How do we preach in the face of a tragic event?
On Wednesday night, June 17, when the horrific shootings took place at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, preachers had to once again wrestle with how to address such pain and injustice as their prepared to preach the following Sunday.
We’ve read dozens of sermons from the Sunday, June 21st and admire the different paths preachers took to address this horrible event with their congregations in the context of worship. Most preachers seemed to stick with their original planned text for preaching. For many, that was one of two lectionary texts for the day - either the David and Goliath story in 1 Samuel 17 or the account of Jesus stilling the storm in Mark 4. (The Psalm for the day was Psalm 133 that begins: “How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”)
It was evident to us that the question for most preachers was not “do I include Charleston in my sermon?” but how to do it.
Do I begin the whole sermon by naming Charleston?
Or wait until later on?
If I wait, will the people sitting in the pews be wondering whether or not I’m going to name the pain in the world this day and be distracted until I do?
If I begin with Charleston, am I exhausting people who have already been saturated by the story?
How much background do I give since the media had already given so much?
Do I assume everyone has been well informed?
We were also impressed that preachers took great care to both speak with authority and hope but also not presume to not totally understand the individual and corporate grief going on with the people directly related to this tragedy. “I cannot imagine it” was a familiar, honest refrain in these sermons.
Mamie Broadhurst, titled her sermon that morning “Wednesday Night” and then first addressed Mark’s storm text for about a third of the sermon before turning to Charleston. She did so by talking about her Louisville church’s activity that Wednesday evening, before continuing “At that exact same time, a small group of people were gathered to study the Bible in Charleston, SC…”
Amy Miracle’s sermon began “I rewrote much of this sermon yesterday morning. I realized I couldn’t think of anything other than what happened in Charleston and I’m betting that you too have had trouble moving on to other news items.” She continues with her original intention of preaching on David and Goliath, but first shares two lament Psalms – Psalms 42 and 88 – before turning her attention to 1 Samuel 17.
The Advent 2015 issue of Journal for Preachers includes a sermon by Frank Honeycutt of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Walhalla, South Carolina that uses the Mark 4 storm text and addresses the shootings in his first sentence and leads us to reflect on the question of “Why?
Caught up in that “why” question is the over 60 mass shootings in this country since 1982 and the racial motivation of these murders.
God’s Covenant with David – and the key word “Forever” - in 2 Samuel 7 was Ben Dorr’s sermon for the Sunday after Charleston. After making a first point about God’s faithfulness, he then turns to Charleston and racism—“I believe Christians must do everything in our power to make sure that racism does not continue in this country forever…”
Weeks of reflection can bring renewed wisdom to this topic. For Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s opening worship in September, its President, Ted Wardlaw, preached on a portion of the Isaac narrative (Genesis 26:17-25) in his sermon “Reaching Rehoboth.” He uses the themes of the text—famine, real estate tension, water rights disputes, and monuments to slavery and memorials to the victims of the Charleston killings—to broaden and deepen the discussion about Mother Emmanuel Church, the tragedy there, the legacy of slavery, and, most importantly, that Rehoboth is “that broad place where we remember that the Lord has made room for us, all of us; that place where our different memories of the same real estate are redeemed by a deeper memory still.”
Unfortunately, we know all too well that there have been many challenges to preachers following tragic events – Columbine, September 11th, Ferguson – and sadly, many more. While not specifically addressing one of these issues, the Journal for Preachers has, in recent issues, shared models of faithful response to tragedy, including Erin Keys’ recent sermon on the abuse of women worldwide from the Lent, 2015 issue the Easter, 2104 pairing of a sermon and reflection by Walter Brueggemann and Leigh Knauert on the suicide of Peter Knauert (a teenager).
NEXT MONTH…we’d like to focus on Christmas sermons (as opposed to Advent sermons). Let’s be honest, since so many preachers take vacation after Christmas Eve, there aren’t as many Christmas sermons out there as we may think. Do you have one you could share with us?
Please send ideas, responses, sermons to Kristy Farber and Mark Ramsey at JPBlogResponse@gmail.com. Thank you!
Kristy Farber and Mark Ramsey, both PCUSA pastors, worked together at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC. Kristy is now Acting Head of Staff at Grace Covenant. Mark is Pastor of Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.
This blog seeks to share both sermons and approaches to sermons around events, seasons of the church year, and other occasions. We want to gather both ideas for this blog and sermons from preachers—if you’d like to contribute your sermons, please be in touch with us. We will also be using the wonderfully deep and expansive archives of Journal for Preachers to contribute to this exploration.
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