go and what to do? How can they dream together, create together, live together without someone to help them along the way? How can they preach themselves without the words of Good News being spoken deep into their hearts and minds? I preach because I hope others will hear a bit of that Good News from me.
Most of all, in answer to the question, “Why do I preach?” I preach because God spoke and the whole cosmos came into existence. I preach because God is still speaking, calling forth new life, redeeming, reconciling, renewing old life, making something out of a bunch of nothings, making grace real and alive to us today. I preach because I want to join in on God’s conversation.