In many sanctuaries throughout the United States, a common scenario often plays out on Sunday mornings. As the one designated to preach approaches the pulpit, a feeling overcomes the congregation. In some places, if not most, that feeling is dread, as churchgoers brace themselves for what is about to come. Regardless of denomination, geography, or liturgical season, far too few American Christians are able to express with confidence that they experience preaching of high value on a regular basis. While much complicates that reality—from varying understandings of how to define the terms “great” and “preaching,” to the poor initial formation and increasing burnout of preachers, to a long list of other complications—the reality remains. The anxiety, apathy and fear felt by those in the pews is often shared by their burnt-out and unprepared clergy. In most cases, what is shared by all is a strong and genuine desire for better preaching, preaching that in some way gives life.
At the same time, the world continues to present the need for a prophetic witness to its challenges and struggles. The reality of human life in an imperfect society cries out daily for a response from a perspective that counters violence, oppression, marginalization and varying expressions of anger, fear and disconnection. And the Christian tradition not only offers such a perspective, but demands it. Our most sacred texts, the canon of Scripture, divided up into various lectionary cycles and translated in varied ways, cries out to not only be read by individual disciples but to be proclaimed in a manner befitting the totality of what is offered.
In the days following the most recent presidential election in the United States, a campaign and election that showed division and discord along varied lines throughout the country, such a need for the expression of God’s Word is glaring. Regardless of partisan or ideological position, there is great need for healing, hope, and dialogue—a witness which can and must be provided through prophetic proclamation. We should not ignore the opportunity to consider such an imperative use of the praxis of prophetic preaching as a tool for liberation of individuals and communities in deep disillusion and pain. These, while not new issues or opportunities, remain an urgent call to preachers to act.
In The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
God is not through with us yet. At our worst moments, both individually and corporately, we act as if that were so. We act as if creation had all been finished a long, long time ago and encased in glass, where we may look at it through the grime of centuries but may not touch. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Holy Spirit still moves over the face of the waters, God still breathes life into piles of dust, Jesus still shouts us from our tombs. The deep river of revelation still runs strong from the fresh headwaters of its source to its jewel-encrusted banks in the heavenly city, with power to drench our dry days along the way.
To believe is an act of faith, which is an imaginative act. In faith, we imagine ourselves whole, imagine ourselves in love with our neighbors, imagine ourselves bathed and fed by God, imagine the creation at peace, imagine the breath of God coinciding with our own, imagine the heart of God beating at the heart of the world. It is a vision of the kingdom, but is it true or false, fact or fiction? That is the question God continues to ask us: What is real to us, what is true, and what do we intend to do about it?
It is with a similar set of questions that I come to consider the notion of an operative theology of preaching for myself, as one who did not seek or expect the call to preach but has heard it repeatedly, with increasing volume. And yet, the call—surprising and uncomfortable and unwanted as it has been—has found a place in my heart, and my response is rooted in a steadfast commitment to the common good, as one who was formed in the Roman Catholic tradition of social justice, which springs from the sacramental life of a shared community. Further, years of work and engagement in politics, public life and social justice activism have driven me to enter the ongoing conversation in new ways, merging my call to preach and testify with a passion for public service. It is in that place, at that intersection, where the call to an intentional witness that is prophetic emerges.
I also consider these questions and enter this conversation as one who, while educated, formed and trained extensively for ministry, is not ordained. Such a perspective presents both a challenge and an opportunity. As noted above, the state of what is considered “traditional” or “authorized” preaching—proclamation from the pulpit in the context of the Sunday liturgical celebration—has rightly been noted by Grasso, Farley and others as one of crisis, in need of reconsideration and, even, repair. Of course, that is not to say the pulpit practice should be discarded; the proclamation of the Sunday homily or pulpit sermon by those ordained to administer the sacraments is a critical element of the church’s ministry. In this regard, I join with Anna Carter Florence, who notes, “Our preaching tradition is a treasure: ancient, vibrant, and rich in detail. Like so many of us, I want to honor that tradition, to live in it with deep roots. But I also want to live it differently, by paying attention to details that others have missed or forgotten.” What is most often missed and forgotten is the connection of the Word to the texts of the present moment—the lives and experiences of the preacher and the hearer, and the world that is encountered by each. For all three—the preacher, the hearer, and the world—there can be in the act of preaching a message that connects to the other, and in that connection, is often found liberation through the ability to relate. Each knows pain, each knows a way to be liberated from it, even if just momentarily.
As one who is occasionally invited to preach from a pulpit himself on Sunday mornings, who cares deeply about the preaching life overall and seeks to be a part of the formation of preachers ordained and not, my theology of preaching includes and deeply values the pulpit practice. And yet, my own ministry of preaching, and the theology that informs it, is not and cannot be limited to what is traditional or considered “authorized.” Beyond the challenges of this dynamic, the opportunity for me (and other preachers who find themselves in a similar position) is to preach in a manner that expresses the tradition differently, and, in the end, is more prophetic and perhaps even more liberating to those that hear the testimony offered. In this regard, I draw on the work of Carter Florence, who draws on the work of Ricoeur, Brueggemann and others, in articulating the work of preaching as testimony from the margins. For Carter Florence, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church and a homiletician, the testimony tradition “is a vibrant and powerful way to proclaim the liberating Word of God into a new context.” She continues:
Preaching in the tradition of testimony shifts the locus of authority away from the ministerial office and places it with the one who testifies: that is, the one who has seen and believed the liberating power of God’s Word and who then risks proclaiming the truth of the gospel. This shift locates authentic and authoritative preaching not into the ecclesial center but in particular situations of struggle and trial at the margins, in which competing worldviews and even lives may be at stake. Yet testimony can also take “centrist” preachers—those whom the ecclesial center sanctions and supports—and reorient them, so that in their dislocation they see and speak of the biblical text and life in new ways.
In the margins, we find people yearning for liberation—women, LGBTQ individuals, the economically poor, refugees and immigrants, youth, those afflicted by mental illness and addiction, and many others. Further, in many ways in increasingly polarized societal and ecclesial structures, those in the middle, the center, can now be considered in the margins as well. The desire to find common ground, to reach out to those that disagree, to enter genuine dialogue with one another is increasingly viewed as a marginal perspective. Preaching as testimony, bringing together the Word found in Scripture and the story of our own lives and the lives we encounter, provides for a way to not only reach those in the margins, but enter into conversation with them, a conversation which itself becomes liberating. It is in these margins where God shows up, and where God uses vessels to proclaim the Good News. Mary Catherine Hilkert writes in Naming Grace that such liberating Good News, proclaimed by the preacher in the sacramental (or analogical) imagination, “emphasizes the presence of the God who is self-communicating love, the creation of human beings in the image of God (restless hearts seeking the divine), the mystery of the incarnation, grace as divinizing as well as forgiving, the meditating role of the church as sacrament of salvation in the world and the ‘foretaste’ of the reign of God that is present in human community wherever God’s reign of justice, peace and love is fostered.”
Hilkert’s description of the Good News reveals a sacramental imagination informed by the sacramental life of the church expressed in sacraments such as Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist and Holy Orders. In that sacramental life, preaching indeed has an important role. Of course, the sacramental imagination is not held only by the Roman Catholic tradition, nor is its understanding of liturgy. However, the perspective of liturgy in the Roman Catholic context does indeed shape my understanding and theology of preaching. Liturgy, if we allow it, shapes us. The late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin noted, “When we let the liturgy shape us—from the ashes of Lent and the waters of baptism to the broken bread and poured out cup at every Sunday’s Mass—then we shall find what it is ‘to put on Christ.”
Yet liturgy is also a humble reality, and participation in liturgy does not exhaust our duties as Christians. We shall be judged for attending to justice and giving witness to the truth, for hungry people fed and prisoners visited. Liturgy itself does not do these things. Yet good liturgy makes us a people whose hearts are set on such deeds. Liturgy is our communion, our strength, our nourishment, our song, our peace, our reminder, our promise. This singular meeting with the Lord Jesus leads us to make all the events and circumstances of our lives occasions for meeting him. Liturgy is for me the bedrock of all my prayer and the measure of all my deeds.
We shall be judged for attending to justice, and giving witness to the truth. Both are important elements of preaching, and preaching as testimony that brings about liberation. One final, yet important note to close this opening section regarding my operative theology of preaching, which is indeed firmly placed in the sacramental imagination, and formed by the liturgical life of the church in varied forms: For me, as a preacher who is not ordained, it must be said that the call to preach is first, and foremost, rooted in my baptism. As Vincent Pastro notes, reflecting on texts from Paul and the Book of Revelation, “It is a priestly task to preach—for all of us, from ‘every tribe and language and people and nation.’ Preaching is intimately connected with baptism. It is not simply the result of ordination, but a consecration, a charism, of the baptized.” That charism is universal, shared by those who are ordained and those who are not. I will return to the question of ordination at the end of this paper. However, for now, while perhaps not all are called to preach, to attend to the preaching life, I believe that all of us who are baptized are indeed called to testify, to share the Good News, to evangelize, to bring about the Reign of God in a troubled world. And those of us who are called to preach—and live the preaching life that is required to fulfill that call—must urgently attend to the act of liberation through prophetic proclamation.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1993), 53.
 Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 2.
 Carter Florence, xxvi.
 Carter Florence, xxvi-xxvii.
 Mary Catherine Hilkert, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1997), 15.
 Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, “Our Communion, Our Peace, Our Promise,” in Selected Works of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin: Homilies and Teaching Documents (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 13.
 Vincent J. Pastro, The Preaching Church: The Poor as Sacra Praedicatio (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2016), 2.