“It’s a Homegoing, Not a Funeral” – The Sermonic Selection and Transcendent Possibility
In Black church traditions, the climactic preaching moment is frequently preceded by gospel musical selections that invite a shift in affective disposition and congregational receptivity to the anticipated word. Such selections, known as sermonic selections, often serve to heighten emotional sensitivity and prepare the hearts and minds of listeners for ready communication. In the preface to his text Healing for the Soul, Braxton Shelley argues that gospel music accrues a spiritual force through the reiterative intensity of the musical cycle known as the vamp. The vamp, he asserts “organizes expressive activity around a moment of transcendence” (vii-viii). I assert that the telos of this transcendent possibility is profoundly influenced by the specificity of the liturgical context. Following this, I want to argue for the therapeutic functions of the vamp in the context of funeral rites, utilizing recorded examples as case studies of this experience. This paper will explore the function of the common black church liturgical feature, the sermonic selection, in the context of funeral rites, arguing for its utility as a facilitator of spiritual transcendence and collective healing. The liturgical construction of black church funeral services presents an apparatus for holding together the contradictions of death as both a severance of natural life and a liberating return to the sacred cosmos. The rhetorical framing of funerals as homegoings and celebrations of life reflects a sense of that complexity. As well, funerals in the black church traditions frequently serve as de facto reunions, as sites of remembrance and re-membering of familial ties. In this way, the funeral liturgy becomes a locus for healing reconnection. Thus, I assert that when employed as an aspect of the funeral liturgy, the sermonic selection operates as a therapeutic musical assembly of language, gesture, and sonic material.
Kyle Brooks, Ph.D., a native of Detroit, MI, is assistant professor of homiletics, worship, and Black church & African diaspora studies at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. He completed his B.A., M.A., and M.Div. degrees at Yale University, and he completed his Ph.D. in Religion at Vanderbilt University. His upcoming book project develops a philosophical framework and typology of the popular cultural tendency towards sacralizing black male clerical leadership in historical and contemporary black sociopolitical movements. His research interests include black religious cultures, public theology, religious dimensions of political culture, black ritual & performance studies, and the intersections of religion, rhetoric, & communication. His work has been published in various print and digital venues, including the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, Fire! The Multimedia Journal for Black Studies, and the Political Theology Network.