In early July, I called the Rev. Dr. Darryl Aaron, pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C. It was the latest moment in our country’s crisis of racism and violence, as we mourned Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. My reflex was to call the Rev. Aaron and other black clergy friends and colleagues, with whom I knew I could share grief and outrage, confess my own sense of shame and shelter, and especially seek some feedback on the coming Sunday sermon. My friend was curious when our conversation turned to my sense of urgency in the preaching moment. “Why so much emphasis on this week’s sermon, Reverend?” he asked. “Have you not been preaching the gospel every week?”
Sermons are often shaped by crisis. We who preach and lead in worship try to keep one eye on Karl Barth’s newspaper, shuddering at sermons that ignore the urgency of the moment, lest we proclaim an abstracted realm of God that fails to account for the reality of human suffering. Rabbi Irving Greenberg articulated this broadly in reference to the theological shift of the mid-20th century. Referencing the crisis of the Holocaust, and particularly the over 1 million children who died, Greenberg wrote, “The Holocaust confronts us with unanswerable questions … but no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the children.”
Yes, preaching and worship should be credible in the presence of the vulnerable and oppressed, and tenable amidst the current crises of our world. In my own preaching, I recall rewriting a sermon one Saturday night after learning of the “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman case. The Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Mo., helped me to better hear Isaiah’s songs. The December shooting in Newtown, Conn., forever altered how I understand Advent’s slaughter of the innocents. A sermon was scrapped midweek as we learned of the murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church. The early Sunday mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub led me to start keeping my phone in worship, primed for any alert that might provoke immediate response. And the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, and the subsequent shooting of Dallas officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarippa, caused me to join many others in asking anew, “Who is my neighbor?”
But have I not been preaching it every week? The question is less a comfort than a call. When it comes to the ongoing crisis of racism, I fear occasional urgency reflects less the awareness of a crisis and more the ignorance that preceded it. The situational sermon, however timely, can also become a space for a self-righteous adrenaline rush or self-serving catharsis. My sense of urgency in high-profile moments of crisis might be akin to the shock and surprise that many white people express amidst well-publicized instances of violence against black men and women. If we are surprised, it’s because we have not been paying attention. This is not “senseless.” This is how structural racism works. The urgent question for those of us who preach might instead be whether and how the gospel works. Rather than simply preaching in response to a crisis in a single week, might we ask how our week-to-week proclamation has enabled our current crisis, stopping short of the power of the gospel to interrupt things as they are and spark imagination and action for what can yet be?
This week we grieve again. We say the names Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, seeking statements that are credible in their presence. Yesterday, the Rev. Dr. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP joined Charlotte, N.C.-area clergy as an invited leader of a press conference on the work following Scott’s shooting. He stressed that while the current crisis manifested this week, it did not begin this week. In the same way, he said that the clergy who stood around him did not begin their work this week in the well-publicized moment. “These clergy have been in the street. … They have been working in this community not just this week, but for many weeks.” Downplaying his own presence in favor of their ongoing work, Dr. Barber repeatedly emphasized that Charlotte didn’t need any leaders to “helicopter in,” because leadership was already there.
I wonder how often I’ve been a helicopter preacher, or a helicopter minister, hovering above it all and waiting until it’s safe to land, or pausing for the ground to clear, or circling overhead until the crisis is such that I have no other choice but to touch the ground. Meanwhile, the Christ I proclaim lived on the ground. He moved about, crossing boundaries, covering miles and proclaiming a clear message of “good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for those who are oppressed.”
I hope our churches proclaim that gospel this week, from the pulpit and on the ground. And next week, I hope we do it again.