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Preaching tragedy

PreachingI want to pose a question. This question has to do with the sermons of the church. While all are invited and encouraged to respond, I am most interested in hearing from those in the pews. Preachers have many wonderful things to say regarding the theology and practice of preaching; however, sometimes we preachers forget that those in the pews do not hear our sermons from the standpoint of our textbooks. Thus, I would like to hear from those who listen to our sermons and, in their raw in-the-moment hearing, judge whether or not it spoke into their lives.

Question:  Is there value in sermons that focus on the current tragedies in the world?

So what formed this question? Well . . . turn on the news. Tragedy has happened yet again. It seems like week after week we add another location to the ever growing list of places touched by horror: Baton Rouge, Nice, Dallas, Orlando. . . .  Our news agencies flood the airways with ‘up-to-date’ reports and ‘exclusive stories’ surrounding these events; we hear about these things again and again and again.

Because the reporting of such events become so prominent, one of the things that happens in preaching circles is that there becomes a flurry of activity regarding how one should ‘preach the tragedy’. On-line clergy forums become filled with preachers stating they are throwing out their previously prepared sermons in order to address the latest event. After the killing in Dallas, for example, one person posted they were ditching their sermon in order to ‘read the names of the slain’. It has become a predictable cycle. It happens time after time as we move from tragedy to tragedy – and it seems it is happening every single week.

I have to be honest, I find this notion that a preacher will throw out their previously prepared sermon in order to address the latest tragic event a little unsettling. I feel this way for several reasons.

Firstly, if we as preachers are honestly attempting to pray our sermons into existence — to prepare the message that God would have us give to our local congregations — should we not then believe that in that inspiration? Are we saying that the sermon we would have given (if we didn’t watch the news that week) was not actually inspired by God? It seems that there is a deep theological tension here that I don’t really know what to do with.

Secondly, I question if the sermon is the best place to address such things. For example, McCausland’s Order of Divine Service advises that Remembrance Day be observed through the hymns and the intercessions of the church,  and not in the liturgy of the word. When November 11th comes around, the readings maintain the cycle of our calendar and the themes of peace, justice, and war are appropriately addressed via prayer and singing. A preacher ought not to shove themes into texts that may not have room for them. I wonder if this same principle should govern our preaching after times of tragedy. Should we not be addressing these matters via prayer instead of preaching? Should we not be changing the hymns instead of changing the sermon?

Thirdly, I feel we should recognise that the media popularises one event over another. Media strives for ratings and thus will speak and report on what will grab people’s attention. We all know the adage: If it bleeds it leads! On June 16th, for example, there was a violent stabbing in a Calgary medical clinic. This occurred between the events of Orlando and Dallas. Here’s the question, how many preachers mentioned it in the sermon? Was this a lesser tragedy than others? Or if we think globally, what about the massacre in Tel Aviv just one week prior to Orlando? Was that sermonised? Or did the preacher mention the 147,000 people who died of hunger in the days leading up to Sunday? Surely this is large enough to warrant attention. Why do we comment on one tragedy and not another? Is it because one is closer to home? Is it because one fits better into our predetermined sermon points? Is it because we identify with some victims rather than others?

My point is that we never really preach on the latest tragedy. What we are doing is speaking about that which is most popular, that which fits best within a culture of fear that likes to divide people into ‘Us’ and ‘Them.’ I fear that as we focus our sermon on these events we are, in some way, reinforcing a vision of life that keeps us locked in a cycle of violence. Should we not be focusing the sermon on Jesus’ vision for our lives, rather than all the ways we are getting it wrong? Shouldn’t our time at church be a sanctuary away from the violence that we hear so much about, as we come to be renewed in Christ’s spirit of life, grace, and peace?

Lastly, and this is really what prompted the question, aren’t our congregations getting tired of the same message? Is the preaching life in the church becoming just an endless move from sermonising one tragedy after another? We ‘finish’ speaking about Orlando and are immediately into sermons on Dallas; after Dallas it’s either the killing in Nice or the assault in Baton Rouge; I wonder what event will pepper our sermons next week.

Is this manner of preaching actually helpful to people in the pews? Is it inspiring? Does it help our churches grow in the knowledge and experience of Jesus Chris our Lord? Does it help us uncover the reality of Christ’s kingdom in which we are called to live?

I’m not advocating that we keep our head in the sand. I know acknowledging what happens in the world is important for our life as the church. We, as a church, need to use our voices to pray for justice, uphold victims, and lament the brokenness of the world. I’m just wondering if the habit of reducing the horrors of life to a 13 minute sermon soundbite is actually the best way for the church to do this.

I offer no solutions; like I said at the top, this is merely a question I have, that I would like some discussion on.

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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5 Responses to Preaching tragedy

  1. Hi Kyle: I agree, but it is good to use these events to remind people what is going on in the world and our own communities to get people thinking about how close or that we are in the end times. Use these horrible things that are going on in the world are a reminder to get people praying and really looking into their own heart’s relationship with God. When preachers just preach on the bad things that have happened ,the question is ,who gets the recognition God or Satan.

  2. Kyle, I think the factor you have failed to consider is context. If you live in the country where the events have occurred, if people in your congregation are impacted directly or even secondarily, I wonder if it’s not a pastoral failure to ignore traumatic losses? For instance, about five years ago the small community I served suffered three terrible losses in one weekend: a well-liked college student died in a car accident near the church where she grew up, a beloved family physician crashed his private plane, and the patriarch of a large extended family flew his glider into a tree, then fell from the tree in front of several of his young grandchildren. The latter family had a relationship with my church, and every other individual or family in the church knew either the doctor or the student or both. All three funeral services were held at the same time on the Friday afternoon of that week, one conducted by me at a graveside where the granddaughter threw herself weeping on the casket. Thanks be to God the Spirit intervened with my original preaching intentions. I sat down on Saturday and crafted a different sermon, just as prayerfully. I’m not sure why you think the Spirit would be limited only to the words you have discerned on a certain day of the week.

    • Kyle Norman

      Hi Martha, Thanks for your comments. I think you actually gave voice to one of things that prompted my original question. I sometimes wonder if preachers are actually forsaking their local contexts in order to address the ‘big’ and ‘popular’ items that the news is reporting. Are we forgetting the issues that our local congregations are facing when we focus and entire sermon on whatever has hit the news that week. As I said, this was really a question I was posing rather than a point that I was trying to make.

      Regarding your point about the inspiration regarding preaching, of course I believe the spirit inspires at all times. It is interesting that you ask ‘why do you think the Spirit would be limited to only the words you have discerned on a certain day of the week.’ I find it interesting because that is the same argument I use when preachers state that they ‘have’ to write their sermon on saturday night (or sunday morning) because writing the sermon before hand somehow denies true inspiration. Inspiration comes when the Spirit wishes – and I myself have revamped sermons at last minute due to the Spirit’s promptings. I would, however, question a preacher who continually changes the sermon last minute based on what they have heard or seen on the news. Like I mentioned, I fear there is a theological tension here that I have not quite figured out.

  3. I don’t think I can remember a time when news cycle tragedies have been the central focus of preaching in my home parish, though I do recall them being off-handedly mentioned on occasion when they tied into the theme of the readings that week. More often, I find the appropriate place to reference those tragedies is in the prayers of the people. Those prayers are meant to reflect the broader concerns of God’s children and not just the particular parish, so it seems appropriate to consider what issues are being raised in the public consciousness and pray for them there.

    When a tragedy is preached on specifically, my main concern tends to tie in with your third point: shouldn’t we know how to respond? I am reminded of the images of Alan Kurdi that captivated the world headlines for a few days last year. There was, I seem to recall, some discussion on the Community on how to respond to that, since so many people seemed to want to hear a response. My question would be why, as Christians and followers of Christ, we do not already know how to respond.

    Surely if God’s “pure word” is faithfully preached Sunday to Sunday, we should all have some basic understandings of God’s character and be able to apply the broader principles we have been taught to the specific circumstances of tragedy. Did we really need sermons to tell us to treat refugees well? Do we need sermons to tell us to condemn violence of all kinds as we respond in truth and love to the causes of violence? Do we need a sermon to encourage us to pray for others? Finally, is the sermon the most appropriate place to tell us practical ways in which we can help (for instance in the recent Fort Mac fires/evacuations in which many people sough to provide material assistance in addition to prayer)?

    There are appropriate places to refer to tragedy in our liturgy (announcements, prayers of the people, etc) but I find that the sermon is one of the most inappropriate places unless the topical nature of it happens to very specifically line up with the themes of the readings that week, and can be referred to as an example, while still keeping the focus of the teaching on the Scriptures themselves rather than the tragedy.

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