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Preaching in Tough Times

The weekend of September 14-16, 2001, I was slated to be in Chicago for a seminar. However, like most previously planned events that weekend, the seminar never happened. With the horror of 9/11 that week, the airlines were still grounded and most people’s schedules were in tatters.

And so on Sunday, September 16, 2001, my colleague at Calvin CRC in Grand Rapids preached as he had been scheduled to do in what was anticipated to be my absence. He changed his preaching plans, of course, opting to preach on Psalm 46 (as did so many pastors that grim Sunday after the Twin Towers fell, as it were, “into the heart of the sea”). He did a great job preaching that day.

But as the minister of preaching in my congregation at the time, I confess that I hankered to be in the pulpit myself after that fateful week. It just felt like I needed to preach to the people in my flock who were as stunned and, frankly, as bewildered as I was. Of course, I did preach the following week when people’s sense of disbelief had hardly abated. I chose Psalm 10 for that day and its cries for mercy amidst evil people with evil schemes. The psalm’s final line seemed particularly apt as the psalmist cries for God’s care and intervention “so that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.”

Seasons of great distress are probably at once the hardest times to preach and yet the most pastorally acute times for preachers to bring God’s Word to bear on the terrors and disappointments of the world. As William Willimon wrote in the introduction to the book The Sunday after Tuesday (a collection of sermons preached on September 16, 2001), “More than one fellow preacher told me that, after a lifetime spent complaining that no one listens to preachers, it was truly terrifying to be thrust into a moment when everyone wanted to hear a sermon” (Abingdon 2002, p. 14).

Seasons of great distress are probably at once the hardest times to preach and yet the most pastorally acute times for preachers to bring God’s Word to bear on the terrors and disappointments of the world.

Times of acute crisis make people lean in to hear God’s Word in a way that may not happen when times are good. That’s why most preachers I know agree that they’d rather do funerals than weddings: no one hungers for God’s Word while the bride blushes and the groom sweats. At funerals, on the other hand. . . .

To paraphrase something C. S. Lewis wrote (in a line I have often heard quoted by my colleague Neal Plantinga), in times of crisis everyone senses that human life exists on the precipice of a cliff. In good times only the truly wise know that this is true. Yet right here is a truth we preachers do well to bear in mind when called upon to present God’s Word to people in extremis: if we are truly wise preachers, then what we need to say on the Sunday after Sandy Hook or the Sunday after Paris and San Bernardino ought not to be all that different from what we say on any given week.

In the Reformed tradition we used to hear the line that “every Sunday is a little Easter.” I’ve even had that line flung at me by those who dislike emphasizing liturgical seasons like Lent or Advent or Epiphany. But it’s not a zero sum choice: every Sunday can be a little Easter even during Advent or Lent. It’s also true that worship at its best—as my colleague John Witvliet teaches seminary students—is supposed to be a recapitulation, a rehearsal, of the whole sweep of salvation history. Every Sunday we should get a sense of the drama that is Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.

Thus if it is true that every Sunday celebrates the resurrection and every Sunday reminds us of the scope of God’s redemptive-historical work, then every Sunday the sermon should at heart proclaim the Good News. Every week sermons need to encounter real-life troubles and hardships as a way to signal to the congregation that the preacher “gets it,” the preacher is in touch with what is breaking people’s hearts. This depiction of trouble then becomes the door through which the joy and hope of gospel grace enters as the sermon displays how God engages our lives with his Spirit and with resurrection hope.

Preachers who do this every week tone their muscles for gospel proclamation. For such preachers, pointing to the active presence of God among God’s people is routine, a habit, a move so well engrained it looks like watching LeBron James making a layup: it appears almost effortless (but that’s only because he’s practiced it 10,000 times).

True, there is one big difference when it comes to preaching during times of crisis. Especially if the crisis cuts close to home in that it involves a member of the congregation—or if the crisis is a congregation at war with itself—then the preacher needs to negotiate her own emotional reaction to it all. It is one thing to engage with people’s troubled lives on an average Sunday, but quite another when the trouble in question is that there are three people missing from worship now because they died in a terrible plane crash last week. Preachers fight hard not to be overwhelmed.

But I wonder if our struggles with knowing how to preach well during times of stress and crisis are partly reflective of some other trends in preaching these days. Because it seems in many places that the kind of routine—yet always full-throated and joyful—proclamation of the gospel I just referred to is not a hallmark of some preachers (at least not routinely). Instead, some of us have been wooed by those preachers who believe that every sermon now needs a gimmick and a prop. Sermons, they say, need something tangible—a stone, a pencil, a small potted plant—that people can take home with them. And sermons need to be “practical” in the sense of dispensing good advice on child-rearing, business success, marital bliss, finances. And so preachers expend large amounts of time every week trying to think of next week’s prop, next week’s take-home object, next week’s dramatic PowerPoint slides to accompany the sermon’s practical advice on more successful and purpose-driven living.

When this is the staple in preaching, it’s small wonder that preachers can feel knocked sideways with peculiar force after a traumatic incident on the international, national, local, or even congregational stage. These kinds of incidents require sermons to be brought back to the basics of pastoral comfort, resurrection hope, and the plucky faith of the psalmists that looks for God’s active presence even in the darkest moments of life. Sermons in tough times need to wrestle with the big questions that resist sloganeering answers and bumper sticker simplicities.

True, not every sermon should be some titanic wrestling with life’s greatest puzzles and theological conundrums. But when sermons regularly engage the depths of Scripture in order to proclaim Good News rather than dispense Good Advice, preachers and congregations will be better poised to rehearse and reinforce that gospel message in those times when fear and terror and sadness make all of our usual support structures creak and groan under the strain of life’s bad times.

In the book The Sunday after Tuesday, Stanley Hauerwas wrote an afterword that began, “September 11, 2001, is not the day that changed our world. The world, the cosmos, what we call history was changed in A.D. 33. Preaching after September 11, 2001, requires that what happened on September 11, 2001, be narrated in the light of the cross and resurrection” (p. 193).

That’s right. But it’s also right that narrating the whole of our lives in light of the gospel is something that needs to happen every week in worship, not just after the roof has been blown off over our collective heads.

This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/.