Church and Society / Politics / Religion / Theology of Preaching

Speaking Truths That Empower

pulpit

Most liberals are familiar with the phrase “[speak] truth to power” which I always loosely associated with social justice messages, particularly those from the pulpit.  But, when pressed on the issue, I wasn’t able to give a cogent definition of what the “truth” was and let alone what the “power” was.  So when I heard the phrase “speaking truths that empower” I took it and ran with it and it made perfect sense to me.

Well, I preached last Sunday a sermon entitled “One More Chance” from the Hebrew Bible book of Lamentations 3:19-24 where the poet laments about the destruction of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  However, the poet decides to stop lamenting when they write

But this I recall to my mind and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.”

I began the sermon about what it means to be oppressed, to understand just what had happened to Israelites when they had been captured by the Babylonians and carted and carried off into slavery.  I did heavy African American history and how our ancestors had been stolen from their homeland and survived here in this country.  Then I moved into the exegesis of the Temple’s fall and what audience Lamentations was written for, and I borrowed a run from my pastor of biblical scriptures beginning with each letter of the alphabet A-Z to draw the parallel of acrostic structure–the form of writing that the book of Lamentations was written and some of the Psalms and Song of Songs (Solomon).  Finally, I drew it all together saying that after all of the despair that we as a community had experienced that God had given us “one more chance.”

I went on to pose the rhetorical question as to what had we done with our “one more chance” that God gives us each morning that we wake up.  In typical uppity Negro style, I challenged the congregation that we need more people to challenge the social ills of racism and sexism in our community.  I even leveled that I was sick and tired of turning on local news and seeing victims and perps alike who looked like me!  I drove the point home by saying that too often many of us wait for a more appropriate time and we slap God in the face by not seizing the day and taking advantage of our “one more chance.”  Check it out.

God gives us new mercies each and every morning and every time we say wait, we’re slapping God in the face and telling God “No thank you” to the new mercies that God has bestowed upon us.  Too often we as humans and as African Americans, we like to wait.  We want to wait.  Something about us seems to want to wait until it seems like it’s safe.  We constantly see injustices daily and we stand by and say nothing and do nothing.  We go into church meetings and Bible studies with questions and concerns burning on the inside and we remain silent to “wait for an appropriate time” lest we upset the establishment; lest we upset the status quo.

            Well what if Harriet Tubman had waited?  She was a ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church and carried a pistol with her on the 19 trips she made from North to South freeing over 300 slaves.  She would threaten those she was helping to escape with her pistol if they got scared and wanted to go back and wait for a more appropriate time to escape from slavery.  What if William Edward Burghardt DuBois had waited?  Would we have had an NAACP which was instrumental in funding the defense team for the Brown vs. the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education decision?  Would we have known about the Souls of Black Folk or been aware of the Pan-African links between this country and the homeland of our ancestors?  What is Dorothy Height had waited?  Would we have had the National Council of Negro Women?  What if Diane Nash had waited?  A freshman student at Fisk University who helped integrate the lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee.  What if A. Phillip Randolph had waited?  Would we have even had the 1963 March on Washington and let alone known about a dream that a black Southern preacher had.

            We can’t afford to wait any longer.  When people and literally dying physically from HIV/AIDS pandemics and epidemics in our metropolitan cities and we still can’t get a viable universal health care plan to even go to a congressional committee; when Congress can pass a $700 billion dollar bail-out plan that was to bail out Wall Street, engage the anachronistic practice of Reagonomics and trickle-down to Main Street and for those of us that live on Martin Luther King streets in major cities we’re just SOL; when we have a Supreme Court Justice who shares my skin color, as the lone dissenting vote against the renewal of a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Bill that protects non-whites from disenfranchisement when it comes to voting by saying that we shouldn’t punish the current states for the sins of the past; we cant afford to wait any longer.  The damage that has been done is threatening to be irreparable with regards to our future.  When someone tells you wait, turn to them and say “If not now, then when?”

I started a close with telling the story of Rev. Vernon Johns and how in the movie with James Earl Jones portraying him that indeed we needed some “boat rockers” who didn’t mind putting their lives on the line and doing all within their power to exact effective change in our communities.

Well…

Everyone who walked up to me had nothing but good things to say.  Only criticism I got was that I was too fast.  I’m waiting on a copy to verify that charge because it’s entirely possible, but as for now, I’m somewhat just chalking it up to the fact that this church was not used to the style of preaching.  Compared to the pastor I’m almost near opposite of preaching style.  Most of what I preached was rather rapid fire, I’ll admit that, but that’s a difference between rushing through the sermon versus just being charged up and having rapid fire delivery.

I did fine with that, what I had a problem was with the following.

jeremiah wrightMonday, the pastor got around to telling me how I did, to which he said he gave me a B+ on delivery because it was too fast, and then he told me–and I quote “…be less Jeremiah Wright and more uppity Negro.”  

Well, he didn’t say that, but he said my name.

I didn’t know what to do with that.  He tore apart the section of the sermon where I talked about waiting and said it really didn’t have much to do with the sermon and that that part would have been more appropriate with the Habakkuk 1:2 passage “How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?”  And then he seemed to suggest, not outright, but that I had lifted, as in copied, the sermon from Jeremiah Wright.

I was rolling my eyes to myself as I was listening.

He went on to tell me that people like points and that I should have had points in the sermon.  Well, personally, I’ve never preached points before and had just stuck with topical sermons.  None of my homiletics professors preached points, and most of the sermons delivered in the classes, the people didn’t have points either.  Now I grew up listening to point preaching from Jeremiah Wright, but now Otis Moss III sometimes has points and sometimes he doesn’t.  Truth be told, they are easier for note taking purposes, but they aren’t the only mode of effective preaching.

I think what irritated me and almost insulted me was the fact that this pastor whom I had only known for about three weeks at the time acted as if he knew me.  Because for him to say “be less Jeremiah Wright and find your own voice” suggested the fact that he knows me.  I was so stunned I sent The Critical Cleric a text message because I had let him read over the sermon before I delivered it, and he responded back “that sermon was ALL you” but he also rightly acknowledged the fact that Jeremiah Wright and Trinity United Church of Christ are totally central to my faith experience.  To not expect to see it in my writing and my preaching for that matter would be ludicrous and absurd.  Critical Cleric simply said that that was probably his way of saying to be less political and social justice oriented in the sermons and be more congregationally palatable, to he said was a bunch of bollocks!

And I agree of course.

I was sure that the congregation wasn’t used to it because I dropped African American history facts left and right quoting dates, people and not to mention hermeneutical and exegetical information germane to the Lamentations passage.  And, oh, maybe this past Tuesday an older woman (well, half the damn church is over 60) said just how wonderful the sermon was and how impressed she was.  But she went on to say that “I know you did a lot of research for that.  I know you couldn’t have had all of that up in your head.  The words “Bitch, what the eff you talkin’ bout?” and the actions of me climbing over my desk and shaking her violently were all words and actions that I wanted to express, but I just nodded and smiled politely and let her continue talking as if I weren’t phased by it.  I just didn’t want to fall victim to homiletical hubris because of course my first reaction was to dismiss the pastor’s constructive criticism.

He went on to suggest that I could have given more examples of one more chance in the lives of the individual.  I thought about closing on God’ll give you one more chance on your job, and God’ll give you one more chance on your marriage, and God’ll give you one more chance on your finances, but I was like, hell naw.  I’ll speak more on that later.

john calvinThat being said, I walked away with the idea that the pastor was merely giving me tips on how to preach to his congregation only, at worst.  At best, he was trying to give me tips on how be a Presbyterian minister who preached a gospel concurrent with Reformed theology and it’s precepts.  None of which necessarily provided me the tools to preach a gospel that results in an actual change in mind and change in behavior of the listeners.  

One of the things I’ve somewhat vowed to myself is to be careful just what level I speak to the individual at the sake of the community.  Ninety-nine percent of my examples in this sermon were community oriented.  Seriously, who cares about you and your car and you and your house?  You know better.  There are more than enough popular preachers who’ll give you enough about the personal life, but we have few that concern themselves with the stake of the community.  I’m of the opinion that as long as people are literally dying in the streets, the ecclesial community has a responsibility to respond to it.

As long as many of us sit in our pews of middle-class living and we stand by and do nothing, we’re no less guilty than those that stood by while Jesus was lynched on a Roman cross even after being found guilty by Governor Potius Pilate.

So, I was quite aware that I didn’t include any individual references because, as you, my readers know, know that where I stand on issues concerning our community.  The Critical Cleric simply said that my sermon was “intellectual and inspirational” and usually you don’t get those two together.  However, the under 40 crowd had nothing but positive things to say, and as far as the younger kids from the middle school group, they really liked it and one girl said it was better than the pastors sermon.  And another young girl said she didn’t fall asleep as she usually does when the pastor preaches.

Since I finished Ricky Jones’s What’s Wrong With Obamamania? Black America, Black Leadership and the Death of Political Imagination I was able to embark on Jonathan Walton’s much hailed and respected book Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism and Walton gives some excursus on the history of the Word of Faith movement and it wasn’t stuff I didn’t necessarily know, but Walton’s tongue and cheek writing on this particular section provided me with some detail I was unaware of.  I said all that to say that in the face of theologies that aren’t community-oriented, such as some of those within the broad range of neo-Pentecostalism of which include the various neo-Charismatic and most certainly Word of Faith theology, my type of preaching as exampled in this last sermon is highly unpopular.

Just ask Jeremiah Wright.

I think the sad thing, as I go into a critique of the church is that mainline denominations, home to the silk stocking churches may have been preaching the appropriate community based messages, but they failed epically in bridging the gap between the lower and working class people and that of the middle and upper classes in the black community.  The old school Pentecostals attracted the lower and working class, but preached a message that more or less taught redemptive suffering and that everything you ever needed was going to happen in the sweet by-and-by and more or less to wear the suffering of today as a badge of honor.  Moving into the late 20th and now 21st century, the Black Church moved away from strict denominational lines and now, no telling what you may hear walking into a black church on any given Sunday.

As a result, mainline denominations are becoming relics that are relishing on the glory years of the civil rights movement.  The black neo-Pentecostal churches (which broadly captures all of these non-denominational joints springing up in storefronts, all the way to the heavy hitters of Bishop T.V. Fakes T.D. Jakes, Creflo and Taffi Dollar and Bishop Eddie Long) are easy in attracting young membership, but sadly, when I’ve attended other black megachurches of relatively famous pastors, to use Bishop Joseph Walker of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, now with the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship and even attending the church of the founder and current presiding bishop, or to use the full appropriate name International Presiding Bishop Paul S. Morton‘s church of Greater St. Stephen’s Baptist Church down in New Orleans, all I heard was a message that was above all–safe.  It didn’t challenge anyone’s beliefs, it didn’t make the listeners think in a different way that they had never thought before, and it most certainly didn’t address any social, political or economic empowerment concerns related to the larger community, let alone the individual.

I have a lot more to say, but I think this may be one of my longest posts ever.  I know no one’s going to read it all but probably my mother, but I just wanted to get it off of my chest and this is my blog so I can do that.

I’m simply one young man speaking some truths attempting to empower a people trying to change the world one sermon at a time.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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7 thoughts on “Speaking Truths That Empower

  1. I don’t know. Your sermon would be confusing to me. What was the point of it all? Is it to be grateful to God for his mercies, or to go out and be a social activist?

    Are fixing social ills the only way to say Thank you to God for his mercies?

    On the other hand, the sermon is good because is raises issues that we as a people probably take forgranted.

    Let me ask, could you have preached this to an all white congregation? And would it matter?

    I have always stayed away from churches that claim to be “relevant”. I find the bible to be very relevant to me today… just as it has been for me the past 20 years.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you have a good gospel message it should resonate to everyone, old young, black, white red, upperclass, lowerclass.

    I agree. A good message should make you think. In fact it should also fill you with godly fear. Have I lived up to the potential that God has given me.

    • @Rose

      I doubt the sermon in it’s full form would have been confusing. I’m completely paraphrasing and you don’t get the full feel of the nuances within the sermon. Are fixing social ills the only way? No. Would I have preached this sermon to an all white congregation? More or less. I would have been aware of it and changed some things around, but the general thrust no. That is to say, some things that would have cultural relevance to an all black congregation wouldn’t to an all white congregation, as a result what I had to say wouldn’t make as much sense.

      I’m not convinced that a good gospel message, which I’m interpreting as a sermon, is going to reach all. We view God in vastly different ways, as a result how I see God is not how my neighbor necessarily does. I’m sure there are some commonalities, and generally those with those commonalities find community in the same church. But, fact of the matter is that both members of a Trinity United Church of Christ where Jeremiah Wright was the pastor and members of Thomas Road Baptist Church where Jerry Fallwell was pastor both profess to worship the same God and profess a belief in the same Jesus Christ. However, both view God in vastly different capacities.

  2. First of all, nothing you preached is different from what I might have preached, so if he tells you he’s trying to get you to be Presbyterian, he’s full of it.

    Second, you are young. It WILL surprise old people that you know history. Most young people don’t. Get over it.

    Third, it might be an interesting exercise to ask yourself whether your voice has become so much like the voices of your mentors that you are indistinguishable from them. When I was doing my PhD, I had had the same adviser for 11 years (M. Div and PhD). By the end of my work, I thought, researched, and taught just like him, without imitating him intentionally. I can honestly say that it has taken me 5 years to develop a completely unique voice and set of questions from him.

    Having said that, keep preaching justice. Lord knows the people need to hear it.

    Keep it uppity.

    • @ UppityProf

      I’m quite clear I have no mentors.

      I have experienced people that have influenced my life, such as you, but not a mentor.

      That being said, I think through this blog, and through some class comments and being in seminary I’ve just happened to develop a voice (inside or outside of the pulpit) that is rather close to that of my faith experience coming out of Trinity. After doing my own reading, talking to my friends, learning what I’ve learned in class, going doing site visits in IPSC 718, visiting Common Ground the three times I did, I’m more than convinced that a good chunk of what I delivered in that sermon was all me. In fact, I’m quite sure it was all me.

      I’ve heard some of Wright’s older sermons and some of them were rather “safe” to say the least and rather confessional in their approach to the biblical text and I’m sure I wouldn’t have preached it in that way.

  3. NOT guilty…
    Jesus was crucified despite Pontius Pilate finding no guilt in him.
    —————

    Great post. Please give the generally-wonderful-elder- lady-saints of the church a break. Thanks! Appreciate the lessons available to you during this internship. The opportunities offered have a purpose in the work that you’ve been call to do.

    Justice for all is a community effort and tends to encourage the uppity doing of theology.

    Stay uppity…

  4. Ooops…

    The opportunities offered have a purpose in the work that you’ve been CALLED to do.
    ———–
    Your Presbyterian pastor-supervisor-guide is the conduit through which your learning occurs at this time. Make the most of God’s mercy with each ‘one more chance’ to grow forward toward community education and justice.

  5. “I’m simply one young man speaking some truths attempting to empower a people trying to change the world one sermon at a time.”

    This, my brother, is the core and power of individual liberty, which is also the core of our faith, which is uniquely linked to how we should live in America.

    We know the challenges our communities face, yet it will always come to individuals choosing to make constructive changes. One of the most empowering books I’ve read recently, ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’, truly addresses an approach to wealth and prosperity most poor folk are never taught. There’s nothing wrong with acquiring wealth when the outcomes benefit people; sadly these are aspects that I feel aren’t addressed in ‘Black’ churches, yet the generation of wealth so as to empower the community is critical for us.

    One of my contemporary heroes lived by a simple credo: either you can ‘be someone’ or ‘DO SOMETHING.’ While you may not end up being a T.D. Jakes, you WILL empower people to grow, prosper, and serve others as Jesus did.

    I adore my Catholicism, but would attend your church as regularly as possible.

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