Preaching in a Crisis
John Woods joins Jesus in a spot of birdwatching this week.
In the heady days of the first coming of José Mourinho at Chelsea they said that the definition of a crisis at Chelsea Football Club was running out of Champagne at a board meeting!
I’m reminded of that as I observe the trajectory of public response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
First there was denial, followed by shock at the gravity of the situation, then anxiety, paranoia and carefulness. Now there is an agitation to get back to normal, a carelessness, and an almost blasé view of social distancing.
Anxiety still grips many in our society, especially those who are key workers and their families, those whose life appears to be on hold, and those concerned about finances with the three-month mortgage holiday slowly disappearing, uncertainty about jobs, and shrinking pension funds.
Being able to hear birdsong more clearly in the “quiet” rush hour of lockdown reminds me of one of Jesus’ famous sayings:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are you not much more valuable than they?
Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
(Matthew 6: 25–27)
Maybe you have heard the saying: “Worry is like a rocking chair; it gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere”.
Yet, as My friend Tom Long wryly comments on the words of Jesus:
“Sure, birds … don’t worry about life, but they also don’t have mortgages, rising fuel costs, grocery bills, and university tuition fees to keep them awake at night. All of us would like to be relieved of worry and anxiety, but surely Jesus offers an unrealistic strategy — ‘look at the birds, look at the lilies’ — to which one is tempted to reply, ‘Yes, but look at the bills!’”
The answer Tom suggests is to see that Jesus wants us to imagine a different world to our own. A bird’s-eye view that sees him lavish daily provision and care. This is something that Jesus tells us about earlier in his sermon:
“…your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6: 8)
One preacher wrestled with this passage in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in Germany. Helmut Thielicke had been harassed by the authorities in Germany since the 1930’s. Now he faced ordinary Germans who were left stunned, devastated and numb.Many were in denial about what had taken place during the war. Thielicke spoke to an anxious nation in crisis. He preached:
“…we should not artificially turn away from our cares … (by all the available distractions) … but rather direct our cares to him who wills to bear and share all our sin and suffering and therefore all our cares. This is what to do. Jesus did not say: Look at the ostrich, how it buries its head in the desert sand and so tries to escape the fear of danger. No, he said: Look at the birds of the air, keep your eyes open, stand up straight and look to the heights where God makes known his grace and care.”
(Life Can Begin Again, Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount)
Preaching always seeks to achieve a conversion of the imagination.
Such a conversion is never more needed than in a time of crisis. Such a reframed imagination does not deny or minimize our fears, but it does provide a widow for us to see a different basis for security and hope.
Preaching in a crisis needs to walk the tightrope between what seem like two competing realities. The cold reality of daily circumstances and the real reality of our life and circumstances being in the caring hands of a saviour, who still bears the scars of his care for us.
And, to change the picture slightly, preachers need to be careful not to fall off the wire on the one side of naivety, or on the other of cynicism.