It can happen anytime. It might happen for you — for all of us — this week! Are we ready? As a young pastor, I read a book called Sermons for Special Days. It was a helpful introduction to preaching on Christmas, Easter and other days we tend to think of as special in the Christian calendar. That is what special days seemed to be back then. No more!
Come with me to just after 7 o'clock on a beautiful Thursday evening in September. On final approach into Pittsburgh's International Airport, US Air flight 427, on its way from Chicago, suddenly barreled into the ground at 300 miles per hour and exploded upon impact. There were no survivors.
I was, at that time, pastor of Pittsburgh's First Presbyterian Church, a city icon located in the heart of the Golden Triangle and commonly called by most of the city's residents, "First Church." It was news that touched every Pittsburgh community and stunned even the toughest Steel City hearts. The news seemed to be part of every conversation; and that suddenly changed everything, including the direction of my preaching and ministry for a while to come.
Or come to a Tuesday morning, again in September, as I made ready to preach at a memorial service near Shanksville, Penn., for Sally Weber, a dear friend and member of our church who had lost a hard-fought cancer battle.
That same day, a workman, working on the outside of our house, came running inside and announced he had just heard on the radio an airplane had just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. We turned on the television to catch the news. It was true!
You remember that day, don't you? Suddenly, as we tried to take in the first crash, there was another crash. We watched it live on television. To say it was surreal is an understatement. Before long, we heard about another crash at the Pentagon. America was under attack. Life in America, as we knew it, never would be the same again.
After a while, my wife, Barbara, and I prepared to drive over to meet a bereaved family for lunch prior to the service. As we drove across the Pennsylvania Turnpike toward Shanksville, we listened to up-to-the-minute radio reports about the three disasters, now being called "terrorist attacks." The breaking news of a fourth airplane crash in a field near Shanksville, the place of the memorial service, only added to the news of that phantasmagorical day. What would I say? What could I say about these attacks at the memorial service happening within a couple of miles of the fourth crash?
Almost immediately, I recognized this would be a day that would live in infamy for all Americans. We needed to pray. As Barbara took over driving, I called the church on my cell phone to begin planning for a noon prayer service at First Church the next day. Even as I was on the phone, our city's mayor called for the evacuation of all downtown Pittsburgh buildings.
We needed to let the people know our church would be open throughout the night and all through the next morning for people who wanted to pray. We called various media outlets to make known the church's desire to serve its community. Volunteers would be present to offer counsel and direction to anyone who came.
"Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season" (2 Timothy 4:2). As I look back through the years, I can think of similar moments, national and local — hurricanes when we lived in coastal Mississippi, the sudden tragic death of two teenagers in a car accident, the sudden Saturday evening death of a much beloved previous senior pastor, the San Francisco earthquake that took place the week we moved to California's Bay Area (One person said, "Man, you really shook this place up as soon as you got here!"), the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the Murrah Building bombing, a tsunami on a Pacific Ocean island, the Newtown Shootings.
These are just a few of the "in-and-out-of-season" moments that impact our local and national lives. And make no mistake, they impact our preaching. At least, they should!
How do we respond to these moments when circumstances throw a curve ball at our best-laid preaching plans?
A fellow professor tells of attending a worship service in a nearby church on the Sunday after 9/11. He says the preacher continued with his pre-planned preaching schedule as though nothing had happened. "If it were not for the pastoral prayer that day," he says, "we never would have known those people lived in the same world as the rest of us." He calls it "ministerial malpractice." I agree. If ever people needed to hear a word of comfort and encouragement from the Lord, it was immediately after the day that changed life for all of us and made many Americans realize this life hangs on only by a frayed thread.
Perhaps those packed Sunday services after such events (remember those Sundays after 9/11 when you saw people in church whom you hadn't seen before?) were not enough to demonstrate to that brother or sister that something had touched America's national soul.
There are three realities with which every preaching pastor needs to live. The first is that the abnormal is actually far more normal than we might realize. The immediacy of the media in our time not only brings events into our lives faster than ever before, but brings them much closer to home than they might once have seemed no matter how far away they happen. Every minister does well to remember we do not preach in a vacuum, but to flesh-and-blood people who are moved by such events as those listed above.
The second is that every preacher must discern what constitutes an abnormal event that calls for homiletical agility. This takes wisdom. We do not want to appear as though we are waiting for something dramatic or catastrophic to happen so we will have a topic, but we want our people to know that although we are not of this world we still are in it. God promises this wisdom as we ask for it. "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him" (James 1:5).
The third reality is that we can bring stability and comfort in response to tragedies by reminding our people that our sovereign Father is never caught off guard. Nothing that happens anywhere in His world ever catches Him by surprise. Whether local or international, every sudden change is another opportunity to preach what Paul calls "the whole counsel of God" (see Acts 20:27).
Indeed, it seems to me that laying a foundation before tragedy strikes should be a constant part of our preaching. We should not wait until tragedy strikes before we address the possibility of tragedy in our preaching. Like a good physician, it is our job to make sure our patients are prepared for the worst tragedies. We can do this not only by faithfully exegeting Scripture, but by using illustrations that speak of God's presence in past traumatic events.
May God use us all to make a name for Him in all our preaching.