Preaching from the Margins to the Center

November 26th, 2018
This article is featured in the Preaching from the Margins (Nov/Dec/Jan 2018-19) issue of Circuit Rider

We waited with bated breath. It was September 20, 2017, and Hurricane Maria had just made landfall on the southeastern side of Puerto Rico. Though we could communicate with our loved ones at first, soon the communication networks began to fail. So we waited.

I was thankful for the wonders of the internet. With one tab open to a Puerto Rican radio station and another to the live radar, I was able to at least keep updated on the storm’s progress. With each passing hour the anxiety rose and sadness became deeper. Maybe the internet was not as much a wonder as a curse.

In the midst of it all, I still had to pastor. It was Wednesday, so Sunday was coming very soon. The sermon was simmering; Peter’s sermon immediately following the Pentecost event was capturing my imagination. Good news was needed—I needed it—and I wondered what good news looked like in the midst of a people so far removed from what was happening to my people on the island of my birth.

Preaching from the margins is extremely difficult to do from the middle. I am a pastor of a mostly white, suburban, and middle- to upper-middle-class congregation in what some term the “buckle” of the Bible belt. Often I ask myself: how could I sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land (Ps 134:4)?

As I pondered what my proclamation would look like in light of Puerto Rico, I began to think about the many other heartbreaks happening around me, the many other things that reflected sin and death, that needed to be thought about in light of the way of Jesus.

A few that came to mind:

  • The continued struggles in Houston as it tried to recover from Hurricane Harvey
  • Charlottesville and white supremacy
  • The executive order to end DACA

Soon there would be more fodder:

  • Las Vegas mass shooting
  • Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement
  • Taxes and their effects on the poor

The margins are messy. In a growingly polarized society, it is difficult to know how to speak, what to say, what the right time is, what the right place looks like. . . . The pulpit is powerful, and the preaching moment is highly vulnerable for both preacher and congregation. As Walter Brueggemann tells us:

“Prophetic preaching,” undertaken by working pastors, is profoundly difficult and leaves the preacher in an ambiguous and exposed position. The task is difficult because such a preacher must at the same time “speak truth” while maintaining a budget, a membership, and a program in a context not often prepared for such truthfulness. [1]

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It gets even more complicated when the one speaking is a margin native. People of color and women often find themselves having a more difficult time speaking these truths when they reflect their own experience, brokenness, and otherness. An accented person like myself speaking about immigration and the unjust treatment of Puerto Ricans; a woman speaking about rape culture, harassment, and misogyny; an African American trying to speak to their congregation about the evils of white supremacy—these are all examples of how fraught margin preaching is for those of us who are margin natives.

Yet I still believe that a primary role of the pastor is, as Brueggemann tells us, to tell truth. The ways we tell that truth matter. And, when you are speaking from the margins about the margins to the middle, it matters even more. It requires a three-fold approach.

We must begin with humility. The pastor must model what it looks like to hold the tension of truth-telling while recognizing that our truth is never THE truth. Our lives have shaped us in particular ways. And though we have had these experiences, and have studied and continue to reflect on the scriptures, we must make sure that our people know that we, too, are still seeking, searching, and listening. As the apostle Paul tells us, “Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Cor 13:12b CEB). If God is still speaking (and I believe that God is), then we must keep listening and doing so in community.

Humility opens the pathway to being present to our congregations. Nothing opens up the ears of our parishioners more than our careful care, our attentive listening to their lives, and our serendipitous moments of presence with them in daily life. Connection beyond worship, where stories are shared and truth-telling is practiced, pave the way for our people to hear the good news in our preaching.

Preaching from the margins also requires a rootedness in the Gospels. This rootedness must not be merely intellectual knowledge but a way of life for the preacher that includes a constant invitation to the congregation to live this way. This invitation must come in season and out of season. In other words, it must not only show up when difficult truth needs to be shared. The preacher must continually direct the congregation to the text and encourage them to study, reflect on, and struggle with scripture.

Finally, preachers from the margins must care for their own souls. Our life with God will be tested when we address difficult truths from the pulpit. We will be attacked, questioned, and labeled. The pressures that Brueggemann speaks of will begin to wear on us. Some will leave our congregations and not leave quietly. Others will not leave and might continue to sow seeds of division. This is the reality of shining the light of the margins onto a centered, centrist people. Only our life with God will sustain us. This life must be rooted in communal accountability (social holiness, as Wesley called it), confession, forgiveness, and prayer. Only this will allow us to continue living into our calling.

Preachers, take courage! We have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to do this work. It is a sacred calling, a humbling calling, and a fragile calling. But in today’s deeply divided body, we must lead our people once again to the way of Jesus, to the courageous work of being healers, reconcilers, liberators, and bearers of good news. The margins are waiting. Jesus is there calling us two by two, to participate in God’s mission.

The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.” — Archbishop Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love

[1] Watler Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 1.

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