Teaching preachers is a part of what I do. It is not that I know more about the craft than any other, its just that after 50 years I've been at it longer than most. Of course, the task of such teaching is not only to create a sermon but to teach my students to know one when they hear one.
Under the canopy of a cloudless Alabama sky, President Barack Obama stood easily within the forum before him, an impressive gathering of "hungering masses" who had come to march once again in pursuit of elusive justice. We could not have been prepared for what we were about to hear. The Barack Obama we know is a gifted speaker, a skilled communicator. We are aware of his ability to convert adversaries into allies with the turn of a well-crafted phrase or to order his argument with such diplomacy that even enemies could not deny his gifts.
This time, however, we heard something different. On Saturday in Selma, we heard something we had never heard before. Something new had been added to the president's speech, something more than words. What we heard was not designed to produce trends on social media, stock photos or, in the president's words, to "airbrush history." In a sense, his speech was Lincolnesque -- "What they did here will reverberate through the ages." What we heard was a new cadence, a kind of rhyme and rhythm historically associated with African American pulpitry. He described us with a kind of sacred poetry. He defined Black America as "unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, nor born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape (our) country's course."
What we heard was an African American president who had finally come to a moment when every word, every phrase was marked by inescapable nuances of liberated prophecy. Here was one tall black man who was free enough to address his enemies head on and to challenge them to acknowledge our imperfections (beyond any notions of exceptionalism) and to "decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals." More to the point, here was a president with confidence and self-assurance to openly acknowledge the black stream from which he had come without minimizing the importance and impact of his role as president of all the people.
On one Saturday in Selma, we saw a president who was liberated to pursue the fullness of his calling -- to be the voice of a people who too often had no voice. After six grueling years in office and with no need to campaign any longer, this was a president who could say the words that only an "inner voice" could dictate. This time the real president spoke. He was not afraid to confront our community for its failure to vote, thus giving away our real power. He was unafraid when speaking to members of Congress, reminding them of the great damage being done to the nation by what appears to be the intentional dismantling of the Voting Rights Act.
The president spoke with clarity regarding the importance of the pronoun "we." We the people, we the overcomers, and those who cry, "yes, we can." This time he spoke not from his mouth but from his heart to give legitimacy to our "we-ness," to give legitimacy to the struggles of those people with whom he is a part and from whom he does not wish to separated. This was the real president who chose to stand with and not over against those whose votes had propelled him into office.... twice!
There are those within the African American community who have complained that the president had failed to address those social and political issues that affect us so deeply. Indeed, they complained that he is "not black enough." And yet on one Saturday in Selma, such complaint was silenced. He spoke the words we longed to hear him say. This unlicensed, un-ordained preacher/president spoke words that returned us again to faith in God, faith in America and faith in ourselves.
This Preacher President came to this city of the South and found liberation to preach on subjects that in other states might be politically incorrect. This Preacher President found within himself the liberation to feel the pain of parents who see their children dead in the streets. This Preacher President found within himself the courage not only to talk about the march, but to be a participant in the march; he had not come merely to make another speech but to be a part of the crying crowd, there to declare with power "we know the march is not over yet."
And, by the way, where are the preachers? When will some new preacher speak with such utter clarity that we will know that once again God has sent a leader to continue the march to that land of promise. When will those who only preach of personal piety be replaced by those who speak a gospel truth regarding political, economic and social power? With the continuing crisis in our streets, with death stalking our sidewalks, who is there with clarion voice who will "cry loud and spare not"? We still need the church. We still need preachers and prophets, or shall we look to the president to become the preacher?
Could it be that in spite of all the good things we heard in Selma -- all of the striking and strident oratory and marvelous entertainment -- could it be that the victim of it all was the City of Selma itself? Fifty years later Selma remains a city depressed. There is no viable economy there. There are no places of employment that offer hope and help. Even the Air Force packed its bags and left town. It is fair to say that no one has done anything to change the fortunes of a city whose very existence did so much to change America. Everyone has gone home now, but Selma is still left with nothing but depressed housing, inadequate schools, Laney's Bar-B-Que and Walmart.
Pundits will suggest that this was just another speech -- "The I have a dream speech for the 21st Century," said one. Some cynical pundit will say it's all politics -- nothing more, nothing less. I don't think so. This writing has the ring of authentic preaching. God willing, we shall hear more.
Remember that our president quotes the lyrics of our favorite hymns and Gospel songs. Our president freely and frequently referred to ancient scriptures. It was clear to me that these were not words of texts that were put in place by a lonely speech writer in the West Wing. It is clear to me that the president not only recited scripture, he knows it, he lives with it and was not ashamed to share it.
It was not by accident that Mr. Obama chose to end his sermonic declamation with the closing lines of the Prophet Isaiah's 40th chapter. They are words of freedom. They are words of liberation. They are words of hope. That's what preachers and prophets preach: Freedom. Liberation and hope.
I think I know a preacher when I hear one. Preach, Mr. President, preach!