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Festival of Homiletics Reflections: James Forbes

Wednesday morning following Fred Craddock, Rev. James Forbes from The Riverside Church in Manhattan preached. Rev. Forbes is retiring on June 1st, and has been at Riverside since 1989, serving as the fifth senior pastor there (the church was built in 1927.)

Forbes, like Craddock, was preaching on the day focused on "Prophetic Preaching." Forbes talked about the phrase 'Priesthood of all believers' and challenged us to think also about a 'prophet-hood of all believers.'

He talked about writing a paper in school about the NAACP and Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that declared "separated but equal" unconstitutional. He talked about predicting in his paper that decision on May 17th, handing in his paper the day the decision was reached in Supreme Court, and thinking, (and joking about his young ego) for the first time, that he could be a prophet. But, he asked, whether one is a prophet or not is answered more in this question: what were preachers preaching about Sunday after Brown v. Board of Education?

Forbes spoke about having the courage, being the mouthpiece for the God of love. Courage to hang the plumb line. Saying with Esther, “if I perish, I perish.”

Then he looked at the New York Times for this May 17th, more than 50 years later. In the issue, there was a full page ad on war in Iraq – signed by Tony Campolo, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and many others, calling for repentance and an end to the war. “I don’t have to preach in response to that," Forbes said, "Do you?”

He admitted he likes to 'warm up' in preaching, because sometimes he's scared to get to the point.

Talking about 1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 6, Forbes asked, "Where did you get your audacity from to preach on Sunday? Where do those words come from? What is God mad about today? Are you aware of God wanting you to do/say something about it? You may be the one the Lord’s gonna use – surprise!" He talked about a prophet (Elijah/Elisha) where the people knew where (physically) the prophet was. "Where are you?" he asked. "Where do you stand? If they wanted to attack you they couldn’t, because they don’t know where you are, where you stand. What is God expecting you to do? The way the apprentice learns how is by strengthening visual acuity. Strengthen your eyes. You can’t have the vision of God without the vitality of the Spirit. You’ve got to see it happening, see it as a reality (children eating, borders being humane, etc)."

Another excellent sermon. Some of my colleagues after worship mentioned having a hard time following his train of thought - I was right with him, those my notes on his sermon do suggest a bit of round about-ness! Still, I felt challenged by his words, challenged about having courage to say what needs to be said, preach what needs to be proclaimed. "If I perish, I perish." We just studied Esther in my evening worship at St. Paul's. Perhaps Esther is a good model for me - she had courage in the end to do what needed to be done, but it did take a lot of prodding and persuading! She looked at some easier options first. In the end, she had to be courageous. Maybe I can get there a little sooner...


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