From the Prophet Micah:
Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance.
* * *
“Do not preach” – thus they preach –
“one should not preach of such things;
disgrace will not overtake us.”
* * *
If someone were to go about uttering empty falsehoods,
saying, “I will preach to you of wine and strong drink”,
such a one would be the preacher for this people!
* * *
The one who breaks out will go up before them;
they will break through and pass the gate, going out by it.
Their king will pass on before them,
the Lord at their head.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Micah 2:1-2,6,11,13 – October 10, 2012)
Micah condemns those who plot to do wrong “on their beds” and then carry out their plans when they rise; he prophesies God’s retribution against them. But then he is told not to do so; those to whom he preaches not only reject his prophecy, they tell him not to preach such things at all. He concludes that they only want to hear their preachers tell them of pleasant things, the things they enjoy; they want preachers who will utter “empty falsehoods” and preach of “wine and strong drink.”
I’m sure that every preacher has at one time or another felt like Micah. I remember early in my ordained career being told by a congregant that all she wanted from church was to spend Sunday morning with her friends singing songs she knew and hearing “an uplifting message.” But not every bible text lends itself to an “uplifting message” and from time to time there are social ills that need to be addressed! The early 20th Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth insisted that theology and preaching had to be done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Another theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr is often credited with saying that the role of the preacher is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” (Interestingly enough, the originator of that idea was newspaper humorist Finley Peter Dunne who said it was the role of newspapers to do so.)
Micah, Barth, and Niebuhr thus call the preacher to view contemporary culture, especially the news of the day, though scriptural lenses and view the Word of God through cultural lenses, to call out and condemn that in the culture which does not accord with the word of God, even if the preacher is, in turn, condemned for doing so. The witness of Micah reminds us that doing so will result in criticism from at least some of those to whom one preaches. The thin-skinned preacher would do well to be safe and conservative and always preach that pleasant, uplifting message. In my opinion, he or she would not be faithful, but he or she would be likely never hear “Do not preach of such things” from his or her congregation.
Preachers, as Micah makes clear, and as Barth and Niebuhr intimated, are not called to play it conservatively safe. Preachers are called to be (as Micah puts it) “the one who breaks out”, the one who leads his or her people out of their comfortable culturally-bound lives through the gate of Scripture so that they may follow “the Lord at their head.” It isn’t always, or even often, an easy-to-hear, uplifting message that breaks down those cultural walls. It is been said that the word of God is radical and so it is; Scripture gets to the root, the radix, of human existence and good preaching should do the same. Although Barth was speaking in a political context, something else he is reported to have said is also true of preaching: “The radical is probably wrong but has a chance of being right; the conservative is always wrong.”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.