In 20 years, my wife and I have preached about 950 sermons from the pulpit of Park Road Baptist Church. (Amy and I have been co-pastors in Charlotte since 2000.) We’re both manuscript preachers, and we try to hold a printed sermon to five pages, double-spaced, 12-point font. That’s about 4,750 pages, or, just shy of 2 million words. It sounds like we’ve had a lot to say.
Out of discipline, we’ve made a habit of never re-preaching sermons, but in our 10th year we called that summer’s non-lectionary series “A Top Ten.” Looking back over about 500 manuscripts, we each chose five sermons to re-preach. In truth, we discovered we had about five sermons we’d preached that first decade, about 50 times each.
- The Call to Social Justice
- The Power of Community
- The Church as Care for One Another
- Christianity in the 21st Century
- Welcome and Inclusion
Fast-forward to 2020, and we’re at it again. I put the theme, “A Second Top-Ten,” on our worship schedule last summer — long before the coronavirus ruined Sunday morning worship and the killing of George Floyd rocked our false sense of peace. But with an entire nation gasping for breath in the ICU and burning in the flames of protest, suddenly preaching old sermons seemed tone deaf. I think it was Karl Barth who said preachers should go to their studies with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, so how relevant could old sermons really be during one of the most critical moments our nation has ever faced?
Pretty relevant! As it turns out, transcendent truth is, well, always true. And, apparently, the world isn’t getting the message.
“We did not create racism in America — but are we actually doing anything to dismantle it?”
In a sermon five years ago, on “repentance and resistance,” I said:
We did not create racism in America — but are we actually doing anything to dismantle it? Most of us are not, most of the time, and by sitting idly by we bolster the assumptions that strengthen the dominant system. Simple acknowledgement of our privilege, and our culpability in a system that breeds fear, and still believes in redemptive violence, would be a great place to start. Repentance is the admission of our solidarity with historical injustice. And what about resistance? Too much of white America cannot stand with our brothers and sisters of color, resisting the systems that continue to oppress and alienate … because most of us simply do not know their stories, or we choose not to believe them.
Five years ago Charlotte was bracing for the result of the trial of a white officer who gunned down an unarmed Black man, who was seeking assistance when his car broke down. And today? Well, as they say, some things never change.
A week later, Amy tried to answer a church member’s question, “How can I make a difference in the world.” She ended that 2017 sermon, titled with words from “The Help,” by saying:
“That child you tutor in reading? He may one day cure cancer.”
The truth is we may never know if we make a difference or not, which makes every single moment pregnant with the possibility that we can. That child you tutor in reading? He may one day cure cancer. That woman who stayed in the Youth Building as our guest because she had no other place to lay her head, may finally find a job that supports her family, and her grandchild may go on to set policies that make our country better for all. Every single moment, every single encounter is pregnant with the possibility that you can make a difference. “Because You is Kind. You is Smart. You is Important.” At least that’s how Abilene and God see you. May it be so.
After 20 years I’m still humbled by the preaching task. Years ago I addressed the high privilege and the heavy responsibility in a sermon titled, “Call or Sentence? Why I Preach.” I know it’s a calling, but sometimes it does feel like a life sentence. And although I’ve weeded out of my theology most of the notion of God’s largely magical work in our world, I still believe there’s something mystical going on.
This summer’s preaching — old sermons that still speak to the contemporary moment — give me some faith that this is true.
In the only sermon in my 20 years of preaching that our non-clapping congregation has ever applauded, I took on our state legislature’s unfortunate approach to transgender rights. “House Bill 2,” sadly known as “The Bathroom Bill,” had roiled the state in conflict and controversy when I offered “Too Much of a Good Thing: A Transgender Challenge for Pentecost.” With transgender rights before the Supreme Court a few weeks ago, I offered a repeat encouragement for people of faith to accept the beautiful diversity of God’s grand creation — including our transgender siblings.
I will never speak the transgender language, nor the homosexual language. I will never speak African American. I’ll never be able to speak the “language” of being a woman! I will never be able to speak those words. But that’s not really the point, is it? The point is that somehow, in the miracle of Pentecost, God takes all the beautiful variety of our expressions, our voices, our very different “languages”… and somehow, “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2.11).
Marin Luther King Jr. is often quoted for saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It is a bold proclamation, one that must be intrinsic to any claim of faith — but sometimes that arc is difficult to see, isn’t it?
Another decade of sermons, sermons that are unfortunately still contemporary even after gathering years of dust, will make any preacher question the effectiveness of his words, her calling, but then a conservative Supreme Court votes to protect gay and transgender citizens, and you can see it, ever so slightly. The arc, bending toward justice.
So, we’ve got those five sermons. Maybe we’ll just keep on preaching. May it be so.
Russ Dean is co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. He holds degrees from Furman University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Beeson Divinity School. He and his wife, Amy, have been co-pastors of Park Road since 2000. They are parents of two sons. Russ is active in social justice ministries and interfaith dialogue.