What’s the role of the preacher in a community; in this community? I always ask myself that question as I begin the process of preparing to preach the word. What is the preaching event all about, really? Personally I think it’s about opening up a biblical text for a community to really hear the Word of God for them. It’s a communal and personal invitation to unstop ears, to let hardened hearts soften, to see new light as scales fall from eyes, to receive the Word of God revealed in the very core of our being and allow it to rework us. It’s a holy moment in which the preacher, possibly after hours of prayer, study, tears, and chaos, begins to utter a word from God to God’s people.
I’m currently developing a sermon on Deuteronomy 34, the story of Moses at 120 years old, climbing up to the top of a mountain, surveying the land promised to his ancestors, with eyes as keen as they ever were. As God shows Moses this promised land, after 40 years of wilderness travel with the people of Israel, we are told that Moses does not get to enter. Moses, at God’s command, dies at the top of that mountain and is buried by God. It’s a tough scene; yet, it’s somehow both sad and beautiful. This is the man whom the Lord knew face to face.
As I sat with this lectionary text, praying about the words I am to say, and I sat with the question of the role of the preacher, I came across Casey Sigmon’s post regarding politicking from the pulpit. When she mentioned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I experienced one of those marvelous moments when unwieldy threads of ideas and inspiration weave together.
Dr. King preached in Memphis the night before he was shot. When he assumed his place at the podium-turned-pulpit he began on the story of Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt. He moved through the scriptures and flowed right out into more recent history. The whole sermon is about forty-five minutes long and about half way through this sermon of hope he had a word for the preachers:
And you know what’s beautiful to me, is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones, and whenever injustice is around he must tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, who said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.
King’s words, his call for justice, flows from a deep well whose source is Holy Scripture. His testimony pours forth and floods the heart of a community that surrounds him, a community that calls that word forth. King speaks directly to the questions I was asking: What’s the role of the preacher? But, as promised at the beginning of his sermon, King doesn’t stop there, he rolls on.
Before he steps out of that holy moment and all but collapses into the arms of the ministers, friends, and social activists around him, he has this word on this text that I’m digging into this week: Deuteronomy 34. He digs into that text too. He lets it draw him in and place him there with the greatest prophet that ever lived. I can imagine the two of them standing there, the young King and the old man, looking out over the land stretching out in front of them. Dr. King takes a breath and heads back down the mountain, Moses stays behind.
When King returns to the people, he stands there in that pulpit and releases the fire shut up in his bones. He interprets and reports, as the preacher does:
…I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
Moses died up there on that mountain; King died the next day. To this day no one knows where Moses is buried, King is buried in Atlanta, Georgia about ten minutes from my house.
What is the role of this preacher as I head down to South Georgia to guest preach at a Presbyterian church not too far from a confederate flag the size of a city bus billowing next to I-75; when the lectionary passage is Deuteronomy 34, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s last scriptural reference in his last sermon, the week following the dedication of his memorial in Washington, D.C., the week State of Formation bloggers ponder politics in the pulpit? “Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher?”