When I was introduced to the history of homiletics in a survey course, I was startled by how much violence was represented in sermons. Samples from historical sermons included overt calls for violence during Holy Wars and indicated support for Just Wars. Sermons also committed covert acts of violence by remaining silent about topics such as domestic abuse, environmental destruction, and economic disparity. As a member of a Mennonite church, a historical peace church, such violence is in direct opposition to the Mennonite convictions of nonviolently working for peace, and love for the enemy. Surprisingly, there is no homiletical method built on peace theology for use in Mennonite churches.
Mennonite churches have a long history of emphasizing actions above academic reflection. Historically, our clergy have not received rigorous theological and biblical training. Church leaders were selected from the congregation, and possessed varying levels of education. Action-focused organizations, such as the Mennonite Central Committee, who provide relief aid around the world, have thrived. Mennonite academic scholarship, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. As a result, although Mennonite congregations gather for worship and hear sermons, the emphasis has been on what congregations and individuals do through their actions and lifestyle. Moreover, Mennonites tend to view preaching as a teaching tool for shaping and improving the actions of the congregation. For example, a sermon might call for listeners to be peacemakers, rather than viewing preaching itself as an act of peacemaking.
Sermon as Doing
The idea of a sermon actively doing something is a common theme in the broader field of homiletics. The New Hermeneutic and New Homiletic emphasize what preaching does, rather than solely focusing on what a sermon is about. Rudolf Bultmann, Gerhard Ebeling, and Ernst Fuchs have drawn upon Martin Heidegger’s understanding of language in their formation of the New Hermeneutic, specifically focusing on what preaching does when it facilitates an “event.” The New Homiletic applied this New Hermeneutic emphasis on event to preaching. David James Randolph, writing in 1969, relates the language of event to preaching and uses the term in his very definition of preaching. In his introduction, he states, “what is critical for homiletics is not so much what the sermon ‘is’ as what the sermon ‘does.’” Fred B. Craddock echoes these earlier works, stating that “all considerations of structure, unity, movement, use of text, and so forth, must wait upon the prior consideration of what words are and what they do.” In other words, although a sermon conveys information about a topic, the sermon itself also does something within the congregation.
This emphasis on the doing of preaching spans a breadth of homiletical approaches. Charles L. Campbell forms sermons that confront the principalities and powers rather than solely talking about the principalities and powers. In a similar manner, Brian K. Blount shapes sermons that embody the Kingdom of God rather than discuss the Kingdom of God in the gospel of Mark. Paul Scott Wilson argues that sermons should speak the words from God rather than simply speak about God. Anna Carter Florence argues that preaching is not about the good news, “it is making good news” because “something happens.” Similarly, Charles L. Bartow states that sermons should not be about reality, but rather they should evoke reality. The above examples demonstrate the breadth of homiletical styles advocating a shift from preaching about to preaching that does.
Given the range of approaches focusing on preaching as doing, and Mennonites’ theology of valuing action, I want to explore how preaching can deepen its ability to do something rather than be about something. This shift can be seen in preaching by women in the last decades. When women began preaching, there was a penchant for preaching sermons about women. Sermons focused on female Bible characters or topics such as domestic abuse in an effort to bring women and their experiences into sermons. Over time, sermons shifted from viewing women as a topic to be preached, and instead focused on doing, or acting out inclusion and equality by utilizing a diversity of examples from the lives of women in sermons that did not focus on women per se. I seek to deepen the conversation already begun concerning preaching that does by specifically focusing on the treatment of justice, peace, and reconciliation in the field of homiletics.
Read the full dissertation here.