North Carolina’s sixth annual “Elevating Preaching” conference encouraged preachers to address needed issues while also incorporating elements of hope into their sermons. The conference, co-sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina; divinity schools at Campbell, Gardner-Webb, and Wake Forest Universities; and the Baptist House at Duke Divinity School, convened Sept. 22 in Duke’s Goodson Chapel, centering on the theme “Preaching Hope.”
In an opening worship service, Susan Sparks, a former trial lawyer who serves as pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City while moonlighting as a standup comedian, built her remarks around the image of a mulch pile into which people can throw away their organic trash and see it transformed into life-giving soil. She encouraged participants to examine their lives for characteristics, attitudes, or grudges that need to be trashed, and to let them go. Both individuals and churches should learn the hard skill of discerning what needs to be put on the metaphorical mulch pile where it can be transformed into something more positive: turning loose of anger, for example, can give rise to forgiveness.
Richard Lischer, a Lutheran minister who teaches at Duke Divinity School, offered a lecture on “The Priority of Hope.” Beginning from what he noted was an unusual starting point, he named three questions that philosopher Immanuel Kant said we all must ask: “What can I know?”, “What should I do?”, and “What can I hope?”
The most important of the questions has to do with hope, Lischer said. He cited Romans 8, in which Paul delineated a list of “hope killers” before moving on to teach resurrection hope. To find hope, Lischer said, “you begin with a cup of faith, add a bit of suffering, then shake or stir and watch hope emerge.” Christians can hope in God, and even when our hopes do not materialize, we do not regret it, he said, quoting Rom. 5:5: “Hope does not disappoint.”
When grounded in hope, Lischer said, believers can know more and do more than they thought possible. It’s important, then, that preachers speak in ways that engender hope in others. Instead of focusing on the long and difficult road ahead in the Civil Rights movement, for example, in 1955 Martin Luther King, Jr. focused on the privilege of being present at the “daybreak” of a new era. Ministry is a hopeful endeavor, he said: prophets should not come across as angry, but hopeful.
Leonora (Nora) Tubbs Tisdale, a Wilmington native who teaches homiletics in the Yale University Divinity School, looked to the Hebrew prophets as proclaimers of hope in a second lecture. Prophetic preaching is, at the heart, good news, she said — “very good news.” Because of that, today’s ministers “need to rekindle prophetic preaching” because it has the capacity to break through despair and fear, apathy and indifference, offering needed hope.
Tisdale cited multiple factors that produce fear, including terrorist groups, an unpredictable environment, and political polarization. She pointed to Hosea, who spoke in a precarious political time of much fear, but proclaimed God’s anguish and love for the people. Though he pointed to the people’s sins, Tisdale said, he proclaimed a loving God who would come in judgment, but not vengeance. To counter fear, she said, proclaimers need first to name the fear, then offer a word of grace and hope in place of it. Many people who struggle with poverty or injustice are in danger of despairing, Tisdale said.
To engage despair, she suggested “preaching as an invitation to lament.” Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah all lamented deeply over Israel’s woes. “The refusal to be consoled can be holy,” Tisdale said: preachers should “invite people to let their hearts break over the things that break God’s heart” and refuse to be consoled until justice prevails and hunger ends. To go beyond despair, she said, people need to move beyond lamenting to capture a new vision of a better day.
When preaching hope in the face of apathy and indifference, Tisdale suggested that ministers look to the examples of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, all of whom engaged in prophetic actions as well as words. She pointed to those who have been involved in “Moral Monday” demonstrations in North Carolina, and to the many pastors who helped bring calm to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, after recent riots, while also calling for justice. Prophetic preaching is neither all judgment or pie in the sky, she said, but a window of truth and hope and vision.
In a closing worship service, Howard John Wesley, pastor of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, challenged preachers to be faithful lest they share the fate of Moses, who failed at a crucial point and was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Wesley turned to the familiar story in Numbers 20 of how God told Moses to speak to a rock to produce needed water, but Moses struck it instead.
Many readers sympathize with Moses and think the punishment didn’t fit the crime, Wesley said, before identifying what he saw as three important failures on Moses’ part. Moses “wasted his worship,” Wesley said, by having a conversation with God but leaving God’s presence with his anger at the people intact. This led Moses to offer a “wrongful witness” for God as he vented his wrath at them before striking the rock twice, giving the wrong impression of divine anger when they needed a message of hope. God was gracious and sent the water despite Moses’ disobedience, which “withheld the wonder” of God from the people. Moses took credit for what was wholly God’s work, Wesley said, an act of “sanctified plagiarism” that got him “kicked out of the program.” In contrast to Moses’ moment of weakness, he insisted, preachers should seek to be always in touch with God’s Spirit and pointing to God as they preach a message not of anger, but of hope.
Next year’s Elevating Preaching conference will be hosted by the Campbell University Divinity School.