What Is a Sermon?

Katie Canon

Women and the Word: 1986


DR. KATIE CANNON: Because I won’t be here at the end times seminar, I’d like for those who will be doing the workshop, and have other leadership responsibilities, please stand and introduce yourself, so that you won’t feel like people are leaving, but there’s somebody here all the time.  So those of you who are doing the facilitating for the workshops, if you could stand and introduce yourself, that would be helpful to understand that we’re all a team.  We’ll begin with Imani.

IMANI SHIOWAH: I’ll say my name again: Imani Shiowah (?) and I’ve been working with Christine Elliot.

(Other non-distinct introductions.)

DR. KATIE CANNON: So at any point those of you who are participating and feel like leadership has disappeared, there’s a cloud of witnesses. So as you write up your evaluation, make sure you say Katie Cannon was there, and then she disappeared, and then she was there because of the cloud of witnesses were around (laughter.) Let us bow our heads in prayer.

Oh God our Creator and our Sustainer,

we’re here this morning coming with many forms and many fashions.

We ask that you’d remove all obstacles, all feelings, all attitudes, anything that may be getting in our way.

Anything that may be burdening our souls.

Strengthen us when we are weak,

and build us up when we are torn down.

But most of all God,

we pray that you’d show us the way.

Show us the way not to fortune nor fame,

nor to win morals or praise for our name,

but show us the way to tell the great story,

to live the great story.

And thine is the Kingdom and the Power and Glory.


I Stand within a Tradition.

I’d like for you to look in your packets at the bibliography that I compiled, so that you know that I stand within a tradition.  I went through a list of the most important books of what it means to preach in the Black Idiom.  And so, when someone says, “Well what did Katie Cannon do?”  You can say, “She didn’t make it up.”  (laughter.)  I stand firmly in the tradition of what it means to faithfully preach from the black perspective.  One of the commitments I have in, as I work on my doctorate and as I continue to do the work that I do as a Christian ethicist is to try to help students wherever they may be, but since there are two hundred credited seminaries in North American and only two of them are black, our predominate work, I work predominately in a white situation, is to help students understand that black religions and spirits are not a superfluous appendage in the Christian tradition, but that we have something very rich, very important, and when people are open to that tradition, there’s so much that can be learned to enhance the whole of the story.  So that’s why I compiled the bibliography so that one, I didn’t make it up myself, but that if after this workshop, if there are things that you want to read, other things that I may say that you may question, you have the resources to turn to, to explore that.  I would like to continue the preliminary remarks before we get into the workshop.  I believe workshops are for working, so I’ll be working, and I’ll be calling time a lot to keep us moving so at 12 o’clock we have to stop.  So if you’re the kind of person who waits for the last five minutes of your therapy session to talk about what’s really important, that’s not a part of the black tradition (laughter.)  Because then it’s too late you see, it’s over. So part of the black tradition is that when you have questions, raise your hand.  If there are things that you don’t understand, raise your hand.

In 1977 when I was at Grailville working with the Seminary Quarters, in Grailville in Loveland, Ohio, I realized what it was to move out of the black tradition, out of a black idiom, because we had one white woman to come in as a resource person.  And she had everybody sit down on the floor and everybody was comfortable, and talked about what they liked, and what they didn’t like, and out of that, she pulled one of the greatest lectures I heard.  And the black woman who came in, she moved clearly out of the black prophetic tradition, and she had all, I mean it was brilliant, but in the evaluation, she was trashed, because she never asked them how they felt, she didn’t ask to sit on the floor, (laughter) there was not way for them to understand that she was moving from a different value system.  A different way of moving in the world.  So I’m clearly moving out of the black tradition, so when I call time, if it feels jarring you know, why is she doing that, then read the bibliography if you want evidence for it (laughter.)

The other thing about, in our preliminary comments is that I  found that I used to do a lot of race relations workshops, and some of you who have been in my classes know this, and part of the problem- I had to stop doing them because it was just too demanding for me- but as we were talking in the car coming over this morning, the average black child in this society knows at the age of three why they’re inferior because they grew up in a racist society, by the time you’re three you clearly know that.  The average white child knows by the age of five why they’re superior.  And if that’s never been questioned, then it’s very hard to all of a sudden to see a black woman in a role of authority calling the shots, giving the grades, deciding what will be legitimate and what will be on the agenda.  And so it gets to be very confusing.  When I first started teaching, and I wouldn’t say or make those kinds of comments at the beginning, people would argue with me five, six, seven times saying what I was doing, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. And it wasn’t because that I didn’t know what I was talking about, it was just because they had never seen a black woman in that kind of authority role.  Because in what I used to do in my race relations workshop is to ask them, “What was your first encounter with a person of color?” The music of black women in menial, servant role.  “At what point did you realize the privilege of being white in a racist society?”  And for black students, it was usually much earlier on, and for white students it was much later.  And at what point as Christians do we stand over and against those racist privileges and name ourselves people breathing in God’s kingdom?  And that’s always the theological work that has to be done.  The way racism gets played out is that by logic, the whites are superior, blacks are inferior, culturally whites are an asset to civilization, blacks are a liability, and theologically, God ordained it that way.  So the work we do, the work that I do, and the work I have my students do always turns that upside down, to question that, and to find out where the theological resources that call it the lie that it is.  So at any point you’re feeling disconcerted or something is happening that hasn’t happened before, and if you’ve never studied with a Black woman, never had a Black woman as a supervisor or any role of authority, just know that that happens. Psychologists have also found out it’s for a lot of people, it’s like giving them a deck of cards where you have all the hearts black and all the spades red and people can’t play.  So I’ll be moving clearly out of that tradition, and those of you who have worked with me before will know, radicality happens, but everyone walks out basically transformed (laughter.) The other thing is just take what you can handle.  There are some things that I’ll be saying that may be overwhelming, other things that just feel like ‘oh I’ve heard that before, why are we doing that?’  When you work with a group of people where some people have been preaching a long time and other people have never preached at all, you just have to cover the whole ground, and so that’s what I’ll be doing as well.  And the last of my preliminary comments just as a context for who I am and what I do is that it’s no coincidence that the only black woman who’s ever won an academy award, Hattie McDaniel for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. That is a role that this society was invested in and continues to invest in for where black women should be.  So, I’m always challenging that.  Always.

So the black church and the black church preaching tradition served a very important place in the whole preaching enterprise.  The black church has, I think, five important historical periods, and preaching has always been the most sacred task within the ministry of black people.  One of the books I have on the bibliography, Raboteau’s book about the “Invisible Institution” talks about how even when Africans were brought here and then enslaved, there was always a hermeneutics of suspicion.

(Very) Brief Outline of the Periods of Black Church History

1. That at one hand the slave masters were saying, ‘slaves be obedient and therefore you will inherit eternal life,’ and some were those black people saying that the God who created them in God’s own image was a God of love, and not interested in them as slaves. Well you’re saying ‘how did they know that?’  We don’t know, they just knew that.

2. Out of that we move into the construction where the Church tried to become much more visible.  We started getting black denominations, because they refused to sit in balconies and stay in a second-class situation.

3. The third period was the period of migration, and there’s an article in this new book that’s been published by the BTI where I write about all of this, but it’s not listed on the bibliography, but they’ll be pushing our books, so you’ll be seeing it.  When black in hundreds and thousands, hundreds of thousands moved off east and west into the urban areas, and so the Church once again changed.

4.Then there were the post war years of World War I and World War II, and the following civil rights years up to the present.

And in every one of those periods of black church history, the black preacher has always been the primary person in the black community, because the black church is the only institution that black people had sole control over. 

We don’t control the health care system, the education system, the legal system, the political- no other say so.  We are always on the outside, on the fringes of the power brokers, except in the black church.  And so because of that, preachers in the black church would be very different than when one is in the hub of life, and the preacher doesn’t matter.  So some of the things I’m saying may be so different and you’ll think, ‘why all this authority?  Why all the single-handedness?’  Well when moving out of the black idiom, there was no other option.  They’ve done a study in- one of the black men who did seminary with me- did a study on the kind of sermons that get preached in Birmingham on that Sunday when the four black girls were bombed, were murdered in that church in Birmingham, Alabama.  And they found on that particular Sunday in 1963, that the average white church preached sermons on how to grow old gracefully.  And so, you’re talking about a different kind of ministry at the bottom line, talking about what it means to always call the congregation into account, how to live in the faith.  So what I’ll be doing today is showing you, working through some worksheets on what it means to be able to do prophetic preaching out of this particular tradition.

Definition of Preaching

So I’d like to give you the definition of what preaching is from this particular tradition.  Most of my comments will be, comments- you’ll hear this name over and over.  Dr. Clark.  Dr. Isaac Clark. He’s a graduate of BU; I think he did his doctorate here many years ago, and he’s the one who helped me believe that I had the right to preach.  I was the only woman in the preaching class, and he didn’t believe women should be preachers.  And he said because all women do it together, they’re like tin souls, they’re like nice wrappings, but they really have nothing of substance to say.  But he said if I could prove I had something worthwhile to say, he might let me stay in the class.  And that was the challenge I needed (laughter.)  And I made a believer out of him as well.  And from that point on, there were other women in the preaching class.  But I also did tutoring with him.  So the preaching definition I will use has five parts.

Six Part Definition:

1. The first part is that preaching is a divine activity.

(I’ll say the whole definition, and then I’ll walk back through in terms of defining them for you the first time.)

Preaching is a divine activity where the word of God is proclaimed or announced on a contemporary issue with a view toward an open response to our God.  First of all, preaching is a divine activity.  By this I mean that preaching is different from lecturing- a dog just came in (laughter.) really seriously. I’m not an animal lover (laughter.)- preaching is a divine activity.  The different between preaching and public speaking and lecturing is that one must have a prayer life, almost have a devotional, serious relationship to the creator.  In preaching, one must know what it is to say ‘I am a spokesperson for God.’  If I am not serious about my devotional life, if I’m not serious about my prayer life, if I’m not serious about my Bible study life, there’s nothing I have to say to the people.  I’ll soon run dry of where the Spirit of God can lead me.  So first of all I have to understand that preaching is a divine activity.  It’s not just activity.  And so whenever I’ve done these workshops or taught a course, I encourage if anybody wants to be a proclaimer of the faith, they must have a direct relationship.  A daily conscious contact with your creator.

2. The second part of the definition is where the word of God is proclaimed or announced.  Well, the second part is ‘where the Word of God.’  In this particular way of preaching, the Word of God is not the Bible.  The Word of God is Jesus Christ incarnate.  And part of what happens in the divine activity where the Word of God, is that the Word becomes flesh in the preaching, as we preach on Sunday morning.  There is not holier thing than to proclaim ‘Thus said the Lord.’  And if I can make, in every sermon, God present to the people, I have done what I have been called to do.  So it’s divine activity where the Word of God is proclaimed or announced.

3. And proclaimed or announced is important because it’s always done in indicative modes.  That’s the difference between prophetic preaching and probably pastoral preaching, or some other kinds of preaching, is that I can’t say I suspect, I reckon, I hope so, I have to say I know God loves you.  I know God cares.  I can’t say ‘I hope God cares for us.’  All the ways of preaching that says, and the only way I can know that is it has to be divine activity in my own home.  And I have to believe in what it means that the Word is Incarnate, and therefore I proclaim it from a place of authority.  I proclaim it with some conviction.  And if I don’t have my Christology worked out, then I have no business preaching.  And it’s not worked out for a lifetime, but it’s like, I can’t preach what I don’t know.  And it might be today- I mean I look back at some of the sermons I’ve preached.  I’ve been preaching for 13 years and some of the sermons I preached early on, and you can tell I was kind of shaky, that this whole thing about grace, it was like, ‘I don’t know… we call it forgiveness.’  Wait a minute.  But I was preaching the best I could at that point in time in history wherever I was.  But there’s something that comes with living, and life, that just matures one in the whole preaching endeavor.  And so when I was 23 I couldn’t preach the kinds of sermons that I can preach today.  There’s something that comes with death and life, and life and dying, and that whole short walk from the cradle to the grave that enhances and enriches the preaching of a preacher when we get in touch with that kind of reality.

4. The fourth part of the definition is that the divine activity where the word of God is proclaimed or announced in concern of contemporary issues.  There has to be some relevancy between what the text says and where I live today.  Sometimes there are sermons where people just do role calls of the people of the Bible as if God isn’t present today.  There has to be a direct correlation between what I’m understanding in terms of the theological biblical faith and the so what for me today.  So what if Abraham had faith to leave Ur of Chaldees?  So what if Moses was found amongst the Bulrushes?  So what, you know?  So I always have to be able to make that connection around what that faith has to say where I am on April 7, 1986.  And then with a view toward an upward response to God.  Every sermon is a call to live more faithfully.  And the congregation that hears has an opportunity to say, ‘yes I will,’ or ‘no I won’t.’  There’s no lukewarmness in preaching.  And sometimes that challenge, that call for an upward response is to convert the people who have now had that kind of safe stance.  Sometimes it’s to deepen the faith who already made the commitment, and sometimes it’s just an opportunity for people who haven’t made the stance to say, ‘no, I’m still not ready yet.’

5. So, preaching is a divine activity where the Word of God is proclaimed is announced on a contemporary issue with a view toward an open response to our God.

Questions.  Comments.  So some people will say to me, ‘well, was that a sermon?’ They did something for five minutes.  And I’ll say, ‘was there divine activity?  Was the Word of God proclaimed or announced on a contemporary issue with a view toward an open response to our God?’  I say that was a sermon. See, I’ve heard some for 45 minutes.  Tillich says you can’t save a soul in less than 45 minutes (laughter.)  I hold mine down to 25 minutes.  But was there divine activity?  That’s my working definition as to what’s a sermon and what’s not a sermon.

Now that I’ve worked this session, I’d like for you to work for about 15 to 20 minutes.  And what I’d like for you to do, is I’m going to pass out some sheets on setting the preaching context, because in our time together, we’ll all be working on sermons using the process that I’m talking about, working our this definition.  So you’ll be moving around, and I’d like for you to work in triads.  My mother said, ‘water seeks its own level.’  So that means if you want to work with you already know, fine.  If you want to work with people you’ve never seen before this morning, fine.  It will work itself out, and it’s not a commitment for life (laughter.)

In 1969, I was in Albany, New Mexico, you have to count people’s eyes, count people’s toes, you know we did all of this counting and stuff.  And that’s not what I’m asking.  All I’m asking, you get a sense, you find two other people who may be serious about what preaching is about.  And you may want to work on a sermon together.  First I’d like for you just to find two other people, spread out, and then look over the questions on the sheet, and talk for 15 minutes.

I’d like to hear the general feedback, or comments since I have that kind of sharing in what you were just doing.  Any insights?  Any revelations?

RESPONDER 1: Well, when we talked about number 4, oh I’m sorry, number 5, how preaching affects our experience and understanding of God, we all said we could name maybe a handful of sermons that we’ve heard that really affected us, but then talked about how once we started preaching ourselves, that was when we really entered into the struggle.  And we were saying how important that was to remember if we are pastors in a parish that we needed that struggle tied to our sermons, and that sort of a space for saying that is important for lay folks as well, because (speaking becomes indistinct…)

KATIE CANNON: Other comments?  Other earnest members of corporate worship, may they come easy for them.

RESPONDER 2:  I was struck by the fact that one of my earliest memories of corporate worship was the fact that the kids were separate from the corporate part, and left to do their own service with some kind of adult supervision.

RESPONDER 3: I remember the pictures on the fan in the funeral home (laughter.)  I had no idea how important that was.

RESPONDER 4:  Well I guess my question on that would be was it the first time that I experienced being in a group of people who were saying they were corporately worshiping or the first time I experienced corporate worship.

KATIE CANNON: The first time you remember it.

RESPONDER 4: Well, the first time I remember it feeling like corporate worship I was probably 16 or 17, but I first went to church when I was probably a month old.  I mean, so, my first memories were sitting still (laughter.)

RESPONDER 5:  My earliest memories were for a really long time sitting in a pew barely being able to see over the people through the service.  There was this huge tall man, and he was bald, and macho. And it just scared me to death.  (indistinct)

KATIE CANNON: Other comments?

RESPONDER 6: I’d just like to say a little something about preaching because Marie and I are dancers and we feel a little differently about the preaching.  We feel that we’re not preaching as we’re not ministers, but we feel that our dancing is a way of preaching, and that we are preaching ourselves because dancing is essentially a way of worshiping God in silence to music that is being played.  It’s a way that you can worship God and praise God, that’s different than yelling and preaching the Word, and relating the Word in a different way.

KATIE CANNON:  Is it divine activity?

RESPONDER 6: We feel so.

KATIE CANNON: Is the Word of  God proclaimed and announced in the movement around contemporary issues?

RESPONDER 6: Proclaimed I think of as being verbal, so I would say no to that, unless it is proclaimed in bodily movement, then I would say yes.  And we feel very much moved in our… (indistinct) We reenacted the passion scene.  It’s powerful with the two women.

KATIE CANNON: There’s movement to an upward response.  I mean some of the best sermons are given by choirs.  I mean, we have a lot of people who waste people’s time in the ministry.  And sometimes, on Sundays we should just say the preacher should sit down and let the choir take over.  The may have just nothing to say.  So it’s not just, that’s why that definition is comprehensive.  It begins with divine activity, and it brings you up to live more faithfully.  Art is also preaching.  It’s not limited just to the spoken word.  As we move now into the next weeks, I’d like for us to think in terms of any issues, contemporary issues that might have come up as you shared with one another, because prophetic preaching comes out of problem solving.  It’s like what is a critical issue that’s laid on your heart, that’s far in your bones, that you know that the people that you love in your congregation, they need to hear in order to live more faithfully.

RESPONDER 7: Well, we talked about a show that was on last night called “Momma’s Child.”  It was about a woman who is mentally ill. That to me is a very contemporary issue that people really need to hear about the possibility of liberation in the midst of mental illness.

(Non-distinct speaking.)

RESPONDER 8: Dealing with wealth issues.  Class issues.

RESPONDER 9: Racism.  How to deal with it.

RESPONDER 10: military

(non-distinct speaking.)

KATIE CANNON: We have about a hundred sermons right now.

(non-distinct speaking.)

RESPONDER 11: Separation of Church and State.

KATIE CANNON: All the sermons can be summed up in terms of faith, hope, and love.  You preach 52 sermons a year.  At the bottom line, they’re about faith, hope, and love.  And out of that we try to get more specific around what part of faith are we talking about, what part of love, what part of hope are we talking about.  So we can divide each one of these issues into the theological sermon of do we need to grow in faith, or do we need to grow in love, or are we missing hope.  We’re going to working on one sermon collectively, and each of you can be working on your own sermon individually, but in order to demonstrate what this process is about, I’d like to pass out the markers again.  I think there’s enough for everybody to take two.

In preparing a sermon, in sermon preparation, keep a sermon noble.  There’s nothing I’ve ever read, seen, or heard that is not…..



KATIE CANNON: From the beginning of the idea to the time you get up to deliver the sermon.  And the problem I’ve found with most women preachers is that they preach three, four, five, six sermons in one sermon.  And it goes over like a lead balloon.  And so I hear one sermon, and it’s like are we through yet?  And she goes up again.  Are we through yet?  And they start up again.  Are we through yet?  And it’s like, wow!  And when I hear most men preach, I haven’t the first sermon (laughter.)  So I hear the introduction, and then it’s like, well where’s the meat, where’s the sermon?  So that’s why we’re using this method, is to figure out how you preach one sermon, and save that other sermon for another time.  I mean, I’ve heard people try to use five of these issues in the same sermon.  And they wonder why people didn’t respond. It’s like overkill.  There’s no way to do it.  This process is a simple process, but it requires a lot of rigorous, hard work.

So first of all, there has to be something that the sermon, the origin of the sermon, when Joy gave the idea about liberation amidst mental illness, where did the sermon originate?  She was watching the TV program.  So this idea was laid on her in her heart, and she was like, that’s something we need to address in a community of faith.  So the two sources for sermons.  They’re either life-led or text-led.  That would be a life-led sermon, because a situation in life that you’ve seen, and it needs to be addressed.  A text-led sermon means that you are engaged in divine activity, meaning you’re doing your devotion, you’re reading the scripture, and all of a sudden it jumps out.  Something is revealed, and you say ‘I need to preach on that.’  Being an order of high liturgical Church, or- I don’t even know the word- the lectionary, right.  Sermons out of the lectionary would be classified as text-led sermons.  The text is given, and out of that text, you develop your sermon.  So whenever I use the text, my primary research is Cannonized scripture.  There will be other texts I will talk about, but when a text-led sermon is one that is taken from Cannonical scriptures.  Life-led sermon is something like going along and all of a sudden you see this situation happen, even in your congregations, it’s decided on somewhere, and the issue needs to be addressed because until we hear it, we’re going to be missing the mark of something about our faith.  So of all the issues we have listed here, is there one that somebody feels very inspired that we should work on today?  We have liberation amidst mental illness, sexuality, abortion, wealth/class issues, racism, militarism, Reagan, ageism, able-bodied-ism, race, death/bereavement, Church/state, broken relations with God, seeing Christ in one another.  Church and State.

So what’s the problem?  (laughter.) (non-distinct speaking from audience.)  How much should women be involved in politics?  Okay, now in order to get us a modern problem of Church and state, we need to know what the theological issue is.  Where are we missing the mark in our congregation?  Everybody has to think about their own particular congregation, even though we’re doing this as a collective sermon here.  One issue for instance for some congregations would be they’re not involved enough.  Other congregations, they’re too involved with the political and they’ve not involved with the faith.  So right there we got some discrepancy, so we have to deal with the particularity of the congregation in which we’re preaching.  So in your situation, you’re saying that as Christians you have a tendency to do what?  Hold that a minute while I write this down. (writing sounds throughout this section.) What we’re doing here is that first of all talking about, we’re diagnosing the problem.  We have a tendency to catch colds.  How do I know that?  That’s what we do.  We have a tendency in this particular sermon to get over-involved in politics.  How do I know that?  Because we’re always walking around sneezing (laughter.)  Why?  Why do we have a cold?  Why do we always walk around sneezing? We’re walking around. If we know we have a tendency to catch colds, that’s our problem, we have a tendency.  And the reason I know that, the how is what evidence.  What symptoms do I see that makes this a problem, in terms of sneezing non-stop, in terms of having tears- whatever evidence I want to bring forward.  We could have as many here as we have here.  Due to walking in the rain.  Due to inadequate sleep.  Due to being around germs.  Due to not dressing properly.  Too much stress.  Each one of these five is a different sermon.  When I talk about people putting too many sermons together, they will start off with this problem: catching cold.  And the reason I know that is that we sneeze non-stop and it’s due to walking in the rain. That’s it right there.  Stop.  They say, ‘no we’re not walking in the rain, we don’t get enough sleep.’  And they go to ‘it’s cause we hang out with germs (laughter.)’  I got to take care of this one- walking in the rain- before I can take care of this one.  This is another sermon.  And this is another sermon.  And this is another sermon.  And this is another sermon. This is another sermon.

But if I try to do all of it in one sermon, there’s no way that as a listener I can comprehend it.  So I’m still keeping cold.  I’m still going to be walking non-stop sneezing.  So if we can understand that, we can go back to this example.  We have a tendency in this particular congregation to get over involved in politics.  The way I know that is in terms of what?  How do you know they’re over involved? (responses from audience).  Okay, what have you heard that produces the evidence? (more responses)  Okay, so we have tendency to get over involved in politics in terms of a lot of rhetoric, a certain rhetoric in terms of what we need to be doing.  Why do we do that?  (responses)  Because they think they’re teaching.  Preachers are. Because of the urgency of the problem.  So we have tendency to get over-involved in politics in terms of issuing rhetorical degrees to our congregations, due to (because sometimes we get too issue-oriented and we’re not Christ oriented to begin with.)  Due to the fact that we get too issue oriented, and we’re not Christ oriented.  (We’re not grounded in Christ to move the issues, is what I’m trying to say.) Due to the fact that we’re not grounded in Christ as we move forth to those issues.  That’s a sermon.  That’s three.  Did you hear the problem?

It helps if you haven’t used this particular method before, to use the formula, which is first of all we have a tendency.  And if you ever sit anywhere in the world and you hear somebody start off, we have a tendency you can say, “they work with the Clark method.”  You get overly involved together.  In terms of is the next key phrase.  In terms of.  (writing sounds.) So that’s the sermon we’re working on.  Wherever, it’s like frying your bones, the same process.  If there’s a particular problem that’s happening in your congregation that you see happening where you work, if you see, wherever, that you know there are Christian people who want to live faithfully and they’re missing the mark on something.  We have a tendency to get over involved in politics.  That’s what the problem is.  How?  In terms of issuing rhetorical decrees about social involvement.  Why would we do that?  Due to the fact that we’re not grounded in Christ before we move into the issues.

QUESTION: It seems like, and I realize we would take more time on this if we were writing a sermon on Church and State, but it seems to me like, it’s easy to come too fast to the answer to this.  You know, somebody else might say there’s a different reason why we’re overly involved in politics, and some might say…

KATIE CANNON: Well let’s hear some of those reasons.

QUESTION: Other reasons?  Because there are a lot of issues going on right now.  There’s a lot of stuff to be concerned about as a Christian.  I’m just concerned about jumping to a conclusion about the answer to why before you’re really sure that’s why.

KATIE CANNON: I need some more.

RESPONDER: Because we want to live out our faith instead of just talking about it.  Take action, which would be social action.


RESPONDER: Because people want to be in the lime-light.

KATIE CANNON:  It is important, see, the only way to do fresh preaching is you have to know your congregation, and you have to love your congregation.  You have to love them enough to want to tell them the truth.  James Baldwin said,

“If I love you, I have to make you conscious of what you don’t see.”

Not just you’re nice, nice, nice.  But if I care enough, and you know I’m missing the mark, and you know I’m doing the same thing over and over again, and I’m hurting myself…do I care enough about the congregation to tell them the truth, to call them to live faithfully.  So what Joy is saying is so true, because in order to know what the problem and symptoms are, in order to diagnose the problem, and understand the symptoms… You can’t give the right prescription if you don’t know why it’s happening.  For instance, if the reason I have a cold and I’m always sneezing is because I have too much stress, it doesn’t matter if I stop putting on warm clothes.  If the reason I keep getting a cold is because I’m not eating properly, it doesn’t matter if I stop sleeping in the draft.  So that accuracy has to be there in diagnosing the problems.  The problem doesn’t come easy.  The reason it comes easy today is because I’ve been doing it, so I can hear when it works and when it doesn’t work.  But when you try doing this, you may sit with the problem.  You may have, like some people have a what and a how, a what and a why, and they wonder ‘why isn’t this working?’  One of the greatest problems of preaching is that most people leave out the how.  They tell you what you need to do, why we need…and they never tell us how to do it.  They never have any evidence that we have a problem and how we can do something about it.  So the how is often the part that is overlooked.  All that this process does it make conscious what we do anyway.  When somebody’s talking to you and you’re going ‘what’re you talking about?  I mean, how can you say that?  How is that even possible?  Why?’  So it’s a logical way to think, and it’s making that logical unconscious way, very much conscious.

QUESTION: You’re actually suggesting another how after the final thought?  I know we don’t like things to come in fours, but the how would then be what would it look like to change? Or how to do something about it?

KATIE CANNON: No, this how is what.  The fourth part is a ‘why’ crisis.  And when we get to body points, I’ll be talking about the how in that sense, because then it’s a positive kind of change.  Or when we talk about the sermonic solution.  This is a sermonic problem.  For right now we have one-one, two-one, three-one, four-one.  Now I want to hold those right there, because for each congregation, that’s a different sermon.  The quad crisis. So what?  So what if I’m involved in politics?  So what if I’m not Christ-centered?  So what if I want to be in the lime-light?  What’s going to happen if I keep on doing what I’m doing?  It’s not going to be… it’s interesting, the only time we change is when we’re threatened. You have somebody smoking on your campus.  You say, ‘if you smoke your teeth will turn yellow.’  You’re thinking about all the times in your life when you’ve made changes, and they’ve been because of a ‘why’ crisis.  Just think about that.  Any major change you’ve made, a bottom line, at the bottom line it’s a ‘why’ crisis.  I choose light ones.  That’s the why crisis.  People don’t move unless there’s a ‘why’ crisis. 

And part of what makes good preaching, is you gotta know that not only the ethos of the congregation, but the pathos.  What moves them.  What do they value, what do they care about, as well as the standing in front of God.  So in the ‘why’ crisis, I’m moving toward what’s going to call for the change.  I remember I preached a sermon when I was pastoring in New York City about playing the numbers. I can know, coming from North Carolina, I didn’t know what the big racket numbers were in the urban areas.  You play the lottery, play the numbers-I had never heard of that.  So that to me, or at least to my ethos, to be a Christian, you don’t play numbers.  And I was running the day care at the church, and every time it was time to serve the kids food, my sister looked around trying to find out what number they’d hit.  So that was like, ‘What is this system?’  So that Sunday, I decided I had to preach on how Christians shouldn’t play the numbers.  Well of course the sermon went over like a lead balloon.  The issue was not playing the numbers.  The issue was how do you try to fill the hole in our soul.  So I missed the mark.  I missed what’s the issue we have to deal with, because some people, the reason we need to not be involved in so much politics is because we spend so much time away from the home that we don’t even know what’s going on in our own household.  Our spouses don’t even know who we are.  We don’t even know who we are.  They move on that. You tell audiences that, and they say, ‘so what?’ Because we’ll lose respect for ourselves, and they say, ‘oh, okay, I’ll fix that.’  So you have to know the pathos of your congregation of the people you’re preaching to in order to know what the ‘why’ crisis is going to be.  Questions?

QUESTION: What are the things in the history of the people, as far as their value system, you mentioned one value of not being in the home and spending as much time in the home.  My question is what could be used as a broader sense of history that could be more inclusive of issues that for some people who could not have that, could not reach that?  You’re going to have tension in your congregation, but yet have all grown up in a country where supposedly our government is founded upon religious freedom and there’s that constant pull of ‘we need to separate Church and State, but yet our state is founded on our religious beliefs and our need for religious freedom.  So I would think there would have to be a broader basis for trying to move your congregation in whatever way you’re trying to move them

KATIE CANNON: Only in some congregations would that work.  In other congregations, that wouldn’t work at all.  Part of what it means to be a preacher I think, is to have the image of one ear on the ground, and the other ear at the mouth of God.  Meaning, you know the heartbeat of your people. You know what they long for, you know what they value, you know their joys, you know their hurts, and you know their pains.  And so, yeah, in some congregations, a sermon on religious freedom would be the ‘why’ crisis to move them.  Other congregations, they wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about because that’s never been part of their privilege, never part of their tradition, so it would not be effective.  You look puzzled.  Like, how could that not be part of some traditions…

RESPONDER: I think it’s part of all of our traditions, whether we’re on the side of struggling to survive, or having privilege.  It’s part of your tradition.  There’s still a basis (she continues, but is muffled by sounds of moving the microphone.)

KATIE CANNON:  In your tradition, or your thinking.  No, it doesn’t work.  It wouldn’t have worked in my congregation, because at the same time this country was founded, in 1619 when blacks came here, that was not our experience, this religious freedom.  When the constitution was signed, we were equal to 3/5 of a white man.  So we can’t pull on a tradition that does not mean that for a particular constituency.  But some other congregations, that may be the apex of what their faith may be moving toward.  And that’s why sermons don’t work in all churches.  When I go preach in predominately white situations, totally different than preaching in a predominately black situation.

QUESTION: But the very fact that you were denied that in a country where that’s supposedly the role of the Church, I would think would be the basis for your preaching that (?).

KATIE CANNON:  It wouldn’t preach.  It wouldn’t work, because I have to move from the pathos of the congregation, and that doesn’t move their pathos.  That…

QUESTION: The fact that they were denied wouldn’t move them?

KATIE CANNON: Not if I’m trying to get us to be more Christ-centered.  Everything, I mean, if all sermons are faithful for long, I have to know the specificity of my hearers.  I must know that.

RESPONDER: (muffled and indistinct.)

KATIE CANNON: This type of preaching cannot be abstract.  And I cannot preach prophetically if I’m on the road all the time, or if I’m in meetings all the time.  I have to have one ear on the ground where the people are- where I hear their footsteps, and I hear the cries.  So much in ministry happens in passing.  It’s amazing how, if you stand at the back of the church after the sermon, I hear more about what’s going on than if I sit in my office waiting.  See I have office hours and I say, ‘please come.’  More women have told me about their abortion experiences, the battery, the abuse, the alcoholism, in passing.  Then I knew what the New Testament story was about when Jesus was surrounded by a crowd of people and he says, ‘somebody touched me.’  Something happened right here.  So it’s like that whole understanding of what it means to minister on the spot.  When you least expect it, somebody’s pouring out their soul and their heart, and I want to be attuned to that.  And if I’m so busy the agenda, so busy with a document, so busy trying to- as I say in my prayer ‘show us the way, not in fortune nor fame.’- that, I can’t hear that.  And when I can hear that, then I know what I need to preach about.  One of the common sayings in the black church tradition is, “Is there any word from the Lord today?”  And if there’s no word from the Lord, then I need to sit down.  And the only way I will know there’s a word from the Lord, for God’s people, in this particular context, I have to know what their hurts are.  I have to know what their longings are.  If this were a class and we were going to meet on a regular basis, and tomorrow when I preach, I wouldn’t know what I needed to preach about.  But that’s because I don’t know what we’re struggling with. I don’t know what people are hurting about today.  And to take time to find out all those hurts, we won’t get through with the sermon.

RESPONDER: Katie, I was taught, and maybe it’s the answer to my own question, that it’s prophetic preaching. I’m struck by the sense that this whole approach is a problem-solving approach.  And I’m wondering, thinking about my own, sort of varying sermon styles in ways of going about dealing with the word, and whether there isn’t other legitimate preaching that doesn’t deal with what needs to be said in terms of the problem that needs to be solved, but simply maybe comfort to be given, or joy to be given.  Something other than a problem to be solved.

KATIE CANNON: That is a different kind of preaching.  Prophetic preaching, is saying that people are hurting, and they’re missing the mark, and they want to live more faithfully.  That’s what I mean, the difference when I stand at a predominately white pulpit and a predominately black pulpit.  If I don’t drop that plumb line to the mist, and say, ‘we’re missing the mark.  We’re living faithfully.’  As my mother says, the worst thing that she could experience was have a child come into the world and having that child spending eternity in hell.  So moving out of that kind of tradition, she’s saying how can I live more faithfully from this Sunday to the next Sunday.  There are all kinds of other preaching, but preaching in the black idiom is this kind of preaching.  Is there a word of the Lord today on how I can live more faithfully?  And so I want that indictment.  I want the sense that when I’ve tried to do other than that, people say that wasn’t nice.  When I’ve done this kind of preaching in a predominately white situation, people feel it’s hard, like I’m too hard.  Be gentle. I know I’m doing something wrong, tell me I’m doing something right, other than the other way around.  Where do I need to grow in my faith?  So, I try to stay within my own tradition because it’s just so much easier to know what I’m about.  Also, here, the reason I left those four ‘why’s’ up is because they’re three types of sermons: thinking sermons, being sermons, and doing sermons.

Thinking sermons say that I lack knowledge about something, and that’s why we have a problem.

Being sermons says that there’s something wrong in my soul.

The thinking sermon feels like I’m losing my mind.

The being sermon is that whole understanding of Tillich, that being-ness, of who we are, our soul.  And the doing sermon, I know what I need to do, my faith is in tact in my being, but I don’t know how to do it.  So you got a thinking sermon, a being sermon, and a doing sermon.  And the reason I think it’s important because the title of the sermon will come from whether it’s a thinking sermon, a being sermon, or a doing sermon.  Next.

QUESTION: I have a question about community.  In terms of the community that I’m preaching in right now, it’s a predominately white congregation, but there are a few members of color within the congregation, and I guess what I struggle with is, for instance, in dealing with racism, I don’t want to stand to make the people of color again feel invisible even though I feel that the issue needs to be dealt with racism of the white people in my congregation.  So, I’m wondering if you would layer on, or (tape ends)



KATIE CANNON: If there are black people in that congregation, whether it’s one or two, Hispanic people in the congregation, Asian people, or Native American people, then I need to define it not on terms of white supremacy, but how we allow our color to limit us in living faithfully as the people of God.  That’s a problem, because if I was there too in that congregation, and I’m not participating in the leadership role, the problem has to be defined in terms of the congregation.  If you look at that last page and see what parts that you may have questions about.

QUESTION:  What I haven’t heard you talk about up to this point is how the prophets has to do self-confrontation in order to be prophetic.  And the fact that you can’t preach what you haven’t experienced, lived, or willing to own.  And if it’s somebody else’s problem, then you can’t preach it.  And the problem with being prophetic is that you often stand in the pulpit on Sunday morning saying things that you recently had to own, but your congregation hasn’t owned, but how painful that is.  And that keeps women and men from being prophetic, because being prophetic is risky business.

KATIE CANNON: You said it (laughter.)

QUESTIONER: I wanted you to say it.

KATIE CANNON: You said it better than I ever could.  Professor Beeks (?), he and I were talking at the break about you saying that he preaches about doubt.  How do you preach on doubt?  And I said, “Well, that doesn’t move out of the prophetic stance.”  When I was preaching in East Harlem and the people had gotten pink slips and didn’t have jobs, didn’t have food, and didn’t know how they were going to make it, my responsibility was to say that God will provide.  And I couldn’t talk about that. I couldn’t, that was not the privilege I had in that situation.  And it’s not the privilege I have in black situations, because when you’re up against the everyday, all day long telling them ‘you don’t have a right to exist,’ my responsibility is to say you were created in God’s image, and that God loves us, and God cares, and that God’s going to make a way out of no way.

And also, class situations have to do with it.  I still haven’t had the chance to preach in a black upper-class situation, so I don’t know what that’s like.  My call and my context has been the black masses.  The kind of people who are caught up in that kind of air-tight poverty.  The prophet is also the one who, in prophetic preaching, are always calling people forth, always dropping the plumb line down into the mist, always saying God help me, show me the way for your people.  A friend of mine tried to preach on adultery.  And he was talking about adultery, because two people in the parking lot talking about it.  Well, of course it was a sermon he couldn’t preach, because he was talking about something he overheard somebody else talking about.  Another friend, this was in class, preached a sermon on adultery, not because he admitted adultery, but because he noticed a hole in one’s soul, and adultery’s just one way he can turn to doing that.  The sermon preached in a room.  You have to know what you’re preaching about.  I’ve heard people try to preach about Christ when they don’t believe in Jesus.  And what comes from the heart goes to the heart.  If somebody is convicted and convincing, it can be convincing for the few.  If I know God loves me, and I know my sense of forgiven, I want to share that with other people.  If I’m not quite sure, that’s what I said at the beginning-I suspect, I hope, I pray that’s true- it is a kind of preaching, but it does not stand within the prophetic tradition of the black church.  And there are all kinds of prophetic traditions out there.  Like I said, what I’m trying to do is get to the black tradition’s experience as non-precious appendix in historic Christianity.  Because we’ve made a contribution and it’s been dismissed over and over and over again.  And so what I say today as we close up now, though many of you have said to me ‘this is so heavy-handed, and it’s so male, and it’s so masculine.’  One group of women said to me, ‘why do we have to have three points?  I mean, I thought you were a feminist and that you would do it differently.’  I said yeah, you have to think about context- context at the beginning, context at the end.  And they said, ‘oh.’  I think they wanted some pop-ups or something (laughter.)  I don’t know, but it’s like, there are woman who I see, very creative preachers, moving out of a different tradition do something differently.  That’s not my gift.  That’s not what I’ve been given to do. So I don’t mock it, that’s just not the tradition that I bring forth and that I represent and that I can stand square in.  So, if this is the eighth time that you’ve done Women in the Word, and there’s so many ways to do it.  What gifts can the black church bring to preaching?  And that’s what I’m trying to, that’s all I’m trying to share with you today.  And maybe, Jim Cone says, ‘once the oppressions that cave in as a part of black community are no longer a part of who we are, we may have the freedom and the privilege to do it differently.’  But that’s not an option for us right now, because the majority of our congregations are suffering. It keeps us on our tip-toes standing, never quite knowing what to expect next from day to day.  The kind of preaching we have to do is prophetic preaching.  And the day may come when we can move to a more priestly, pastoral kind of preaching, but that’s not- I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime.  I used to think it would, back when I got my mission mixed up with God’s mission.  One of the brothers told me ‘I think you’d be alright if you let God help you a little bit.’ (laughter.)  I’m in that stage now, letting God help me a little bit.  Other questions and comments?

QUESTION: I was wondering how especially black preaching kind of preaching can be effective for women.  It’s different for women than it is for men.

KATIE CANNON: In the preaching process, or in the listening process?

QUESTION: Preaching I guess is what I’m concerned with, but also the listening.  They can’t be separated.

KATIE CANNON: Well, sometimes- the separation I’m making is that sometimes, the counterbalance of power that goes with prophetic preaching for some listeners, they find it too offensive.  It’s too abrasive, and so therefore, when you talk about the truth, when you tell the truth square- front and center- it’s like, it’s too painful, so they want you to come around this way. For women, it’s an authority; it’s a kind of authority that wouldn’t be given otherwise.  When I was ordained, they didn’t know what to do with me.  I would have never been allowed in the pulpit if I had not been ordained first, and they ordained me because they didn’t know what to do with me.  I passed everything.  There had never been a black woman, theologically trained in a mainline denomination, white mainline church, and so it’s like ‘what do we do with her?  She’s done everything we said do.”  Every time I stood up to preach, most of the time they’d never seen a black woman preacher, and so I could not at that point, stand over and against the prophetic tradition and do it differently, come up with a much more creative poetic way, or artistic way.  Because so many women in those congregations, people were, when I was getting up to preach, I had to go a hundred percent every time because people were saying, ‘you know, God didn’t call you, because God don’t call women.’  And women in those congregations were sitting there saying, I know I been called, and if I messed up in preaching, that was the evidence that I had not been called.  If I could do well in preaching, maybe even, I’ve been in churches where I’ve been kept in front pew, but they wouldn’t even let me come into the pulpit until I preached, and after I preached, ‘well maybe God did call you?’  There’s always the litmus test.  So authority of being able to preach prophetically has opened up doors for being a black woman in ministry for a number of black women that wouldn’t have been there before.  And some of the saddest things I’ve seen is black women in black churches who can’t preach, because they can’t.  A black man who can’t preach, they’re going to keep him for a bit because you know, he’s young, give him a chance.  A black woman, that’s clear evidence that God didn’t call them.  So the sexism around preaching is still very prevalent.  The hardest part is getting up preaching and then having men come behind me and preach for 45 minutes.  Or people that preach before I preach, or schedule me for three sermons.  I’m three different people, because they know I’m not going to say anything anyway.  And always on a women’s day service, or times at the pulpit when 5 or 6, maybe 12 women who have never been up there and everybody’s nervous and I’m the guest person, I’m calming everybody down.

But, I wouldn’t take nothing for the journey.

It’s a real joy to see so many young women come into the ministry, moving out of prophetic radical Christianity doing it differently.  Sometimes when I see young women, like 23 or 24, who are, I mean, the problem of being a pioneer is that you have to pay your dues in a much different way than the people who come after.  And what they do in preaching, is like, ‘wow.’  It’s just very different.  But, they just know they have a right to be there.  When I was in seminary I knew I didn’t have a right, because I had trespassed on men’s territory, and so I learned what they had to say.  And it was much later when the whole feminist consciousness came to me.  But I kind of learned in the moment that I could use all my gifts, that I didn’t have to forsake them or trade them in, that God doesn’t make mistakes.  If God called me, then I’ll follow that through.

QUESTION: I’m not quite sure how to approach this question, but I’m wondering if the prophetic tradition that we’re talking about, looking at the times where everybody is doing ‘what is the problem,’ when a lot of times, it seems like the problem is the oppressor from the outside.  You know, how do you keep from blaming the victim, and still be prophetic about what they can do about it?  I mean, sometimes, it seems like I would have a tendency to, like if I was speaking to a bunch of women, easy to say we can blame most of our problems on white male oppressors.  The preaching for me and being prophetic about what we are doing can be about our situation, and still not blaming us for our oppression.

KATIE CANNON: I talk a little bit about this in God’s Fierce Whimsy, when I talk about facing the terror, that no matter how oppressed, or beat down, or disinherited people may be, if we also understand that we are people of God, and we are created in God’s own image, we have some responsibility to set limits against other people.  Cone says in his first book, Black Theology, Black Power is that loving somebody is not allowing them to keep trampling you, but saying ‘no, no more.’  And that’s a lesson that one has to learn.  And theologically, it means calling the theological lies that God has ordained oppression, the lie that it is, that God has not ordained it that way.  Carter G. Woods says, “if you can control people’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about what they’re going to do. They will always act in your hand.  And if you make people feel inferior, they will always seek an inferior status, and there’s not a back door, they’ll believe it’s nature more than anyone.”  So part of that is reclaiming the psyche, looping the culture back, understanding theologically what it means to be God’s people.  So we have an agenda that’s full of knowledge, that we don’t have to get in to.

It’s not blaming the victim, it’s empowering the community as to what it means to be the people of God, to set limits to stop the oppression. 

One of the sociological advantages of being ordained for me has been talking to women who have been in battering situations.  And have had male preachers tell them that’s their cross, that Jesus had a cross and we all have to suffer, and this is your cross.  And to walk into a situation like that and say ‘that’s not true.’  And they say, ‘well, Rev. said that…’  And I say, ‘well, I’m a Rev too.’  And so they say, ‘okay, now what is that?  What you’re saying is different.’ It helps in situations where otherwise that empowerment may not happen.

One of the problems I found out about after I left the congregation I was pastoring is that once I brought feminist, prophetic preaching into that congregation, they couldn’t hear you.  They would not tolerate lukewarm preachers and everything else.  They would not go back to garbage, and so they closed down the church.  So we need a cloud of witnesses of those who had come before.  When the man who followed me said, as women, they could not do the litany, they couldn’t participate in the service.  And I said, ‘oh no, Reverend they have.  They’ve been doing it for two years, they’ve been doing it that way.’  And all of a sudden he said, ‘you sit out there, and I’ll sit up here.’  So there’s a feminist style of doing ministry apart from preaching that still women suffer because we try to do it.  For instance, when we have committee meetings, and I work on proposals to get, we were a mission church, so we had to submit all of our proposals downtown.  I wanted to know what everybody in the session said, and what they thought, and it had never been cultivated that way.  I said tell me what you think, what you believe.  And I’d write it down.  They’d say, ‘you think that’s important?’  And I’d say, ‘yeah.’  Well it would take six weeks to do that when somebody else would do that in six hours, and so you get devalued.  It’s like, why aren’t you meeting the deadline.  So the whole scheme, the way that we evaluate ministry, all those things are quite foreign to the way women do them.  And so women who tried to incorporate so often a feminist methodology and pedagogy as well as a theology into their ministry are getting burned out in droves.

At Union Seminary, we had in the 9 years I was there, 10 women, black women, who had nervous breakdowns and we never even talked about it. It was a hell of a place.  Not only not getting support within the white institution, but the black church saying, ‘you can’t do this. God doesn’t want you to do this.’  And if you feel that call, and everybody’s telling you, you can’t do it, where do you go with that?  And they just took it inside.  And we don’t talk about it.  We numb it all.  I keep bringing it up because I witnessed it, and I still didn’t know what to do.  I still didn’t know how to be of support to those sisters, because I thought it was contagious.  I knew it was just a matter.  If I hadn’t been passing my churches, I needed a place when things got that hard, I needed a place that I was still okay.  Some place where being Kate was the norm, instead of always being the out one.  The congregation gave me a lot.  So if you’re ever in the area, the Presbyterian Church on Simpson (?), if you can thank them for the mistakes I’ve made, as well as the good I’m doing.  Our time is up, and I’ll see you tomorrow morning in the chapel, and the workshops this afternoon are excellent.

Books Referenced:

Albert Raboteau – Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South.

James Cone- Black Theology and Black Power

Mudflower Collective- God’s Fierce Whimsey