Book Review: When Sorrow Comes—The Power of Sermons from Pearl Harbor to Black Lives Matter, by Melissa M. Matthes

“The power of the pulpit lies not in taking a specific position but in providing a vocabulary, ways of thinking, and challenges to the governmentality of the contemporary state,” (p. 336).


[1] Immediately after the Pulse nightclub violence, Orlando, Florida, 12 June 2016, where 49 individuals were killed and 53 injured, I jotted notes into my smart book, seeking an informed pastoral response to the violence of that day.  Knowing that future times of national trauma would occur, I listed theological and moral perspectives (importance of prayer and lament; persistence to ‘stay hand of evil;’ gratitude for 24/7 prayer chapels; affirmation of God’s presence though appearances may deceive; care for outliers, refugees, those on the margins; ‘we the people’ citizenship identity…) that could apply in times ahead.  The entries continue to help form ordination-vow-keeping guidance for troublesome times.

[2] U.S. Coast Guard Academy Professor of Government, Professor Melissa Matthes (Ph.D. University of California Santa Cruz, MDiv. Yale Divinity School) and author of this stimulating text, provides pastors, Chaplains, and Religious Support Team members with a resource that affirms our unique identity, encourages awareness of pitfalls and responsibilities we bring in times of overwhelming need, and builds confidence in our distinctive callings.  She outlines how, in times of national catastrophe, “…Americans have turned to their clergy in an attempt to understand the dissonance, to reconcile their faith and their citizenship, and to find a way forward,” (p. 2).  Armed Forces and Veteran Affairs Chaplains are especially positioned to fulfill this trust.

[3] Professor Matthes draws from hundreds of sermons, primarily mainline and evangelical/fundamentalist Protestant, with selected Jewish, Catholic and Muslim perspectives included, to discover themes that we’ve proclaimed to reassure, reorient, and comfort our listeners.  Throughout, she argues that we are at our best when we look to scripture for lasting theological and transcendent truths to apply to the crises of the moment, rather than fall prey to paralysis, silence, a relinquishing of responsibility to others, or becoming champions of set government agendas/amateur news commentators with a religious bent.

[4] When Sorrow Comes examines sermons of six eras.  Immediately after Pearl Harbor, preachers seemed to feel secure in their ecclesiastical identity, and tended to press home the importance of Christian principles rather than nationalist calls to action.[1]  There was an emphasis on the worldwide nature of the Christian enterprise.  Churches could serve as leavening agents for decency, unity and peace, in the midst of the “necessary injustice” of war within a fallen world.  Words from clergy of interned Japanese Americans are especially valuable.  Their themes of hope run counter to commonly assumed narratives of passive docility and resignation.

[5] With John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, many pastors assigned a martyr role to the President.  Pronouncements of collective guilt (“We all killed Kennedy”) arose due to a perceived national climate of hatred and failure to love.  Moral responsibility in some part was assigned to individual and institutional church members.  Sermons advocating more prayer, greater generosity, and faith in God sought to hearten and comfort listeners.  In the face of anxiety about how America would fulfill world responsibilities due to the sudden loss of their beloved President, the church was cast as a patriotic institution offering direction and hope.

[6] By the time of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on 4 April 1968, the civic stature of many Protestant churches seemed in decline.  A climate of “existential despair” appeared to engulf the nation.  A sense of resignation and defeat stammered forth from the pulpits of many white, male, Protestant ministers.  African American pastors more readily addressed issues of racism, the seeming absence and mystery of God’s presence, lament, belief in the power of redemptive suffering, and a “get up and carry on” spiritual steadfastness in words that flowed from Biblical texts.

[7] Chapter Four, “The Church of the National Tragedy,” appraises sermons in the aftermath of the 1992 uprisings following the jury verdict in the Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King, and the 19 April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.  Following the Rodney King judgment, mainline Protestant pastors often focused on a need for “law and order,” and granted increased power to civic authorities. These sermons offered little to help national mourning, failed to understand causes for citizens’ grief, and seemed unable to address factors leading to racial violence.  On the other hand, sacred orations streamed from African American church rostrums with renewed articulation of themes that had been central to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — uprisings of the disenfranchised as “public grief of the unheard;” seeing the opposition not as “enemies to be destroyed but sisters and brothers to be won in fellowship and understanding;” being activists allied with the working poor; the shared humanity of all God’s children; and the importance of justice, love, wisdom, and compassion for one another.

[8] In the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building bombing, (which followed the FBI Waco Branch Davidian siege (Feb-Apr 1993), many pulpiteers fostered a “Church of the National Tragedy.”  First responders were canonized as “saints.”  Sermons nurtured a “Teddy Bear…therapeutic God” culture to enable parishioners to feel better, leading to a loss of church authority, and collapse of “…the sacred and the secular into one undifferentiated mass” (p. 210).  A “Christianity coiled with psychology in a way that reduced Christianity to a form of self-help” too often became the norm (p. 220).  Few addressed culpability, how American Christians might have contributed to nurturing the racist, murderous individuals responsible for such brutish violence.  Lacking were sermonic burdens expressing sacrifice, cross, suffering, resurrection, and solace during overwhelming grief.

[9] Many sermons immediately after 11 September 2001, lamented the loss of national innocence, while often looking past individual grief.  Shock and anger took precedence over sadness and mourning of the dead.  Some very visible and media-savvy sermonizing became entwined with national identity, wherein American “chosen-ness by God” morphed to America becoming “God’s Celestial Army” to rid the globe of terrorism. “[I]nterests of the state [became] the umbrella under which God flourished” (p. 115). Meanwhile, other types of homilies focused on theological perspectives and scripture-gleaned steps to manage grief, comprehend the enormity of loss, and seek measures toward reconciliation.

[10] Professor Matthes’s final chapter, “The Enduring American Crisis–Sermons from the Newtown Shooting to Black Lives Matter,” uncovers sermonic themes that, while providing many noble and therapeutic sentiments, nevertheless express little theology or in-depth scripture exposition.  Needs to be addressed within white Protestant circles included: God’s justice in the face of unspeakable and persistent evil–in the world and our human hearts; our collective American reluctance to linger with grief; violent deaths of Black citizens (Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, Charleston, George Floyd…) as shared-humanity-American losses rather than parochial sadness.  In contrast, the rich proclamation traditions in African American Churches declared God’s “…identification with the lost, downtrodden, and the violated at the center of the Christian theological tradition,” (p. 297).  These sermons emphasize reliance upon God because we need God’s help and daily intervention, and they proclaim an expectation that God will come through–fulfilling divine purposes with or without the state.

[11] Practical benefits for Religious Support Professionals willing to wrestle with this book include:

[12] First, there are a number of sermons and articles referenced that can complement “go to” resources in time of disaster or calamity.[2]  For many, these accounts can serve as exemplary/challenging models claiming the power of the pulpit “when sorrow comes.”  All offer prophetic, compassionate and scriptural insight for times of loss.

[13] Second, supervisory Chaplains can uncover a rich source of instruction, training and awareness.  Topics treated by Professor Matthes offer reflective analysis from a variety of faith traditions.  When treated thoughtfully, When Sorrow Comes promotes a maturing in worship leadership and a refining of one’s pastoral identity as an Armed Forces or VA Medical Center Chaplain.  The possibility that one of our Armed Forces’ prestigious pulpits (Carlisle, Annapolis, Leavenworth…) could be a place where such promising biblical proclamation not only can take place, but is eagerly encouraged and anticipated by leadership, could provide an invigorating restoration–through web and social media distribution–of preaching across our Chaplaincies.

[14] Lastly, the text inspires us to reclaim our unique faith group and religious callings.  We’re encouraged to educate ourselves and our parishioners week-by-week–through proclamation, counsel, prayer and liturgy–in the majestic theological truths and mysteries so attendant to scriptural understanding.  The necessity of self-sacrifice, discipline and humility in the face of ruin and adversity; realities of the cross, resurrection, and stubborn evil; in-depth theological understandings of suffering, mourning, grieving–especially within real world, overwhelming loss; endurance, stamina and patience; courage, inner-power and strengthening resources provided by the God of the scriptures; such gospel proclamation embraces the finest of our sacred vocations.

[15] The author’s analysis throughout this nuanced and in-depth book invites discussion, reflection, and application for us as Chaplains.  We may debate her findings, and challenge/critique the views presented.  Yet Dr. Matthes provides us with a balanced reference work that inspires extended conversation and study.  Open, honest dialogue can result.  Our people are better served in the process.





[1] This assertion of Christian principles rather than a nationalistic “call to arms” arose in part from shame many Pearl Harbor generation ministers felt in looking back to World War I and a “God on America’s side…nation drunk with hate” ethos that seemed to pervade many World War I sermonizers.  See The Great And Holy War—How World War I Became a Religious Crusade by Philip Jenkins (2014).

[2] Some of my “go-to” books include: “Outer Turmoil, Inner Strength,” by Peter Gomes (preached in Harvard University’s Memorial Church days after 11 SEP 2001, see Strength for the Journey by Peter J. Gomes, 2003); The Question That Never Goes Away–Why by Philip Yancey, (2013); What Shall We Say?–Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith by Thomas Long (2011); The Silence of God by Helmut Thielicke (1962); God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath by N.T. Wright (2020); Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World by Serene Jones (2009).

Kenneth L. Sampson

Chaplain (Colonel--Retired) Ken Sampson, an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America, served in the U.S. Army for nearly thirty years.  He recently retired from a part-time position as Military Liaison with Guideposts.