The Overshadowed Preacher: Mary, the Spirit, and the Labor of Proclamation

Jerusha Matsen Neal
Wm. B. Eerdmans, 267 pages
Published: October 08, 2020

Opening Jerusha Matsen Neal’s The Overshadowed Preacher feels just like stepping into her homiletics classroom. I know this because I had the pleasure of being one of her students. Her classroom is a place where everyone belongs, everyone who is called to preach can preach in the way that they were called, and Jesus always shows up. She puts her students through an academic decathlon in the most loving way but always teaches with a lens toward real, practical ministry. Her book is a snapshot into those classrooms. Neal is not like other professors. Of course, other seminary professors believe what they teach their students, but Neal really believes what she teaches — not only in an academic heady way but in an embodied visceral way as well.

This is a book for preachers, and it is especially for preachers whose bodies and identities have long been excluded from the pulpit by their traditions and those who hold power. Her main argument is simple, yet profound: In preaching, “Jesus stands among us.” Neal “affirms the seemingly impossible promise that by the Spirit’s power, Jesus is in the room when preachers preach the Word.” For Neal, this is not just the memory of Jesus, but the embodied risen Lord. Because Jesus stands among us, the preacher is set free to be fully human and exactly who God created them to be.

Neal uses the story of Mary in Luke to imagine a new metaphor for understanding the labor of preaching. Just as Mary was overshadowed by the Spirt and then conceived, bore, and named the Word of God, the preacher does something similar in the labor of bearing the sermon. Neal is quick to warn, though, that Mary is only a metaphor. Metaphors for preaching and using Mary as a model both have a long history of harm and exclusion. Neal knows that her work can be dangerous. Yet, she walks that tightrope with grace, developing an inclusive metaphor that allows Mary to be Mary, Jesus to be Jesus, and the preacher to be oneself.

To develop her metaphor, Neal relies most heavily on scriptural accounts of preaching in Acts and protestant sacramental theology, especially John Calvin’s. She brings to light the similarities between preachers in Acts, Calvin’s eucharistic theology, and Mary’s labor. In each of these, Jesus is really present through the power of the Spirit. In Acts, the preachers make clear that Christ himself is active in the world, even though he has ascended. Likewise, Calvin insisted that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. Finally, the Spirit initiates Mary’s labor, and she bears the incarnation of God’s Word. In all of these, Mary, the preachers, the partakers, and Jesus all remain who they are. Identities and bodies do not jumble together or fade away. The same is true for today’s preachers. They remain who they are, neither fading into the background nor conflating their identity with Christ’s. This is what separates Neal’s metaphor from the rest of the homiletical canon.

This book is intended for the experienced preacher; Neal’s nuanced arguments require that the reader has already taken an introduction to preaching class. Nonetheless, her whole point is simple and the good news of Easter: Jesus is with us. Throughout I found myself wondering what ministry would look like if we believed those words. What if Jesus is there when two or three are gathered? Or as the pastor gives a sermon on Sunday morning? Or as we take communion? What would it look like if we really believed Jesus’ promise to show up?

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Rev. Keith Curl-Dove pastors New Creation Community Presbyterian Church and Faith Presbyterian Church, both in Greensboro, North Carolina.