By Mark Michael
Like so many of my colleagues, I never planned to be a televangelist. But with the assistance of our tech-savvy assistant rector, we quickly collected spotlights, tripods, mixers, and microphones, refitting the side chapel into a passable studio. Except for those times YouTube refused to receive the stream or we’ve forgotten to change the batteries, the show has gone on: a daily offering of the Lamb of God, who grants us peace in troubled times, and morning and evening praise to the Strength of our salvation.
And we have proclaimed the Word: assuring the distressed of God’s presence and power to heal, pointing to Christ’s victory over death and the hope of glory to come, urging mutual patience and loving service, and calling for self-examination and new resolve in the face of racial injustice and widespread anger. There has been no shortage of things to say.
People have given their attention, as well. Even as we all grow weary of screens, the faithful still long to hear a message refreshingly different from the exchange of anxiety and blame that dominates our social media feeds. When we have called to check in, many have reflected on what was helpful or posed thoughtful questions. Sometimes they suggest topics for us to address in the future.
It reminds me of my time as a boarding school chaplain, when the daily course of a shared life often made it easier to see the connections between the Gospel and common pastoral need. Back then, we were elated by a big lacrosse win, anxious about looming exams, and heartbroken about foolish choices that got a student expelled. Today, we are mostly apart from each other, locked inside protective pods, but our fears, frustrations, and grief remain common.
We are adrift together, conscious of the bonds the Holy Spirit sustains even by the thin means of digital connection. The preacher’s joyful burden is to point to him who holds us still. As Pope Francis said in his rain soaked Urbi et Orbi address last March: “We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love.”
That particular sermon revealed the surprising power of preaching in these times. Most preachers will find it hard to match the dramatic screenplay of a darkened and empty Saint Peter’s Square, the spotlight shining on a sixteenth-century wonder-working crucifix. But the words we are given by God speak more powerfully than any others to the needs around us.
There has been some chatter in the clerical world about how to do this well. Many say we will live stream our sermons until the Second Coming, but few priests have any formal training in broadcast communication. One wise old bishop simply said: “You’d better be on top of your game.”
The consensus seems to be that sermons should be shorter and more focused and that we should speak a little faster, making meaningful eye contact with the camera instead of scanning across the pews. We should explain local references, since listeners could be connecting from anywhere. Technicalities of videography permitting, film clips and images may be used creatively.
Above all, the message needs to count. For me, the approach to this has come through deeper textual study and from reading sermons by gifted preachers of the past. I feel closer to St. Augustine urging trust in God as the Vandals arrived, John Donne proclaiming the resurrection as another plague infested London, and Martin Luther King pleading for freedom and a reckoning with social sin.
Digging into classic texts from the past, sitting at the feet of contemporary preachers in different contexts from our own, and thinking more deeply about the theological issues raised by the Sunday lectionary readings will help all preachers to draw closer to the one who connects us. Christ himself, the “living word” (Heb. 4:12), stands at the heart of all faithful preaching. When we proclaim him in continuity with the communion of saints, we share a message that will touch hearts in every context.
With help from longtime colleague Dr. Cal Lane, and seminarian Micah Hogan, my “lockdown project” has been developing a new sermon resource from TLC, The Living Word: A Preaching Resource for Liturgical Christians, which we will launch on Monday, September 7. TLW (by abbreviation) is a digital product, delivered as a weekly email containing resources to help engage the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the following Sunday.
These include sermons from gifted preachers right round the world, excerpts from classic homiletical, theological, and devotional texts, and articles on relevant themes from the archives of The Living Church, Covenant, and the Living Church Institute. Our first issue, for example, explores the lectionary readings with sermons from a leading Episcopal preacher and St. John Chrysostom, and articles focused on debt and forgiveness in the New Testament, the prayer book confession, and the role of listening in racial reconciliation.
We are starting small, with a free version containing six links. A more robust version with at least 18 links will be available for $5 per month from the first Sunday of Advent. Those who serve in mission contexts can request free access to the expanded version. We are also planning a free drop-in Zoom gathering to study the lectionary texts every two weeks. Details about how you can join the conversation will be available in the first issue.
The Living Church is committed to supporting leaders across the whole Church. These are days when the world needs to hear the Gospel we have been called to share. We hope to equip you with the best we have to offer. Turning together to God’s truth will draw us closer and heal our divisions.
You can sign up for The Living Word here.
Fr. Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.