Preaching from Year B, February to April 2021
Preaching in a time of uncertainty
At the time of writing nobody knows if the pandemic will be over by February, or even if we will have to have another Easter in lockdown, with the proclamation of the Resurrection solemnly proclaimed in empty, or half empty churches, and then livestreamed into the homes of dispersed congregations. Or, if the churches have reopened, how many of the congregation will have lost the churchgoing habit and not be coming back?
So, what wisdom can the preacher share that will speak to the uncertainty of our present situation?
To answer this question, I was recently helped in hearing a reflection offered by Paul McAleenan, an auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Westminster. He took inspiration from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si in which the Pope speaks about saving the planet for future generations, offering three great principles that are needed if we are to ‘care for our common home’. These principles are that ‘everything is gift’, that ‘everything is fragile’ and that ‘everything is connected and interdependent.’ Taking these three principles, Bishop Paul applied them to how we can respond to the pandemic. Clearly, these principles can also enrich the message of the preacher, struggling to find connections between the Living Word and the uncertainly of our situation.
EVERYTHING IS GIFT
In his article ‘Changing Shapes: Pandemic Possibilities’, Christopher Burkett speaks of a gift beyond time, urging an eternal focus, ‘framed in hope by God’s purpose’ so that ‘alongside preaching that gives shape to time, we must also shape our sermons to bring reassurance that is beyond time.’
As Rosemary Wakelin tells us, ‘last year’s pandemic thrust the Church out of buildings and comfort zones. New ways have emerged. We are out in the marketplace with power-mongers, fake news, commerce. But the message is the same; the Kingdom for which we are made is not built on the love of power but on the Power of Love.’ (Sunday 28 February Lent 2, ‘It’s going to be tough!’)
EVERYTHING IS FRAGILE
But, however powerful the message of the gift and the power of God’s love, it is indeed a tough message, preached in a fragile and catastrophic universe. Dominic Robinson in his article ‘Preaching in a Crisis’ speaks movingly of ‘how so many have suffered so much. There is a huge amount of trauma out there.’ And Christopher Burkett reminds us that the suffering discriminates between rich and poor, and that ‘the pandemic follows the pattern of economic, social, and ethnic inequalities. And it is likely that the aftermath of the pandemic will worsen inequalities.’
This insight is underlined by Graviour Augustine’s article (‘Faith on the Anvil: Covid-19 Challenges for the Preacher in Northeast India’), offering a moving portrait of the extreme circumstances in India, where ‘reports state that human migration witnessed by India in March-April 2020 far exceeded the human migration of some 10 million that followed the independence of India in 1947 which, until now, was reckoned to be the largest mass migration in human history.’
Confronted by so much darkness and uncertainty, we might echo Anna Drew, ‘if we’re honest, there are sometimes when God’s goodness can feel less in evidence than at others – not absent per se, but maybe a little less in focus – obscured, blurred by circumstances, experience or trauma.’ But later in her sermon, she reminds us that ‘we are called to fruitfulness. In between blessings, God will remember his covenant – and he calls us to do the same’ (21 February, ‘Between Blessings’).
EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED AND INTERDEPENDENT
This call to recognise and to celebrate also makes us aware in a new way of our connectedness and interdependence with others. As Father Graviour reports from his Indian context, ‘Covid-19 has brought to the surface of the world the fact that it does have good Samaritans who care about their neighbours.’ As Catherine Williams reminds us, ‘worshipping, meeting, being community and serving others are being re-shaped in response to lockdown and physical distancing.’ (Sunday 7 February, ‘Christ before all things’). So too, Rob Esdaile says that this is a time to realise that ‘being Church means discovering with Paul the joy of sharing his (Christ’s) message, recognising the presence of the Lord not only when we step aside to pray but also when we pitch in to make a difference’ (Sunday 7 February, ‘An Unsettling Messiah for Unsettled Times’).
Jo Bird recalls making a difference in the celebration of interconnectedness, when the weekly clapping ritual made us ‘aware of our need for each other, acknowledging those who work for us, from nurses and doctors to shop-keepers, street cleaners, window cleaners’, when everyone ‘began to show their gratitude for how people were working for others. The sound of clapping filled towns and villages, from country to country. A united thanks seemed to fill the earth. This was no casual expression, no light-hearted gesture. I am sure that this was an expression of a response to all the prayers, all the invocations expressed in churches and temples, in fields and in homes, a calling out to a God who saves’ (14 March, ‘You are God’s work of art’).
This same truth is expressed most eloquently by Catherine Okoronkwo preaching on John 12:20-33, ‘that God is found in vulnerability: in the grain of wheat. His presence is revealed, and people encounter Christ when we take up the invitation to create communities where all people know a God-centred acceptance and belonging in his kingdom-family’ (Sunday 21 March 2021, ‘Reimagining generous hospitality’).
In and through the uncertainty of our present situation, it is the presence of God and his invitation to embrace a new reality of love and justice that offers us the confident assurance that we are called to proclaim. ‘The Word of God is not chained’ (2 Timothy 2:9).
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