Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Speaking truth to power

Last week my Facebook page was filled with posts from fellow clergy, across denominational lines, trying to find ways to preach in the aftermath of the events that we all watched unfold in Charlottesville. I was one of those clergy who was re-writing my sermon as late as Sunday morning, trying to speak a word of "good news" in a world that seems to be coming unglued. I saw some fine sermons posted and it made me grateful for this vocation to preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary to use words.

But such times are also fraught with danger. In the opening essay of Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Dr. Brueggemann writes about "The Preacher as Scribe." (For those who don't own a copy of this great book, I encourage you to buy it! But in the meantime he says some of the same things in an essay entitled "Where is the Scribe?" that was published in the Anglican Theological Review and can be found on-line here.)

Brueggemann is not exactly easy reading, but he has such amazing clarity. In "The Preacher as Scribe" he explores four scriptural confrontations that he says might be construed as truth speaking to power: Moses addressing Pharaoh, Nathan addressing David, Elijah addressing Ahab, and Daniel addressing Nebuchadnezzar. He then notes how problematic these examples are for preachers and that the model can be overly simplistic. Brueggemann writes about what every preacher struggles with at one point or another when confronting this question:
When we preside over institutions with programs, budgets, and anxiety-filled members, we are not likely to practice, with any simplicity at all, the notion of truth-speaking-to-power - not if we want to keep our jobs. Certainly there are occasional dramatic moments when truth can and must be spoken directly to power. But on the whole, the model of truth-speaking-to-power is not possible in our society, particularly in local congregations where one is cast as preacher and administrator. It is utterly impossible to be charged with both truth-telling and maintenance. (page 10)
Moreover, in a post-modern era we know the words "power" and "truth" are, as he puts it, "endlessly subtle and elusive."

What then to do? Cower in silence? No. Brueggemann reminds us that the goal isn't to get behind the texts to the historical Moses, Nathan, Elijah or Daniel but to remember that we are a people who have inherited the texts and who claim to hear a Word of the Lord here. Hence the preacher as scribe, the one who stands with her or his congregation to enter more deeply into these ancient texts. Not to preach the "headlines" of the day but to hold these texts up imaginatively and creatively so that God's people might hear an alternative narrative that has the potential to transform our lives and the world; to become people who together do justice and love mercy.

"The text is a voice of truth, albeit an elusive one." As humble scribe, the preacher is not asked to be Moses or Nathan or Elijah or Daniel on any given week but, to use Brueggemann's image, to function more like a pastoral therapist who "seeks to let power of illusion and repression be addressed by old, deep texts that swirl around us." And then this:
Like a therapist, the Preacher-Scribe does not own the text; the text lives in, with, and under the memory of the community. So the Preacher-Scribe gets out of the center and out of the way. The Preacher-Scribe trusts the text to have a say through the power of the Spirit rather than the power of the preacher; trusts the listening congregation to make the connections it is able to make; and trusts the deep places of truthful power and powerful truth that draw us in and send us forth in repentance, a turn that makes all things new. 
This work is not easy, to be sure. But as a preacher trying to be a more faithful Preacher-Scribe, I find the reminder helpful for the living of these days.