On writing political sermons

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

by Fleming Rutledge

I am grateful that there has been a lot of response to my blog post yesterday about preaching in a fraught socio-political environment. I think I need to elaborate in order to help preachers to navigate these troubled waters. Venturing into these currents requires maturity and experience. Many young and untried preachers (and some older ones too) have come to grief because of naivete and lack of forethought.

Over the years, many preachers have said to me,

And so on.

I am sympathetic to these problems, up to a point. For one thing, most of the young preachers that I am in touch with have not had any models for preaching in a status confessionis.[1] I myself have wished on a few occasions, especially when I was younger, that I had not tied one sermon or another quite so tightly to a particular political or cultural issue. However, I believe it is more important today than ever in my adult lifetime.

So here are some guidelines from a seasoned preacher.

Your relationship to your flock

Know your congregation and love your people. I heard a story about an elderly woman who defended her pastor in a split congregation even though his position was uncomfortable to her. “But he’s so loving,” she said, and no one could gainsay that.

Be close to a few mature, respected people in the congregation who will always advise you wisely and help to interpret your message to others.

Never blunder into a situation. Be aware of people who will oppose your views. In certain situations you could even prepare them ahead of time and ask for their support even if they disagree.

Timing is important

Young enthusiastic clergy serving for the first time in a particular congregation will not be able to launch into controversy right away. Many have come to grief in these circumstances. Relationships must be built first. I have preached sermons with strong socio-political themes as a guest preacher, but only when I was sure that the local pastor was aware of the kind of preaching that I do. Preaching in the Harvard Memorial Church or the Duke University Chapel is quite different from preaching in a local congregation.

I spent 20 years in parish ministry preaching to the same people every time I was in the pulpit. Those congregations understood that I (and the other clergy) would refer to current issues from time to time, and they accepted it—they even expected it. For example, when apartheid came to an end in South Africa, a sermon with that event at its heart was not only expected, it was welcomed. It would have been inconceivable to be at Grace Church in NYC during the 80s and 90s and have nothing to say about the issues of the day. Any pastor who is committed to this and loves her people can—over time—shape the congregation to expect at least some level of engagement with current problems.

The biblical text comes first

It is dangerous to select a Biblical passage to illustrate your concern. I have been in contexts where the clergy taught over and over from the Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue at Capernaum until you would think there were no other passages in the Bible (this is only a slight exaggeration). It takes one to know one: during the late 60s when I was still a lay person I taught a course on the Hebrew prophets. Looking back, I taught the prophets from a specific perspective, that of the late 60s, with all the emphasis on what we call today social justice. That is indeed an extremely powerful theme in many of the prophets and we should always keep it before us. But it should never be taught in isolation from the overall theocentric concerns that motivated the prophets.

I preached exclusively from the lectionary during the 20 years of my parish ministry. It was amazing to me that whatever the passage was, it spoke to the very week in which I was preaching. I never had to wrest political meaning from the text—it was already there, speaking as a live thing in the midst of contemporary life. Many preachers have seen this. The whole life of Jesus was political. There was confrontation with the powers and principalities every moment of the day. Therefore the preacher who understands the forces we are up against will see these themes everywhere—not just in individual sexual sin (for instance) but in the Sin that grips the whole society.

Offer yourself up

The congregation should know that you know you are always out on the edge taking risks in your preaching—as did the prophets, evangelists, and apostles. Bland preaching is the enemy of true biblical exposition. I don’t mean heavy-duty emotional displays that call attention to yourself; that is the enemy of the evangelical message. I mean that the preacher should be invested in the biblical text in a way that is dangerous for him—subtly dangerous, not inviting danger (that would be very unattractive) but aware of it and not underestimating it.

The underlying lesson here is that we are all “the ungodly.” The preacher is not a superior person telling other people what they should think and be. The message is being delivered by the same kind of “miserable sinner” as the person in the pew. The preacher knows herself to be one who would be under condemnation like everyone else were it not for the unmerited grace of God in Jesus Christ. This leads into the next point:

Don’t exhort…illustrate!

Exhortation should be excluded from sermons (I realize this in itself is an exhortation…) Exhortation in preaching exhausts people. It makes them feel impotent and, worse, judged. “Should” and “ought” should be replaced by “we may” and “we can.”

Exhortation in gospel preaching is replaced by promise. Every sermon should contain a promise. No sermon should end with “will we…?” but, rather, with “we will be…”. This is done with illustration. Collect illustrations from your daily interaction with your people. You won’t ordinarily name names, but people will recognize themselves and be greatly encouraged.

Tell a story: a true story from your own life and/or reading, not something from a lectionary aid. It needs to be genuinely yours. It’s great if you can use an illustration from your own congregation, even if you have to tell them that you are withholding the name for reasons of privacy. Some people will not mind if you use their actual names.

Never say “I”

This is possibly overstated, but my preaching took a major leap forward when a senior clergyman told me this. After many years, I finally internalized the importance of not wasting time and distracting my hearers by telling anecdotes about myself. If you take yourself out of the picture altogether you will find yourself focusing more on 1) your congregation and 2) the gospel story. It will also be helpful to your socio-political references if you take yourself out of it altogether. No one is going to overlook you! You are up there in the pulpit! What you want to do is be John the Baptist… “He must increase, I must decrease.”

Be prepared to talk about issues knowledgeably

This is difficult for many pastors who have been trained to spend all their time reading “spiritual” literature. I was blessed, because I was raised in a newspaper-reading family and I went to a seminary where, in the early 70s, you would have been considered illiterate if you were not well read in political news and essays. TV news by itself does not do the job. Well-chosen content from the internet can be very helpful, but it takes focus and discipline to train oneself to find this. In some ways it is as important as biblical study, because the two should go hand in hand. The living Word of God is always addressing us precisely in a context. It prods us to care as much about the collapse of the health care system in India as we care about opening up American cities.

We need to cultivate knowledge from several points of view, not just the ones that come naturally to us and are constantly being thrust in our faces by various constituencies on right and left. Reading David Brooks, Peter Wehner, and Nick Kristof regularly would be the very least we could do! And studying Paul’s epistles with a wider angle of vision than just individual salvation is essential to a cosmic perspective.

Some issues are more clear-cut than others

It’s a good idea, when wading into these waters for the first time, to choose causes that are more difficult to oppose.

For instance, when the “words of the year” in recent memory have been such things as “post-truth” and “fake news,” something is seriously, certifiably wrong—something that strikes at the heart of everything that is important in human life. This can’t be allowed to persist without pointed critique and illustrations to match.

It is also important to do battle with “whataboutism,” which occurs when someone laments police brutality and someone else says, “What about rioting and vandalism?” But these are not opposing arguments. It is important to be opposed to both violence and vandalism. All too often, people trying to advocate for justice are shouted down by “what about…” This can easily be critiqued in a sermon by, for example, telling an illustrative story about a Black woman, a community leader for Black Lives Matter, who broke down in tears as she viewed looting and vandalism in her neighborhood. But then, in order to give such an illustration, one has to be alert to find such stories so as to give her name and her city, to pin it down in reality.

This is a work in progress. I will be working on it further. In the meantime keep your eyes on @kennethtanner  

[1] In status confessionis: Latin phrase, interpreted to mean being in a “state” (situation or condition) that requires confessing the faith even though it is dangerous—therefore, “in a state of confessing.” The phrase came out of specific Lutheran doctrinal debates in the 16th century but has more recently come to mean that the issue in question is not an indifferent matter on which we can agree to disagree. It means that if we are to be faithful the church must stand up and be specific about its position for the sake of the integrity of the gospel and the authority of the Word of God it confesses

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