It has been pretty easy during my nearly forty years of pastoral work to preach messages of hope. It has not been as easy to preach prophetically. My deep-seated insecurities and ever-present need to please people have all too often encouraged more therapeutic sermons that calm the fears than prophetic ones which excite them. Perhaps that explains why I was challenged by a sermon from the pen of the late Walter J. Burghardt.
The Rev. Walter J. Burghardt, a prominent Catholic theologian, writer and thinker, died in 2008 at the age of 93. Before his death, Father Burghardt was a Jesuit priest who spent most of his career as a scholar of church history and theology. While never a parish priest, he was sited as one of the twelve best preachers in the country.
About ten years before his death, Burghardt published Christ In Ten Thousand Places: Homilies Toward a New Millennium (Paulist Press, 1999). This volume includes a sermon entitled “Hebrew Prophet, Christian Preacher” (67-69). In it Burghardt offers a word on Samuel as prophet (I Samuel 1:9-20), followed by a word on the preacher as prophet (Mark 1:21b-28).
Burghardt begins by identifying and describing five distinguishing marks of Hebrews prophets:
- “They are extraordinarily sensitive to evil, to injustice.”
- They feel fiercely; “in their voice God rages.”
- They are iconoclasts who “challenge sacred institutions, sacred beliefs, sacred persons.”
- They are often “embarrassed, lonely, frustrated. “
- Their “words are charged with divine power because they have experienced the God of the covenant, a God involved in history, a God intimately affected by events.”
After affirming that all Christians have a prophetic role to play, Burghardt draws parallels between the Hebrew prophets and the Christian preacher. He, then, suggests that the Hebrew prophets provide a model for preachers in the third Christian millennium. In his estimation, Christian preachers:
- Must be sensitive to evil and injustice.
- Must feel fiercely so that they preach with passion.
- Must ceaselessly challenge the community.
- Will often be lonely and frustrated by their congregations for their “preaching is a prayer that stems from their hurts, their joys, their hopes, an inspired word that helps (their congregations) see Jesus with their own eyes, hear him with their own ears, respond to him with fresh fervor.
- Will experience words “charged with divine power. Not primarily because (they) have been ordained to preach, but because (they) have experienced God. “
“Is such too much to hope for?” asks Burghardt.
“Not if we love the Lord our God with all our mind and heart, all our strength and spirit. Not if we love our people–a struggling, sinning, saintly people of God’s special selecting–love them with a crucifying passion.”
Some may find such preaching easy for they who have been gifted by the Spirit with a prophetic impulse. For most, especially those gifted as shepherds, such preaching will be difficult. But surely each preacher will be called upon, at various times throughout his or her ministry, to speak prophetically. As a result, they will share the experiences common to every prophet: isolation from the community he or she challenges and divine power from the one in whose name such challenges are rendered.
Surely, preachers will be tempted to forsake their prophetic role, thereby choosing comfort from the congregations they serve instead of divine power to exercise such service. Such a choice, however, leads to a lose-lose outcome. The congregation loses by not receiving the prophetic word and the preacher loses by not experiencing divine power.