Nora Tisdale: prophetic preaching with hope, grace, and forgiveness
They’re not the most popular sermons on a preacher’s list. And congregations aren’t keen to hear them either. Prophetic preaching—words from the pulpit that challenge status quo, conventional wisdom or cozy certitudes—has been hazardous and unwelcome ever since prophets first attempted it in Old Testament times.
Nora Tubbs Tisdale, YDS professor of homiletics, says prophetic preaching will likely never enjoy mainstream acceptance. That’s the nature of the beast. But she is determined to help ministerial students find their voice for the task of speaking hard truths to church and world.
"Prophetic preaching tends to rise to the fore during crisis—a civil rights movement, a war—and today we’re in an economic crisis and an environmental crisis, and the war isn’t over either," she says.
"The question is always: What are the themes of our day that aren’t being well-addressed by mainstream folk? Prophetic preaching will always be done by a remnant, by people who find the courage and audacity to speak to the status quo. I try to help students speak well out of their passion and form the theological rationale for that passion. When we preach, we bring a theological dimension to public discussion. If we don’t speak, then we become irrelevant. How do you not preach about the economy and what it’s doing to people?"
Today’s political climate makes prophetic preaching harder to pull off, she acknowledges. A national partisan mood makes people in the pews wary of sermons that smack of a polemical agenda.
It doesn’t have to be that way, she says. In her homiletics courses and in her own preaching, Tisdale aims to demonstrate that a prophetic word can reach its target without provoking people to useless anger or guilt feeling. She learned some wisdom from her years in parish ministry, whether preaching to 30 people or 3,000.
"Early in my career, I equated prophetic preaching with the idea of getting people mad," she recalls. "That might make me feel faithful, but it doesn’t accomplish much. I learned to ask: Are there ways to push the prophetic without stoking up the anger of people?"
She describes the counterproductive effect of a harshly rendered pulpit message: "If in the preaching you and God are lined up against people, then they feel shut out and alienated and without options. But there’s a different way to approach it. If the preacher and the people are standing together under the judgment of God, then it’s all of us wrestling together, all of us asking, What would God have us do?"
She finds insight in the example of Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), first pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church. He was renowned for his prophetic homilies on controversies of the day, but he humanized his message with a personal, pastoral dimension.
"Today we’ve drawn too stark a line between prophetic preaching and pastoral preaching," Tisdale says. "For Fosdick, the prophetic grew out of his pastoral care for individuals. He saw the way people are affected by war or a bad economy, and he kept these things in mind in his preaching."
A native of North Carolina, Tisdale joined the YDS faculty in 2006. Previously she served as consulting theologian at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York and was on the adjunct faculty at Union Theological Seminary. She has taught preaching and worship at Princeton Theological Seminary and Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. Her books include Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach (Westminster John Knox, 2010) and Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art (Fortress, 1997). She is also co-author of Making Room at the Table: An Invitation to Multicultural Worship (Westminster John Knox, 2000).
Over the years, Tisdale has seen how the contemporary world has revised people’s expectations of the Sunday sermon. Ministers need to stay alert to the shifting, impatient multimedia environment in which they launch their sermons.
"We need a bit of dexterity in the pulpit—one size does not fit all anymore. There are many ways of knowing and engaging the world."
Laypeople increasingly want the sermon to relate clearly to their lives. Ministers can no longer talk about the Bible for the first 75 percent of a homily and then start talking about why it matters today, she says. They can’t assume widespread biblical literacy—or patience with the traditional architecture of a formal sermon.
"You can’t assume everyone wants a well-reasoned argument in a sermon. Preachers now use poetry, narrative, dialogue. All those elements need to be brought to the preaching event. Preaching still needs logic. It needs to hold together. But we need to use imagination too. As Augustine wonderfully said, preaching should ‘teach, delight and persuade.’ It should speak to the whole person."
Tisdale makes these points to her homiletics students. Often they need permission to take an imaginative approach to the task of sermon-writing.
"Let students know it’s okay not only to exegete the Bible but play with its images and free-associate and speak it in different voices. Worship is about mystery and wonder. It includes hymns and sacraments and stained glass as well as the sermon. We need to taste and see and hear. Mystery is so much bigger than knowledge."
Her goal, she says, is not to clone young preachers-in-training but help them find the ability to "be their best selves" in the pulpit.
"Despite the cultural change, there’s still something basic about hearing testimony in a room—a person testifying to their faith in Christ, the face-to-face conversation, that excitement of faith. That’s why I love what I do. I want church and society to experience good preaching."
Her interest in the urgency of prophetic preaching goes back decades. A year in South Korea in the late 1970s was pivotal. There, during the repressive reign of Park Chung Hee, she met political prisoners, religious practitioners and others who risked their lives for their beliefs, remained committed to an intense prayer life and practiced a joyful theology of hope.
"That was an unforgettable experience," she says. "In so many ways I’ve discovered how wonderful prophetic preaching is, because it is hopeful. Some things are perennial—the hurts, pains, hungers, thirsts. That’s why I think prophetic preaching is not going out of vogue. People need a word of hope and grace and forgiveness. We don’t have to wallow in the problems of the status quo. God has something better in mind."