July Reflection: Preaching in context … Even when it is difficult
by the Rev. Dr. Karyn L. Wiseman
One of the first things that I teach in my intro to preaching course is the importance of being true to the CONTEXTS of preaching — the plural nature of that word is absolutely intentional. I remind students that realtors may talk about the importance of “location, location, location.” But in preaching it’s “context, context, context.”
Being attentive to multiple contexts includes determining the possible intentions of the original writer, the circumstances of the writing, the intended audience when the text was written, the current preacher’s particular and personal context, and the context of the community into which the sermon will be preached, among others. That is a lot of contexts to balance but the preacher must be attuned to all of these issues as they craft their sermon in order to be contextually relevant, informed wholly in the needs of the preaching moment, and sensitive to the realities of the texts.
During the past few months — and years — the context in which preaching occurs has seemingly become more and more problematic for preachers to address the issues of the day in relationship to the needs of their community of faith. Issues of race, income inequality, gun violence, divisive politics, homophobia, and others spark conflict and controversy on a regular basis in many communities of faith.
Preaching is already hard enough on a regular Sunday, but preaching after eruptions of these issues in the media and beyond can pose an intriguing situation for preachers. While the job of preaching in a post-traumatic environment is not new, it appears that the frequency and numbers are on the rise.
Over the past few years, preachers have been challenged to preach in contexts where gun violence has occurred or in response to violence in communities across the country and around the world. Preachers have been asked to address issues ranging from #blacklivesmatter to Sandy Hook to Trayvon Martin to income inequality and now to the recent massacre of the Charleston 9 at “Mother Emanuel” AME Church and the burning of Black churches in the South. These are difficult times in the best of circumstances, but the added tension of a polarized society makes them even harder for preachers and for our listeners.
I believe preachers are called to preach the gospel and address current issues as they occur. I believe that it is our call as public theologians to advocate for those who are being oppressed and to be partners with our brothers and sisters of color whose lives are being taken, whose churches are being burned, and whose very existence is threatened. I believe that preaching the word of God means taking risks and speaking prophetically.
So what is a preacher to do?
First and foremost, the preacher has to be bold. Speak truth to power. Be unafraid of challenging the racist, sexist, and homophobic realities of our world. Speak truth about gun violence and the human toll of the mass shootings that are happening way too often. Be bold to take a side for justice and equality. Be bold to live the gospel of inclusion, love, and grace. Your context will need to be taken into account, but you need to challenge the ways we as a culture are not honoring the personhood of all people. You need to challenge any ways that your congregation and its members are holding on to negative impressions of “others” in your community. You need to help people learn ways to support, love, and honor each other and those that aren’t like them.
Second, the preacher has to be sensitive to his or her own context. Not every context requires the same type of response. Ask yourself some important questions. What has happened? Is it a local event or a national event? Has it personally impacted members of our community of faith or is it impactful to some more than to others? How has our community dealt with trauma and violence in the past? What are the issues that our specific context will need to be attentive to? In what specific ways must I challenge, affirm, or educate my context?
Next, the preacher needs to address the issue of the appropriate text for the sermon. Many use the lectionary for their weekly preaching choices, however, and this is important — the lectionary is a guide, it is NOT the law. If the text cannot be effective in addressing the issues and concerns of your context, you must consider veering off the lectionary for the day. It is pastorally irresponsible to utilize a text that is inappropriate for the preaching that needs to occur. And preaching needs to be done to address the issues confronting our communities, our country, and our world.
Lastly, we must take care to be sensitive but not evasive. We have to name the sins and claim the forgiveness of God. But it cannot be a cheap and easy grace that we extend too quickly. It cannot be a way to avoid dealing with the hard issues confronting us or as a way to excuse our past or current beliefs, actions, or inactions.
After the Charleston shooting, many preachers asked me if they should address the shooting in their churches. “Of course you should,” I responded (actually I was a bit more forceful than that).
Whether you are in a predominantly African American context, a majority European/Anglo context, or a context with rich diversity, speaking about the deep-seeded issues of race and violence from the pulpit is an imperative. We must speak about the ways we do damage and injury to our brothers and sisters both by our actions and by our inaction. We must speak about the ways we can advocate for and be companions with those who have been impacted by violence, racism, and homophobia.
In the past few weeks alone, we have had opportunity to address the Charleston shooting, the legalization of gay marriage nationwide, racism, gun violence, church burnings, and much, much more. Some preachers have allowed these occasions to become springboards for important conversations — from the pulpit and in forums and small group gatherings. These are important dialogues, but they cannot stop there.
We have to continue to address the social issues in our contexts long after the news vans have packed up and left the sites of these events and long after the public consciousness has moved on to other concerns.
Preaching is a calling to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Preaching is a way to impact our communities of faith both inside and outside the walls of the church to act in a disciplined and principled manner. Preaching is a gift and a responsibility that we must take seriously. So as you approach any week of preaching — remember to address your context, discern your intentions, and honor the work and witness of Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. Karyn L. Wiseman is Associate Professor of Homiletics and Director of United Methodist Studies at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.