I’ve recently picked up again Thomas Troeger’s book Preaching While the Church is Under Reconstruction (Abingdon, 1999). Indeed, we are always ‘under reconstruction’ but it seems that in these days we are called to examine ourselves anew. In recent years the pull toward ‘seeker’ and ‘contemporary’ worship has often included a rejection of tradition. Troeger approaches preaching by calling us to see tradition not only in the image of the anchor (buried in the bottom of the sea, holding us in place, stunting our movement) but in the image of the ‘cloud of witnesses.’ I am moved by his words: “a cloud forms and reforms with the play of wind and light. An anchor may stunt innovation, but not a cloud. The cloud of witnesses reminds us that reality will not stay put. The cloud reveals that tradition is a dynamic process, that tradition initiates creativity, that tradition gives our imaginations depth and wisdom by connecting us to a greater base of human experience than the puny little domain of the present moment. Knowledge of the past feeds our imaginations and stimulates our visionary energies for preaching in a fragmented age.” (Troeger, 22)
Troeger goes on to acknowledge the danger of assuming that the witnesses who speak to one of us are the same witnesses who speak to everyone. He references Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s observation: “I learned to distrust those who claim objectivity, which in my view is merely the subjectivity of those who have the power to impose it on others.” (Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, Orbis Books, 1996) The cloud of witnesses is far greater that any one individual, race, nation, or religious tradition.
Perhaps this knowledge, living deep inside me, is the reason I have been drawn in recent time to those who have gone before — not only in what I consider “my tradition,” but traditions different from my own. In fact, I find myself no longer willing to claim “my tradition” in the limited way I once did. It is all my tradition to explore and tap; the voices of those who have gone before us are able to speak to me so that I make new friends and find new family. Whether the medieval women mystics or Latin American, Asian, or African voices, or Black American witnesses, I need to hear the voices of those who have experienced God’s life-giving grace in times of turmoil and transformation for the church. I am healthiest when I remember that many, many have dared to embrace the challenge of preaching — long before I was was born. I am healthiest when I remember that I am one voice among the many. I enjoy responding to Troeger’s guiding:
“Stop. Imagine the cloud. Who emerges from the cloud for you? What wisdom do they have that you need? Let them join in the conversation. Hear them intermingling, correcting and affirming my witnesses from the cloud.”