«1 Dry Bones Death as the Context of Preaching... it was full of bones... there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. ...»
Their lives call into question why preachers preach today. Is it for the fame of a television ministry and marketing privilege that grows one’s followers and monetary offerings? Is it for the bigger car or larger house? Or, is it for ministry to those, like the black bards, who are “gone, forgot, unfamed... untaught, unknown, unnamed”? These whose names or faces are not known are the ones who have contributed to the history of the world, music, and preaching. They share homiletical pearls of wisdom. Those who are “unlettered,” the underside, the marginalized, the other, teach preaching quite unlike any seminary or divinity school. Remembering the spirituals causes one to recognize a long line of unknown human beings as a valued part of the community. They, too, teach and preach and call us to listen to the other, those at the bottom rung of society. If they are excluded, authentic Christian preaching cannot happen because among the least of these is where Christ, the center of preaching, is found (Matthew 25). In this case, preaching lessons arise from these humble, “unfamed” domains of creativity. To forget them is to forget the roots of preaching and purpose of ministry. Preaching is a living memorial to those whose lives are “forgot” so easily.
The lives of the poor and unfamed, not just the lifestyles of the rich and famous, also should matter to preachers. The preaching bards call us to remember the suffering of those forgotten, unwanted, and unneeded, because they, too, are humans made in the image of God. God’s community is wide and inclusive, challenging our sermons to do the same—to include those who are left out many times and bring the stories of the marginalized into the larger relational story of humanity and God. To talk about “dry bones” one has to engage those suffering most in society. The weak and powerless are foundational to an understanding of preaching that DRY BONES • 47 ﬁnds its power in a device of human torture, a cross. Those “gone” before have much to teach modern-day preachers who desire greatness because of a “drum major instinct.”150 The unknown and forgotten bards are great because they respect the least of these in the world and call preachers to minister to them, rather than blessing the corrupt empire of oppression that demonizes them. This preaching legacy of a community of have-nots leads one to resist the empires that dehumanize the poor, the jobless, and the homeless, the forgotten in society. Preaching in this communal tradition aims to help the listener re-member the human community by including all humans into this collective presence in the world. To forget the “forgot” is to forget what preaching is all about and who is at the heart of the gospel—an executed God who was on cruciﬁed lockdown.
The spirituals help preachers remember the most vulnerable among us so that no one would ever say, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21), because each member of the human community is indispensable, even if they are unknown. One must go back to the place of death (e.g., slavery) in order to excavate life, to remember the past for the present and future, to make the unknown homiletically known to today’s proclaimers of the gospel. The spirituals possess a wealth of homiletical wisdom that has not been tapped into as of yet, and the teachers’ names are not even known.
Moreover, they are “untaught” teachers without an enlightenment educational pedigree, but they are illumined by the Spirit, “the ﬁery spirit of the seer.” Some so-called sophisticated preachers may want to ignore them because they were illiterate, ignorant, nonseminary-educated, premodern preaching bards; yet, Morrison sheds light on this when she talks about
reading to her grandmother:
And I have suspected, more often than not, that I know more than she did, that I know more than my grandfather and my great-grandmother did, but I also know that I’m no wiser than they were. And whenever I have tried earnestly to diminish their vision and prove to myself that I know more, and when I have tried to speculate on their interior life and match it up with my own, I have been overwhelmed every time by the richness of theirs compared to my own.151 The wisdom of the spiritual preachers is unmatched, though some may think otherwise. They expand notions of community and preaching and remind us of the humble roots of the gospel in the face of economically exploitative preaching practices. At their wellsprings of knowledge and at the altar of their souls, preachers may drink and bow to learn what one did 48 • DEM DRY BONES not know or could not know about preaching without them. These voices preach from the past with melodies that should haunt our homiletical memory. They haunt homiletics because they call contemporary preachers to reclaim the weightiness of the call to preach.
Remembering the Weight of Preaching The fourth lesson from the spirituals that preachers can learn is that the ministry of preaching is a matter of life and death. In other words, it is a weighty task. For the bards, they sang and preached to ﬁght for life in the domain of death. Words were weapons of freedom and dignity. Just the “legacy of inhumanity”152 that shapes these musical sermons should be enough to add weight to the task of preaching. To know that there was not “anything humorous”153 about the nature or performance of the spirituals requires preachers to take preaching seriously. Preaching is not the latest joke to be told or funny story to be imagined or a hysterical shout to be heard. Remembering the spirituals reveals that there is much more at stake behind the sacred desk, the pulpit. Life and death are in the balance. Preaching as a form of resistance to deathly powers and a lifeline to an enslaved community reclaims the urgent impulse of proclamation.
Because of the tremendous need of humanity, preaching requires a sense of urgency and passionate conviction that modern-day resurrections can arise from cruciﬁxions, and there is healing for brokenness and strength for the weak. This kind of transformation will not come from the newest Facebook fad, fastest technological gadget, or the fanciest interactive church website, but from God. Life and wholeness from death and brokenness is God’s specialty.
Dealing with a context of death requires God’s presence and power.
Preaching powered by the Holy Spirit is a miracle just like the spirituals, adding divine weight to this ministry of hope. Yet, many innovative preachers underestimate the power of God through words, thus they experiment with “fresh” ways of preaching that are powerless because they neglect to plug into the power of God. If preaching’s purpose is to initiate life, bring justice, and affirm the dignity of all people, something more than a PowerPoint projection or a clever turn of phrase in a sermon is needed.
The weight of preaching suggested by the spirituals indicates that God is needed and God is actually the one who provides preaching with the most weight. As Samuel Proctor says, “We deal with the deep center of human existence and the extreme outer perimeter. We are concerned with things DRY BONES • 49 that are ultimate.”154 God is ultimate and preachers who proclaim the gospel discern and name the eternal in our private and public affairs, life in the domain of little deaths. Even when facing the gallows of death, one could sing of the ever-present God, “Over my head, I hear music in the air....
There must be a God somewhere.” The spirituals propel this notion of preaching and this should be affirmed because preachers “traverse terrain having to do with life and death.”155 The spirituals challenge nonchalant, casual preaching in which nothing appears to be at stake, as if God will not be present in and through sermons. This kind of preaching does not recognize that life and death are in the power of the homiletical tongue. It ignores the spiritual foundation of preaching that demonstrates the weightiness of proclamation. Lightweight preaching is easily blown away by the slightest breeze of struggle into the sea of forgetfulness, leaving churches searching for other innovative ways to feed people. The real, weighty substance of the Bread of Life is absent. Lightweight sermons may tickle the ears of the congregation but will not reach the depths of their hearts nor usher Christ into their lives because there is no costly blood ﬂowing through the preacher’s homiletical veins, the blood of the cross. The spirituals want preachers to gain weight, the conviction that preaching is a matter of life and death in which everything is at stake.
Remembering the spirituals calls us to not repeat the past of human oppression but to preach in solidarity with the oppressed. Weighty preaching requires that the preacher put everything on the line for others, even his or her own body and life. Preaching necessitates a holistic approach not only to resist the powers of death but to help others discern “eternity bending low all around us.”156 The weight of preaching resides at the intersection of eternity and humanity, divinely authorized for some human good.
The spirituals help us to reclaim this view of preaching the gospel. But to gain weight in our preaching, one must not be afraid or hesitant to remember the past, for there is much to be learned from it, as the spirituals reveal.
As noted earlier, there are various reasons why people do not want to remember the past. Some take the view of Paul D, in Beloved, who tells Sethe, “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody, we need some kind of tomorrow.”157 The past has been too painful and one does not want to relive or remain in the past through memory because memory keeps the past alive. Others like Fred Shuttleworth, Baptist minister and former leader of Southern Christian Leadership Conference, believe, “If you don’t tell it like it was, it can never be as it ought to be.”158 For him, truthful recounting of the past is the pathway toward a better future. There 50 • DEM DRY BONES is an obvious tension about remembering the past of death and suffering and this should not be taken lightly. But, “remembering is the preacher’s duty.”159 In fact, “the entire substance of Christianity, since Christ has not reappeared on earth, consists in the remembrance of his life and teachings.”160 If a preacher celebrates forgetting the past, this is something to be lamented because in that forgetting, the gospel story itself will be forgotten. Fred Craddock names remembering as essential for the ministry of preaching when he says, “If you’re too young to remember, then you’re not old enough to preach.”161 Craddock is talking about the spiritual maturity of a preacher. Embracing memory as critical to the practice represents how well one is prepared or not to preach.
Memory not only shapes the identity of a community but also of preachers.162 It affects not only what one does in sermons but who one is in living the sermon. A forgetful preacher might likely neglect the valley of dry bones that has wedged its path throughout past and present human history. The exodus and the passion of Christ may have no impact on this kind of preacher because they have forgotten the signiﬁcance of those events and do not realize their critical presence even in the spirituals. Human tragedy and death, God’s story of death, the forgotten ones in the human community, and the weighty nature of preaching, may be overlooked for lighter and brighter sermonic possibilities; but, to re-member the future of the church and preaching, one must remember the past depicted by the spirituals. “Memory is not only a source of information about the past but also a force in creating the future.”163 As a force, “it breaks into the present and gains a new lease on life.”164 Remembering (death) provides life in the present and for the future. This is a “hermeneutics of memory”165 that actually leads to what I will call the “hermeneutics of hope” in chapter 4.
To remember the dismembered is to re-member the future of preaching in the valley of dry bones. Memory funds Christian preaching.
A preacher remembers “the days when hope unborn had died” in order to prevent another miscarriage of hope. Preaching midwifes hope into the world, and when it is born it will not disappoint (Rom. 5:5). However, “Hope depends upon living memory made palpable.”166 This link between hope and the memory of death, speciﬁcally, will become more obvious in the next chapter through a discussion of the relationship between death