When Context is Inescapable

Many years ago, Edmund Steimle, a favorite preacher of mine, made a confession.

Over a leisurely lunch at Chautauqua, New York, he was reviewing his preaching style. He was, he admitted, very stuck to his manuscript once he had refined it. Sometimes, he thought, he was married to the text to a fault. He remembered that the Sunday morning after the Coconut Grove fire (a very deadly nightclub disaster in his region) he preached the sermon he had prepared earlier that week, without mention of the catastrophe. In retrospect he wished he had focused on the tragedy everyone was pondering.

I admitted in that conversation that my temptation was to go the other way. In the tension between text and context, I regularly weighted major catastrophe more urgently. Though a regular lectionary preacher, incidents in the civil realm that captured the attention of my parish seemed to me inescapable. I believe that the Gospel must speak cogently to the powerful circumstances of daily life. Thus if a political assassination, a major natural disaster or a terrorist incident took the minds of the congregation hostage, it is that to which gospel must effectively speak. Even more so when the tragedy has local impact (like Kent State or Virginia Tech in a college community and the I-35W Bridge in the Twin Cities). Sometimes I was fortunate enough to have the texts for the day weave gracefully into the discussion of the event. For example, during the lead-up to the first Gulf War in 1991, we were given Jonah and Nineveh to consider. It seemed a fortunate geographic and vocational parallel. On other occasions, I have abandoned the lectionary (and sometimes even the prepared sermon text) and sought out a Scriptural text that resonated well with God’s promises in the midst of real and unexpected suffering.

At times, the magnitude of the disaster is such that only lament and silence seem appropriate early responses. Yet, even in such circumstances, surely the prayers and the educational offerings of the day could focus on the tragedy or significant event. Then perhaps with time and reflection, future sermons might speak, as appropriate, to the context of the catastrophe and the gospel text. In the days immediately following 9/11, our ecumenical response in the community I served was a simple service of evening prayer with lament psalms and psalms of hope woven together, and a remarkably somber hymnody. By Sunday, many of us were ready to try to speak words of faith to the shocked and saddened worshippers. So many pastors spoke faith in light of the catastrophe of 9/11 that whole books were compiled of such efforts.

In such situations, however, as important as context is, the text remains the Christian contribution to the conversation. It is not enough to sound like CNN or even the New York Times, however well informed. We must bring the best information from the context to the bright light of the gospel and digestion of Christian faith. That is what makes it a preached sermon rather than a discussion of current events.

The focus on the current reality of the community in light of a recent event or tragedy is often especially welcome to the congregation gathered for help and hope. Church attendance after the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 demonstrate that people are eager for help in viewing a catastrophe faithfully. I find parallels in attempts to preach for weddings and funerals. Though some church traditions  would argue to the contrary, I believe that the attempt to incarnate God’s word in the specifics of a human relationship or one human life receive ringing endorsement from those who gather. Preachers ignore the particulars of the context in weddings and funerals at their peril. And congregations often show their profound appreciation when text and emotional context are intersected well.

Likewise, worshipers can leave worship unsatisfied if the lessons, preaching, and prayers fail to respond to the major world events of great magnitude. I remember a genuine sense of disappointment after the JFK assassination when our Sunday assembly did not focus significantly enough on that. While worship still helped, it was as if we had missed a vital opportunity to contextualize God’s comfort and our hope.

There are those, however, who disagree. I respect the clarity of their focus on the urgency of Christian proclamation which trumps local context. As many liturgical churches have argued for weddings and funerals that avoid personalizing “the gospel,” so many preachers would argue that Steimle was right to preach on the prescribed texts of the day and keep the sermon he had honed to a fine point.

I remember, decades ago, when my University Divinity School allowed “teach-ins” on civil rights and Vietnam. My professor of early church history, Ray C. Petry, used to argue, “There is nothing so relevant to the current issues of any day as the writings of the church fathers or the early medieval mystics.” And so, we focused on our lessons of the day (though the relevance to racial justice and war were sometimes lost on me).