How has Preaching Changed Since September 11? Not at All, and Not Enough

Preaching has not changed at all
[1] As Craig Satterlee and Trish Madden recently reaffirmed, the core of Lutheran preaching has been and always should be centered on one thing, and one thing alone: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[1] If we continue to hold that “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today” (Hebrews 13:8 – Proper 17 Year C), and if we are indeed continuing to preach the Gospel in our pulpits, then it is a very good thing that our preaching has not changed since September 11.

[2] In these post-modern days the next question one might pose is, “Yes, well, I know this, but which ‘Gospel of Jesus Christ’ are you talking about?” The Gospel of unconditional love? The Gospel of grace and forgiveness? The Gospel of inclusion and welcome? The Gospel of liberation for the poor? For the preacher, the answer must be “all of the above.” Preaching the Gospel of unconditional love and compassionate healing reaches out to those in our congregations for whom September 11 opened wounds of loneliness, abandonment, unworthiness, anger, and loss. Those who have lost loved ones in the past year, whether as casualties of the attacks themselves or in other ways, may be particularly overwhelmed with guilt for things said or unsaid, done or undone. The Gospel of grace and forgiveness provides cool water for the parched tongues of those who are stuck in that desert of sin and shame. Most of us experienced an influx of worshipers immediately following September 11, and some of these newcomers have continued to worship with us. Of these, many had previously heard words of exclusion or judgement which had driven them away from church[2] and they in particular need to hear the Gospel of welcome and inclusion. September 11 engendered an outpouring of funds to the families of the those who died. Now is a particularly good time to remind our congregations that the needs of the poor – not just in New York City, Washington D.C. or Pennsylvania, but also in our own neighborhoods and cities as well as around the world–are especially acute even as we become richer as individuals and as a nation. The Gospel of liberation for the poor needs to be proclaimed not just to the poor, but to those of us who can work to bring about change.

[3] If the statistic that roughly one-third of our country experienced some level of post-traumatic stress disorder is correct, there remains a number of people in our congregations for whom this past year has been unusually difficult in ways they are still finding hard to put their fingers on. It is quite likely that they will experience a “rebound” of these feelings this fall. Now more than ever, our people need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ who died and rose again so that they might know that they are sinners who are forgiven and loved so much that their wounds can be healed and that they are empowered to reach out to others in need.

Preaching has not changed enough
[4] If we have only used September 11 as an occasion to reach out to those whose lives as Christians are journeys of personal healing and wholeness, I fear we will have missed an opportunity to be faithful disciples and stewards of creation and the global community.

[5] From what I hear from colleagues across the nation, many of our sermons last the fall did reflect an increased global awareness and called upon our listeners to pay attention to the consequences of U.S. foreign policy. A year later we are still called to ask the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian and a citizen of the richest and most powerful nation in the world?” Yet many of my colleagues report that they have moved away from this kind of preaching as we have gotten farther away from September 11, 2001, noting that their sermons in the past year have become “more Biblical.”[3] In his Christmas Sermon on Luke 2:1-11, Martin Luther described the Bible as the swaddling clothes “in which the Christian truth lies wrapped;” [4]so being deliberate about “Biblical preaching” is indeed a good thing, but again, it is not so easy to define. In light of increased violence around the world which is funded and staffed by our tax dollars, daughters and sons, how do we preach “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39; 7 Epiphany year A)? Or “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14; Proper 17 year A)? September 11 raised our awareness of the need for interfaith dialogue and understanding, especially with our Muslim brothers and sisters. So how do we faithfully preach – “I am the way the truth and the life” (John 14:6 – Feast of St. Thomas; Rite for Funerals ) without undoing the good that has come about in this climate of interfaith respect? As our country’s leaders discuss the necessity to declare war upon Iraq, how do we walk with our listeners in their understanding of “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9, All Saints A)?

[6] Jesus often answered a question with another question, and the explanations of the parables were later additions by the evangelists who themselves were on a journey of understanding. It seems to me that if we are to remain faithful to the Gospel and to the one who saved us, as preachers we are called, not to try to provide easy answers or pat solutions, but to keep asking the difficult questions – of the scripture texts, of ourselves, our parishioners, our Church, and our nation. Our calling as preachers of the Gospel should be nothing less than to follow the example of Jesus, inviting our hearers into the challenge of discerning what it means to live as Christians, gifted by grace and challenged by the Word.

And what about the Preachers?
[7] The people in our congregations were not the only ones who were powerfully affected by the events of September 11, 2001. We were too. As much as our listeners needed to hear that they are loved, protected, and challenged by the One who made them, so have we. My internship supervisor once told me that we tend to preach the sermons we need to hear. Have we been listening?

[8] On April 7 of this year, clergy from around the country traveled to New York City parishes to share the burdens, if only for one Sunday, of our sisters and brothers who had been ministering tirelessly to those whose lives were touched most immediately by the collapse of the Word Trade Center. I suspect the challenge for those of us who serve in Iowa, Nebraska, or Northern Minnesota has been to give ourselves permission to be personally affected by the horrific events, whether or not we knew anyone who died. The psyche of the entire nation was wounded in ways that we will only fully understand as time goes on. I pray that those of us whose calling it is to care for others will be conscious of our own needs as well.

[9] I believe that my greatest challenge as a preacher is to remember that I am not called to be the expert, the answer-person, or the saint. As one who proclaims the Gospel with my lips, I am merely joining the ranks of thousands who seek to proclaim that Gospel with their lives. In the Lutheran ordination rite, the Bishop prays, “Bless his/her proclamation of your Word and administration of your Sacraments, O Lord, so that your Church may be gathered for praise and strengthened for service;”[5] and calls upon each ordinand to “witness faithfully in word and deed to all people.”[6] I believe that if we continue to pray, ask questions, seek support and community, and commit ourselves to the journey of walking alongside others, we will fulfill our calling to this life of faithful proclamation.

[1] Craig Satterlee and Trish Madden, “Public Policy and the Pulpit: Falling through the Cracks to Making Justice,” in Let&=javascript:goNote(39s Talk, Volume 7, Issue 1 (Pentecost 2002): 4.

[2] I am thinking particularly of women who have had abortions, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, people who have been divorced, and those recovering from addiction.

[3] In response to an informal e-mail query I sent out on September 1, 2002. I heard from 15 of my colleagues from across the country, representing a variety of settings and denominational affiliation. The two concepts which were repeated most often were that “now more than ever” people in the pews are listening to sermons to find spiritual solace and connection, and the sermons being preached were more “Biblical.”

[4] “Sermon for Christmas Day; Luke 2:1-14” The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, vol 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2001), 150.

[5] Rite of Ordination, Occasional Services, A Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1982), 196.

[6] Ibid, 197.