By Maria Dixon Hall, Special Contributor…
Editor’s note: The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, delivered the sermon at the Jan. 22 National Prayer Service at Washington National Cathedral, a post-inaugural event attended by President Obama and Vice President Biden and their spouses. Maria Dixon Hall, associate professor of organizational communication in the division of communication studies at Southern Methodist University, offers this analysis of Mr. Hamilton’s address.
Let me be clear: this was not Adam Hamilton’s best sermon. The opening was disjointed and a cornucopia of scripture recitations that even made this former Baptist wince. The joke about why people go into politics was stale and, though heartfelt, his divinely inspired “thanks” was a little cheesy. Add to that a ﬁrst point that was either underdeveloped or overdeveloped–the rhetorical jury is still out on that one — as I sat in my ofﬁce watching the sermon live, I began to worry that one considered by many to be the United Methodist Church’s shining hope may have begun to dim under the pressure of the lights of the national stage.
But — and this is a huge BUT — the sermon offered by Adam Hamilton was perhaps one of the best articulations of a Wesleyan worldview ever presented on the national stage. Transitioning from his point on character, Hamilton’s beautifully crafted second point on the power of common vision will long be remembered for its call to a national recommitment to ﬁnd a tie that binds us in service to those in need and too each other.
Here Mr. Hamilton’s cheesy opening begins to shine as wonderful rhetorical technique—for here one begins to understand his goal. This sermon is a personal conversation between the preacher and the president, not a sermon for the nation. You and I were just witnesses to a conversation that Barack and Adam were having on a Tuesday morning.
While the rhetorical device of personal address is rare in most Methodist sermons, Mr. Hamilton uses it brilliantly to persuade Mr. Obama that his central goal of this term is to create the strings of a collective vision that “unites us and calls us to realize the full potential of this country, to be a shining city upon a hill.” In a line that pokes Mr. Obama directly, Mr. Hamilton laments that in a country in which “vision casting often feels like mere political rhetoric,” we are all longing for a common vision that is neither Democratic nor Republican, one that Americans on both sides of the aisle can say, “That’s where we need to go!”
Mr. Hamilton then turns to show the President (and those of us listening in) an example of true ‘vision casting’ using a church grounded in Wesley’s vision of the parish as exemplar. Explaining that though his congregation was made of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, Mr. Hamilton described how the Church of the Resurrection united around a simple goal: to address the circumstances that hinder the learning of the more than 2,000 children in poverty in Kansas City. Mr. Hamilton masterfully enumerated the children whose lives were changed when a unifying vision was present—1,400 weekend backpacks of food prepared, playgrounds built at six schools, 300 beds and pajamas provided–all that went to make childhood learning easier. While the list of accomplishments of his mega congregation are noteworthy and were surely noticed by Mr. Obama, Mr. Hamilton’s compelling mission report also acted as a clarion call to the thousands of local churches that had, like the country, lost their vision to make the kingdom of God present in their cities. With each tick of the tasks the Kansas City congregation accomplished, Mr. Hamilton offered to skeptics a moment to rethink their critique that the local church can’t make a difference in the lives of the truly marginalized. Mr. Hamilton’s example also made it clear that, at least on a local level, United Methodists are still a people committed to John Wesley’s vision of a people of God who are active in the lives of the people who are most in need, no matter how dysfunctional the larger organization may be.
Finally, Mr. Hamilton reminded all present that the Inauguration’s theme of “Faith in the Future of America” could only be fulﬁlled if we were girded by a faith in the Divine. For, he reminds his audience, that it is only through a faith in God that we are compelled to a compassion for those who would otherwise go unnoticed and a willingness to engage in a vision that calls for us to sacriﬁce self-interest for social justice – another plug for traditional Wesleyan values.
Adam Hamilton’s 17 minutes offered the President and the country what we need most. Not soaring rhetoric. Not sophistic gymnastics. Not archaic theological points. What Adam Hamilton offered us was a glimpse of what is possible when a diverse people come together in a vision woven by God–changed lives. He offered something that the United Methodist Church collective has not done in a very long time and must do more often – a clear articulation of what it means to live out Wesley’s theology in today’s world.