When events trump sermon and liturgy. . . .

When world-shaking events occur, what should be the response of pastors and other worship leaders? Should these occurrences affect what is said and done in worship? Or is the purpose of preaching and liturgical action shaped by the long vision of the holy commonwealth of God that lies somewhere beyond history, beyond the swirl of events that so often dominate our attention?

Although I have often thought about this question, it came to mind again with special vigor on the Sunday immediately following the shooting in Tucson. By the time this event hit the news, most church bulletins had already been printed, and most prayers and sermons were close to being completed. There was little time to change the plan for worship the very next day after the terrible events.

This tragic occurrence had riveted the attention of the American people. It can easily be assumed that most people who came to worship the next day had spent time watching reports and that they were still thinking about Tucson more than they were thinking about an idyllic world promised to come beyond the current sweep of historical time.

What should happen in Sunday worship when events are so powerful that they seem to trump lectionary, sermon, calendar, and prayers? Here are some possibilities, some of which I like better than others:

Ignore the events and continue with what had already been planned. After all, we have no evidence that Jesus used his prayers and sermons as occasions for dealing with the crises of his time. Many people look upon church as a place of respite from the pressures of life in the world. For their sakes, this position goes, it is doing them a positive service to maintain a clear separation between the world and worship. This is the one position which I find unsatisfactory, with little to be said in its favor.

Acknowledge the events and then continue according to what had already been set up. This can be done with a brief acknowledgement and prayer during the early moments of worship, prior to the sermon, or as part of the prayers of the people. While the rest of the service may continue unchanged, preacher and worship leaders express their empathy with all who come with troubled minds and hearts. This most approach allows them to consider a fuller approach some other Sunday.

Editorialize, either on that Sunday or on another one soon afterwards. Following the Tucson event, the media (both public and private) were dominated by commentary representing a wide political spectrum. One could anticipate what the politically slanted talking heads and print pundits would say. It is easy for church leaders to do the same—speak in politically charged manner—especially when preachers are convinced that the pulpit is theirs to use in any way they choose and when they are convinced that “prophetic preaching” is a mark of maturity and Christian responsibility. This is another course of action that I question.

Offer the event and its many facets to God in the principle prayers of a service. The biblical Psalms are the most prayer-like portions of the entire Bible. Many of them refer to trials, tribulations, and terrors that distress the persons whose prayers are the basis of these classic prayer texts. The names of rulers and the details of the events have disappeared, but the broader sense of these events continues and they are offered to God, with laments, words of thanksgiving, and petitions for redress and justice. So, too, it can be in worship today.

Transcend the event by placing it in a larger framework of Christian faith and theological principle. Preachers have the opportunity to help their congregants understand the immediate moment in the larger framework of time and destiny. Long ago, when I was a young preacher recently out of seminary, an essay in the Christian Century made the point that churches could be a center of stability and hope because their perspective was longer and grander than the immediate swirl of events. Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus could speak so courageously, drawing large numbers of people around him. He helped them anticipate a world in which people would live beyond the turmoil and tears that they were experiencing. His words gave them hope and helped them cope with distressing conditions.

But should preachers take stands? Should they speak out on propositions and proposed legislation? Should they make it clear, by veiled comments even if they have to avoid endorsing candidates by name, who they think Christians should vote for? By what authority do they speak? Are there theological, liturgical, or institutional guidelines within which they have to do their work? And if they do, when do congregants, the people who have to keep quiet and take it, have their chance to talk back?

Stay tuned.

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2 Responses to When events trump sermon and liturgy. . . .

  1. Thanks Keith,

    These are very helpful ways to understand and reflect on the approaches we take in such situations.

    As you indicate the question is more complex than we may at first recognise. But, like you, I find it unsatisfactory to simply ignore what’s going on around us.

    I guess my response has usually been to try and work out, on a situation-by-situation basis, what would be the most helpful way to engage an event for the people I am going to be worshiping with on Sunday. If I can find an approach that is authentic for them – both to engage the event and to engage the reality of God’s presence in the event – then that’s usually what I go with. I guess this approach loosely fits your last category.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how your thoughts progress on this.

    Grace
    John

    • John,
      I like very much your approach of working out the response situation-by-situation. Events differ so much, which has to influence how we respond. Timing is important. If the event happens early in the week, we have several days to work on the response. If it happens on Saturday, there’s little time. The texts and theme for the service also influence the response. Sometimes they lend themselves to adaptation with little effort, but on other occasions that’s hard to do.
      Keith

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