It probably won’t surprise you that preachers have their own favorite preachers. Some of mine over the years have been Barbara Brown Taylor, Barbara Lundblad, Fred Craddock, Prathia Hall, Will Willimon, Frank Thomas, Matthew Myer-Boulton, Walter Brueggemann, Yvette Flunder, and my dad, Rev. W. Matthew Broadbent.
Lately, there is one preacher I’ve listened to more than the rest, and only on YouTube. Rev. Howard-John Wesley is pastor of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. I think because we are peers, we have many of the same life cultural and stage-of-life references. I also think we have similar theologies – committed to discerning and celebrating the gospel but always and only in serious relationship with the wider culture. I love the way Pastor Wesley weaves into his sermons humor and self-deprecation and a gentle ribbing of his congregation. He also brings in the best scholarship to which he has been exposed but presents it in a way makes you want to lean in rather than check out. And he brings scripture to life so that by the end of a sermon you find yourself caring deeply about a text that just moments ago you had never heard of.
In my dissertation on embodied preaching, I quoted Henry Mitchell who wrote that “personal style” is a necessary feature of black preaching and that “mannerisms add interest and signal a freedom and authentic personhood in which the congregation participates vicariously, by identification.” In that spirit, here are some of my favorite elements of Rev. Howard-John Wesley’s “personal style”:
- After making a insightful point, he asks, “Can I push it?,” and then he makes an even deeper, more surprising point.
- When he’s making a point he really wants the congregation to get, he either says, “Now don’t you miss this!,” or, if he’s made the point and doesn’t get a sense of recognition from his listeners, he says, “Oh, you missed it,” and then he makes the point again and maybe two or three more times.
- When he’s really getting into the text, he asks, “Can I teach Bible?” or he says, “Go ahead, Pastor Wesley, teach Bible.”
- If he’s going to bring up a particularly wonky biblical or theological term, he gives the congregation a brief warning by saying something like, “I’m going to pause for a ‘seminary second.’”
- He calls out the first names of people in his congregation, either to get their attention or to signal to the congregation that this is not a general message for anyone but a message specifically to those who are listening.
- Finally, his sense of humor, which is both self-deprecating and clever and playful, is at it’s best when he is chiding his listeners, but he tends to humble include himself in the chiding.
Below is a link to one of his sermons from a couple of years ago, “Show Me the Money.” He’s preaching on the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree found in Mark 11. A few years ago, we read the Gospel of Mark in Confirmation Class and one of the sophomores said, “Why did he do that? It sounds so mean.” I didn’t have an answer to that question before I heard this sermon. It’s over an hour long, so either get ready to settle down or put your headphones on while you’re washing dishes which is my favorite sermon listening activity.
I hope you can appreciate some of what I see in Pastor Wesley’s preaching and, if not, I hope you have a favorite preacher of your own, online or in the flesh.