The wonderful new preacher at my church, Mary Louise McCullough, preached a strong and thoughtful sermon this week on the Great Commandment. As I drove home from church I couldn’t help but reflect on love and the task of preaching. Her sermon seemed to embody perfectly much of what I think on this topic. I have long been committed to the idea that love for the human other and love for God are utterly inseparable.
Years ago, I came across what seized me as one of the strongest statements regarding love of neighbor as the locus of God’s word for the preacher. It came from an odd place for a teacher of Christian preaching – through the words of Jewish post-holocaust French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas:
“This face of the other, without recourse, without security, exposed to my look and in its weakness and its mortality is also the one that orders me: “thou shalt not kill.” There is, in the face, the supreme authority that commands, and I always say it is the word of God. The face is the locus of the word of God. There is a word of God in the other, (my italics), a non-thematized word.” (Alterity and Transcendence, 104)
For the preacher, what seems to me to be crucial in this quotation is that the very locus of the word of God lies in the face (visage) of the other. God summons us by God’s word through the reality of the vulnerable other person.
For me, this means that preaching begins in the summons by God, through the face of the other, to 1) desire good for the other and 2) to desire not to harm the other. These, it seems me, are two sides of the same love-coin. And the ultimate purpose of preaching is to bear witness to this word of love.
Although preaching has many other penultimate purposes: salvation, prophecy, healing, reconciliation, hope, challenging the principalities and powers, and so on, its ultimate goal is human flourishing before God. This aspect of love gives expression to what theologian Wendy Farley once called “eros for the other” by which she means love as an aching desire (eros) for fullness of life for all others as God’s creatures. This becomes the positive pole of love in Christian preaching, and it supports the church as it “builds itself up in love.” (Eph. 4:16)
The goal of love, however, also imposes a seemingly negative or at least cautious dynamic on preaching, indicated in the command “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” A homiletic of love is also a way of preaching that is deeply concerned with repairing and redeeming one’s theology and language in order to do less harm to the vulnerable in one’s congregation and in the larger culture. This does not mean that preachers are debilitated and unable to say anything for fear of doing harm. Rather, they are always aware that, when speaking for others, it is important that they have also done some prior speaking with others, in the deepest sense. In other words, preachers need as many real, loving, depth encounters with different kinds of people as humanly possible. This is not simply a pastoral practice, but it is a social and global practice.
For instance, some years ago, after preaching what I considered to be a prophetic and challenging sermon about “forgiving seventy times seven,” I received a phone call from a woman in the congregation who had recently escaped a violent relationship. She informed me that my sermon could potentially have talked her into staying in her situation, in which case she might not still be alive. Although not intending harm, my sermon suffered by not having learned from those who are caught up in dangerous cycles of violence.
The same could be said for listening to the experiences of those who have experienced depression or mental illness, those with long-term illnesses or disabilities, persons experiencing unemployment or financial disaster, women and children in Afghanistan, victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so on and on.
Of course it is not possible to consult everyone! And we will always need to repair our language, based on well-placed feedback.
But it is possible to add one helpful question in this regard to sermon preparation: How might this message be heard by ______________? – and to put the most vulnerable faces we have encountered into the space at the end of this question.
When in doubt about how to answer this question, it is a good idea to ask someone, to encounter a living face and learn, or at the very least to do some reading and research.
At the end of the day, I am convinced that it is the great joy, but also the significant burden of preaching, to bear witness to the word of God (love) that summons us through the face of all others – for all are vulnerable. This word is the double-sided word of love that makes those of us who dare to preach desire with all our hearts to promote fullness of life in Christ on the one hand, and to do no harm on the other.