It has been pretty easy during my thirty-plus years of pastoral work to preach messages of hope to congregations which I have loved. It has not been easy during that same time frame to preach prophetically to those same people. My deep-seated insecurities and ever-present need to please people have all too often, I confess, encouraged far more therapeutic preaching that calms the fears than prophetic preaching which excites them. Perhaps that explains why I was challenged by a sermon from the pen of one of my favorite preachers, 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 once sited as one of the twelve best preached in the country.
About ten years before his death, Burghardt published Christ In Ten Thousand Places: Homilies Toward a New Millennium (Mahwah Press, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999), one of several published collections of his sermons. 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). Here it is in a nutshell, though I highly recommend reading it in its entirety.
Burghardt begins by identifying and describing five distinguishing marks of Hebrews prophets:
- “They are extraordinarily sensitive to evil, to injustice.”
- Consequently, they feel fiercely. “In their voice God rages.”
- They are iconoclasts. “They challenge sacred institutions, sacred beliefs, sacred persons.”
- “The Hebrew prophet is embarrassed, lonely, frustrated. “
- “The prophets’ 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.”
Then, after affirming that all Christians have a prophetic role to play, he draws parallels between the Hebrew prophets and the Christian preacher. More specifically, Burghardt suggests that the Hebrew prophets provide a model for a preacher in the third Christian millennium.
- Preachers must be sensitive to evil and injustice.
- Preachers must feel fiercely so that they preach with passion.
- The Christian preacher must ceaselessly challenge the community.
- The Christian preacher is often lonely and frustrated.
- “Our words should be charged with divine power. Not primarily because we have been ordained to preach, but because we have experienced God.”
On the preacher’s frustration with congregations:
“Preaching is a prayer that stems from their hurts, their joys, their hopes,an inspired word that helps them see Jesus with their own eyes, hear him with their own ears, respond to him with fresh fervor.
“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.”