Last Sunday, I went to church. Well, truth be told, it was online, but I showed up nonetheless and felt like I had been there. I had intended to attend in person, but I got the time wrong and by the time I figured it out it was too late to get dressed and make the drive so I decided to worship from my couch.
My friend Rosemary Harris Lytle once told me, “Benjamin, there is no black church or white church; there’s just Christ’s church. But if you must, you can call that Baptist church across the way ‘an historically African American church.” Taking my cues from Rosemary, I’ll let you know that the local church with which I worshiped is an historically African American congregation. I have met the pastor on a couple of occasions and have hoped to reach out. The pandemic slowed me down, but I showed up last Sunday to hear him preach.
A few things struck me about his sermon. The first is that it was almost entirely a singing sermon. He did not so much speak the words as intone them as a song. I have heard plenty of preachers incorporate singing into their sermons. My friend Rev. Jesse Brown, Jr., pastor of Payne Chapel AME in Colorado Springs was nicknamed “the singing pastor” because he had a beautiful tenor voice and would often break out into song in the middle or at the end of his sermon. Pastor Jesse died last fall but those who once heard his singing can hear it still in our sanctified memories. I’ve heard other preachers sing their proclamation of the good news in the closing portion of their sermons as if following the rule that “the one who sings prays twice.”
But this sermon last Sunday was sung in its entirety. This had an affect on the hearer that was arresting and powerful. Perhaps a sung melody holds one’s attention more easily than spoken words. And, as I was listening to the sermon, I realized that some of the cadences and rhythms and intervals reminded me of popular songs I know and I realized I was experiencing in real-time the influence between African American preaching and various styles of American music including blues, jazz, R&B, Soul, Funk, Rap, and, of couse, Gospel. His performance of the Word awakened a recognition inside of me, an ability to make emotional and intellectual connections that felt uniquely convicting and convincing.
Another thing I noticed about the sermon was how little biblical exegesis was included. Exegesis is the practice of interpreting scripture mainly by contextualizing it historically, theologically, culturally, and linguistically. The exegetical portion of a sermon is the part where the preacher tells you what she learned about the text from the scholars who have studied it. Instead of exegesis, this sermon was a meditation on this theme: “The story we tell ourselves about ourselves matters.” The sermon circled around and around this theme, which is why I would describe it as a meditation punctuated by proclamation. The proclamation was this: “The story God tells about you is always a better story than the story others tell about you.” And the exhortation was: “Make sure you’re telling yourself the better story.”
To be honest, I missed having more exegetical meat. As I reflected on the experience I realized that contextualization is something I value in my own and others’ preaching. But I also realized my way is not better nor worse. I could not do what that preacher did on Sunday, and he preached in his own distinctive style to a congregation that had granted him the authority and trust to proclaim to them the Gospel.
It reminded my of an assignment in my United Church of Christ polity course in Divinity School. The professor asked us to write a reflection on the first line of the UCC Bylaws, “We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” In my reflection, I wrote that “Jesus is Lord in the sense that we are invited to grant him authority over our lives as someone who has power over the oppressive forces of the world.” And I continued, writing that “Jesus is Savior in the sense that when we are in relationship with him he has healing or saving power in our lives.” My actual reflection was longer than that, but you get the point.
As we took turns sharing our reflection, a classmate, an African American Baptist considering dual ministerial standing in the UCC, went next. He said, “When I say Jesus is my Lord, I mean to confess that he is my Lord. And when I say that he is my Savior, I mean to proclaim that he is my Savior.” At the time, I was perplexed. He did not reflect on the words, I thought, he simply repeated them. But as time has gone by I have realized that there can be power in simple repetition, especially when it is clear that one is convicted by the words one is saying. My theological reflection was thoughtful but did not indicate that calling Jesus Lord and Savior had any lasting meaning in my life. I do not have any doubt, however, that for my classmate, these words did have meaning, because it was not only the words, but the music behind the words, that did the communicating.
Last Sunday’s singing sermon brought a good word – “don’t let anyone but God tell you who you are” – and it had music behind the words so that I could not only hear them with my ears, but feel them in my bones.