Preaching from Year A, November 2020 to January 2021
OFF THE PEG
There are insights to be gained from published sermons that can provide material for the tailoring of a good sermon. However, it is important that these should not be treated as ‘off the peg’ sermons. Saint Antony of Padua (1195-1231), mainly known for his help in the Lost Property Department, was, more importantly, a great preacher with serious things to say about preaching. Aware of the need to ‘preach not ourselves but Christ crucified’ (2 Corinthians 4:5), he observed that since ‘the apostles spoke as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech, happy the man whose words issue from the Holy Spirit and not from himself! For some speak as their own character dictates but steal the words of others and present them as their own and claim the credit for them.’
Such wisdom should serve as a warning both to preachers who preach on their own hobby horses as well as to those who borrow ‘off the peg’ sermons taking little account of concerns of a specific congregation.
PREACHING TO A WORLD IN CRISIS
Congregation are, of course, diverse, but worldwide crises provide universal concern. Such are the Covid 19 pandemic and the eruption of protest following the callous murder of George Floyd in May of this year. As African-American priest, Maurice J Nutt observes ‘We are in a crisis. Besides contending with the debilitating COVID 19 pandemic, the world is also faced with the insidious plight of racism.’
Seeking connections, Meg Warner reminds us that ‘some scholars today would argue that much, if not most, of the biblical material was written in the immediate aftermath of major disasters, which seem to have functioned as catalysts for the production of Scripture, and that the Bible offers ‘robust resources for preaching in the context of disasters, including pandemics.’
JOINING THE DOTS
This is, however, no easy task. As Kate Bruce asks, ‘how to join the dots between the theological statement that Jesus Christ – in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension – is the answer to all the world’s pain and sorrow – and the stark reality of that pain and sorrow – images of patients on ventilators, stories of people dying alone, and so on – and that is to say nothing of the hungry, the dispossessed and displaced.’ Dominic Robinson too, reflects that ‘we must begin to ask the question ‘where is God in all this?’ And while preaching on livestream, listening ‘not just to the unknown flock in their individual diversity but to the prevailing mood, to what the media throws up … to occasionally hear the call to be prophetic, that is to tell the truth where it is lacking.’
PROPHETIC TRUTH TELLING
Among several examples of sermons in this issue offering prophetic truth telling, I have selected three. First, Sue Masters preaching on the Parable of the Ten Virgins, (8 November) asks, ‘Where was the wedding planner when this event happened?’ and moves deftly to wedding celebrations that ‘have been curtailed in the restrictions of the 2020 pandemic; the wedding planners furloughed … and preparation mothballed for a time. As weddings return, preparation will be central to the smooth running and success of this special moment that heralds a new future.’ In the long waiting during Covid she asks ‘How have we used that waiting time? Has it been a time of preparation, of hope? And concludes that the ‘here and now of faith and discipleship is important to us and to our communities; and is our focus now, and for the future … As we look in faith to the future, we look with a hope rooted in the present.’
My second example is Kathryn Fleming’s sermon for Christ the King (22 November). In the long weeks of the lockdown she admits to being consoled by the message of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that ‘It’ll all be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.’ In the face of debates over the leadership offered by the government during the pandemic, she observes that such ‘questions were as familiar to Ezekiel as they are to contemporary journalists. Here, too, is a nation in crisis, a nation whose leadership leaves much to be desired.’ Turning then to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats: ‘here, as in the days of Ezekiel, it’s not a question of who you are but how you live. … If we want to serve Jesus, we do so in loving service to the marginalised, the outcast, the overlooked. Not duty, but love. In the end, it’s quite simple, really. As Augustine wrote: “Life is for love. Time is only that we may find God.”’
My third example of prophetic engagement is Mary Cotes Advent Sunday sermon (29 November), in which she sees the crises as ‘a sudden wake-up call’ so that the lockdown ‘has brought our abuse of the environment into clearer focus, while the murder of a black man in police custody has shone a searing light on the scandalous ways many of us sit comfortably with both our slave-trading past and our racist present. At such moments, we can have the impression of being pushed to the edge of events, longing for something new to break in. An Advent cry rises up inside us: We don’t want just more of the same! There’s got to be a different way! “O come, O come, Emmanuel!”’
Amen to that!
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