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December 12, 2023

Luke A. Powery: A preacher must humanize suffering

Luke A. Powery 

Image courtesy of Duke Chapel

A preacher’s main task is not to make a political stand but to preach the gospel by showing how God lives in the midst of human suffering, says the dean of Duke Chapel.

Preaching during a war can be a difficult task. Should every sermon mention an ongoing conflict? What does a preacher do about the inevitable backlash?

The dean of Duke Chapel and preaching professor Luke Powery reminds preachers that the sermon is only one aspect of formation in the context of a church.

Preachers don’t have to be the authority on a tense political situation and ongoing war. Instead, their sermons can be one part of their congregants’ formation. They might bring in outside experts or enlist other church members with expertise to help guide and form a congregation in responding to political events.

Above all, Powery says, preachers should seek to humanize the conflict, reminding congregants through preaching of the impact of the incarnation on how we empathize and understand a destructive war and suffering.

Powery spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi after preaching a sermon in Duke Chapel in early November. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What are some things that you’re thinking through when planning to preach in the context of this conflict?

Luke A. Powery: First, I would say there are many different approaches to what one is preaching in relation to world events. Also, the second thing I want to say is that the sermon is just one piece of the larger liturgical event.

Everything does not reside in a sermon. There are other, let’s say, symbols and signs and messages and prayers, other words that function.

I think both of those items are important. Because as it relates to the current crisis in the Middle East, or any other crisis, I think when we’re planning, as those who are preparing a service and music and all of that, we’re also keeping in mind, “Well, how might we at least acknowledge this in prayers of the people?”

For me, if I’m thinking specifically about a sermon, I don’t feel pressure, per se, to mention the current crisis in every single sermon, though some people may want to hear every week about it.

I think our primary goal as preachers is to preach the gospel. So how do you relate whatever the lectionary text is for that Sunday, whatever you choose, to the lives of the people there in light of the larger world context? Obviously, the crisis in Israel and Gaza, Ukraine, Russia, you name it, you can go down the list — it’s on people’s minds. They’re getting it through social media and TV.

There might be a time when I reference it more specifically, but it’s often in relation to human suffering, and also lament.

The expression of lament that is almost like, “Here we go again.” We’re in this human struggle that we’ve seen before, wars and rumors of wars. And so to me, every time you prepare to preach, you practice discernment. You’re discerning through prayer and engagement with people and the community, “What should I be saying?” or, “How should I say it?”

I think that’s the ongoing process. I don’t think there’s one way to come at it. Even the sermon I preached this past Sunday, from Amos, which says, “Let justice roll down like a river” — well, I didn’t mention specifics of the conflict.

Yet somebody could take away implications from Amos, in relation to the conflict, or in relation to anything else going on in the world, this call to a life — forget about your songs and your rituals and your festivals and all of that; what God wants is justice and righteousness. But you can develop that in many different ways.

The human suffering, God in the midst of human suffering, is key to me. Whether it’s children, mothers, fathers, the destruction of human life is what is lamentable in this. That’s where the question is — where do you find hope in all of this, or is there hope, really? But it’s one long lament. One long lament.

F&L: So trying to humanize it might cut across some of the politicization of the conflict to focus on the human loss?

LAP: It’s a long, long history, and then there are different dimensions, too — political history, social history, religious history and all of that. I think, really, you need scholars to bring their expertise to bear on the history and where we are today. But I think, as a preacher, it is key that we remember, out of the Christian tradition, God became human.

So it’s the turn to the human and humanizing the conflict, even before any categories of what your ethnic, religious or gender identity is. Any act of violence means saying another human being doesn’t matter.

Where’s the human in this? Because once you start thinking in categories — ethnic, political, whatever it might be — then people just become objects. Objects are a category to crush, control, curse. They’re not my brother or sister or sibling.

F&L: What about when preachers stand for what they believe is the human response to a conflict and then get pushback from congregants? What should they do?

LAP: Well, I’ve found it helpful to actually sit down with somebody, to create a space for listening and let people air what they need to air. Secondly, don’t take it personally. Not everything is personal. The third thing I would say is in preaching, there are going to be the cheers and the jeers — from the same sermon. Some people will love it, and others won’t.

I think that’s just par for the course. So it takes courage to stand up there to preach. It takes courage and wisdom and patience to pastor.

If somebody has an issue with something you said or did, create a space where you can sit down with them and have a conversation. Really listen, because maybe even as the leader, there’s something for you to learn when you hear from a different perspective. I think there’s an opportunity there for growth.

What I have often found is it creates a deeper connection with the person. Whether you agree with one another at the end or not, there is a coming together. Because you’ve actually slowed down and listened and allowed the other person to come to voice their concern or their perspective or whatever it is, and that goes a very long way.

F&L: How do you think a preacher can help congregants sift through all the information on the conflict?

LAP: I think it’s a whole ecology of a faith community that would have to be at play there. Not just a sermon, but the whole life of adult education. Yes, sermons, but everything that happens in a church could feed into that question.

The gospel is political now, meaning that it has to do with the world, but the church is also not a political think tank.

Yes, you want people of faith to be thoughtful, so maybe there are opportunities to bring in scholars or other experts, and that may not be the pastor. Everything’s not on the preacher or the pastor. Are there people in the congregation that are equipped? Maybe there can be panel discussions.

Where do you create the spaces for conversation, group conversations and learning opportunities? That’s really what I’m getting at. Are there educational opportunities? Small groups or a book group? A book that could illuminate, a well-researched book, etc., that could help people have a fuller understanding and then have a conversation around that? What are the learning or educational opportunities in a faith community, a church or whatever that might be?

I think that is a pathway to help further reflection. It’s not just the social media, whatever, a tweet or something on Facebook, or just what’s on TV, news media. I think there are pockets of conversation and learning that can happen.

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.

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