Preaching in a Crisis
God of Surprises was a famous book when I was in formation. Its author, Gerry W Hughes, instilled in so many who read it the need always to be ready for what God was saying through the most unusual of circumstances. Finding God ‘in the facts’ was an accompanying mantra. A key role for the preacher is to help those listening to uncover for themselves where God is as well as where it may be hard to encounter God. During the COVID crisis this has been especially difficult for me for a number of reasons.
Firstly, I have been preaching to an unknown congregation. My parish is a gathered community in the centre of London where regulars brush shoulders with many visitors, so this is a challenge anyway. But during this crisis three times the number of our usual congregation have been tuning in. Who are they? Some write in afterwards but the vast majority I will never meet. Secondly, speaking into a camera is not what preaching is about nor what liturgy is either. It is unavoidably artificial and cannot replace our assembling together to hear the Word and to gather around the altar in person. One mark of the Church – ‘ekklesia’ in Greek – is how it is a gathered assembly. It can never be a group of individuals joining remotely from home.
FACING THE PARADOXES
Yet, despite the insurmountable, preaching in this crisis has inspired us to try even harder than usual to hit the spot, to touch the hearts of God’s people living it out, the devoted and the searchers, those who are suffering and those who are not. A danger might be to jump to too many conclusions about what line to take. Rather than aim to analyse this crisis as teaching us particular truths the challenge for me has been to try to listen to the dissonant voices. The preacher who is a pastor surely needs not just to ‘smell the sheep’ as Pope Francis puts it but to try to listen to their voice. In a crisis such as this it is at one and the same time more difficult and all the more important to try to hear those voices.
In preparing my homilies I have found listening leads me above all to paradox. It doesn’t lead me to any apocalyptic certainty about what this plague might be teaching us nor to any words of scripture which might give comfort. However, I do uncover paradoxical themes which can be thrown out as seeds to the unknown and diverse groups who might be listening to what I am saying. And these themes need to be named and offered up as ‘the facts,’ whether I find God in them or I do not, at least right now. So what have I heard?
HEARING AND CONNECTING
I have heard how so many have suffered so much. There is a huge amount of trauma out there. We will I’m sure hear more of this as in our parishes we meet people again over the coming weeks. It has been a fearful time. I’ve heard testimonies of loneliness, of troubled home situations, and have heard of a few stories of sickness, bereavement, recovery. There is the whole gamut of human emotions there to name. The virus has stricken us physically and also mentally, emotionally, spiritually. That all needs to be named, perhaps retelling someone’s story or conversation anonymously. And for the preacher we must begin to ask the question where is God in all this? We cannot answer the question but the scripture for that day might connect and we can draw attention to how Jesus touched the hearts of those in his flock who reached out to him in crisis. We can play with the words of the prophets who tell the truth in the midst of uncertainty as Israel is in her crisis again and again. We can perhaps present Paul grappling to be strong through his weakest points and Peter trying to understand the incomprehensible about the crisis of being in the Jesus movement when it seems a lost cause.
During this crisis I have found that there is another level of listening. Not just to the unknown flock in their individual diversity but to the prevailing mood, to what the media throws up, and to occasionally hear the call to be prophetic, that is to tell the truth where it is lacking. Here I have encountered another paradox. Some people have pointed out how COVID is a ‘leveller’: anyone is prone to it, be you a prime minister or one of our homeless guests. And yet the paradox is that inequality and injustice has been more pronounced. The homeless became the only people left on our desolate streets. Those suffering domestic abuse had nowhere to hide. And yet good people in our parish came together with others to put themselves on the line to address the situation. As many felt starved of the Eucharist many also lived the Eucharist out. As preachers we have an obligation to speak the truth when it is abundantly clear. In a world often driven by fake news we have a responsibility to do this all the more.
So how can we preach the Word of God in a crisis such as COVID? As we enter a new phase of what Pope Francis is calling ‘not an era of change but change of an era’ I think we are just starting to reflect on that but I am sure it will nourish our preaching. Above all as a pastor I expect to be listening to the stories many have to tell of this strange time for some time to come. I hope above all we can as preachers learn from this experience ourselves and so be ready to welcome those many more who reach out in these troubled times to a community of faith which strives to live out the Word and the Eucharist.
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