Beware the false optimism which comes from our pulpits, says...
Rev Dr Rob Beamish shares his advice for pastors during this pandemic
The theologian Neil Pembroke describes the sermon as an “announcement of the grace of God in Christ,” and when we are experiencing disorientation, that is something we all need to hear.
Despite the fact that lockdown restrictions are being slowly lifted, we remain in a profound moment of international crisis; church will not simply revert to business-as-usual. With that in mind, here are three suggestions of what I believe preachers and congregations need to be mindful of, if our sermons are to address the needs of this moment with integrity and vigour.
1. God must be named
Crisis moments force us to confront our understanding of the character of God. We find ourselves asking questions about God’s involvement at a time when we need comfort and hope, when the chaos and fear can seem to be all encompassing. We must continue to be courageous, and reframe the world with God central to it. Letting God be the focus of our sermons enables the crisis to be shaped by the one who, in Christ, wept for Lazarus and for the people, and who is with us in our pain and suffering. We may sometimes struggle with the claim of the goodness of God in moments of great trial, but let us have the courage to acknowledge the pain we are feeling, and then point to the only one who can bring lasting hope.
2. Justice must be proclaimed
This season of lockdown has highlighted many issues of injustice, and it has never been more important that those are not forgotten even as things begin to feel a little more normal. Whether it is the disparity of pay in the caring sector, the vulnerability of zero-hour contracts or inherent systemic racial inequality, the preacher and the sermons preached have a responsibility to name uncomfortable realities and declare God’s heart for justice. Bible commentator Jacob Myers even goes as far as to declare that “preaching is a screwworm fly that burrows deep into our theological brain matter and lays eggs that drive us mad for justice”. May that be true for us.
3. Trauma of wounded souls addressed
According to Joni Sancken in the excellent Words that heal: Preaching to wounded souls (Abingdon press), sermons have a role in soothing our wounded souls as they can “build resilience and contribute to God’s actions of healing”. Our sermons thus become a form of enacted hope as they enable us to confront this season of national trauma. Sancken suggests that we seek to provide a “compassionate witness” by giving opportunities to listen to the stories of others and pointing to signs of hope and compassion. Whether it be national events such as Clap for Carers, which serve as a vehicle for shared solidarity, grief and celebration, or stories from our communities, our sermons must point to the healing acts of God visible in our hurting world.
It takes courage to preach even in normal circumstances. Courage to be before God and to seek a word for a congregation, and then courage to stand up before them and give it. If you preach regularly or have ever preached you will know this! So, let’s give thanks that in these strangest of times, with so many questions of why this pandemic has happened and what God may or may not be doing about it, preachers have stood up – albeit often in front of a screen! They have shown the courage to address those questions, and not let any of us forget about the goodness of God.
It does not matter whether your sermon content has been beautifully produced or looks a bit homespun, you have given it a go and the Word of God has been proclaimed. That is what always matters.
Rev Dr Rob Beamish is the minister of Prince’s Drive Baptist Church in Colwyn Bay and also oversees those training for Baptist ordination with the Light College, Chester, through Northern Baptist College, Manchester. He is the author of Preaching in Times of Crisis (Grove Books).
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