Contextualized Preaching

One of my biggest frustrations listening to lots of Zoom sermons is that too many preachers today have no sense of place or time. Their sermons could be preached anywhere at anytime. They never listened to Barth’s exhortation to preach “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” They never learned that preaching should address this group of people sitting in front of you.

When I preach in a place, I want to know about the church, its setting (remember sitz im leben?), its concerns. Here’s an example. I was asked to preach in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and to address issues of resilience in a Black church impacted by two hurricanes and the pandemic. It was January 23, the Sabbath after the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday.

Standing on the Promises

Text: Romans 8:31-39

Good morning Sharon Chapel and to my friend Pastor Gerard and his family. I thank you for your invitation to be here today. Happy Sabbath, Bon Sabbat!

I first visited Lake Charles in 1998. That trip was my introduction to Louisiana. I was living in California at the time but came to Lake Charles to interview for a campus ministry position serving McNeese State. They gave me the grand tour of Calcasieu Parish, taught me new words like lagniappe, feasted me on Cajun food, and regaled me with stories of Jean Lafitte. I didn’t get that job–but I got a better one in Houston and moved here soon after.

Living in Houston made it possible for me to come back to Acadiana the following year, 1999, for the Congrès Mondial Acadien, the World Acadian Congress. It’s an event held every five years that brings together Acadian cousins from all the places the Acadian people were scattered–Canada, France, New England and, of course, Louisiana. My mom came from Connecticut, and one of the events of that congress we went to was a LeBlanc Family Reunion in Erath. Her grandmother was Domithilde LeBlanc from St-Anselme, New Brunswick, in Canada.

There were probably 1000 LeBlanc descendants present at that reunion, all descended from one man, Daniel LeBlanc, who came from France to what is today Nova Scotia in 1645. We were Black and white, Canadian, French, and American, Francophone and Anglophone, Catholic and Protestant–but we were family, cousins and cousines with one another and with all other Acadians, Cajuns and Creoles: every LeBlanc, Hebert, Landry, Broussard, Guidry, Fontenot, Richard, Boudreaux, Thibodeaux, Melançon, Benoit, and on and on.

The Acadian story is one of tragedy and resilience. Our ancestors settled what is now Nova Scotia in the mid-1600s. Acadia was on the border between New England and New France, and the territory passed back and forth between the two powers a dozen times. In 1755, the British came upon a final solution: they would eradicate the Acadian people. They burned homes, tore families apart, and scattered them to the winds in a catastrophe known as the Great Upheaval, Le Grand Derangement. After the war ended in 1763, Joseph Broussard, called Beausoleil, gathered a number of the castaways from Canada and France and was given permission by Spain to settle in Louisiana in 1765, in the village of St. Martinville.

When we gathered in 1999 it was a celebration of the fact that we were still here. That we survived. That we still had an identity as a family, and as a people, despite all the disasters. That our faith in God, and our trust in one another, brought us through.

That’s the story of Black America as well–

A journey that began with people torn from their African homeland and enslaved in America, the first arriving in Jamestown in 1619.

A journey of 400 years portrayed in these unforgettable words by James Weldon Johnson:

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;   
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,   
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

We gather this Sabbath after a remarkable year that brought hurricanes, a pandemic, protests against white supremacy and police violence, and then more police violence to silence them, attempts at voter suppression, even an attempted insurrection at the US Capitol.

But brothers and sisters, we are still here. Tired, grieving, but with reasons to hope.

And that’s why I chose the text for today from the book of Romans, chapter 8.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

These are precious promises that we can stand upon, and take comfort in, and take courage from, as we face the future.

Gerard asked me to speak as a chaplain about resilience, and some of the mental health issues that we might face after a disaster. Having a strong spiritual foundation is one part of resilience, and that Scripture is our starting point as believers in Jesus Christ. We can be confident that he loves us, and we are in his hands.

Let me do a little teaching about what we experience when we go through a crisis–and I will need to start sharing my screen.

Stress reactions

Stress provokes a reaction whether it is a one time event like a tornado or a car accident or whether we are under chronic stress.

Stress affects our whole being: how we think, how we act, and how we feel, physically and mentally.

Stress affects our thinking. Memories and thoughts may intrude. We can have nightmares. We might not be able to think straight; we might have trouble remembering. We can be disoriented, and confused, and can have mood swings.

Stress affects how we act. We might avoid those things and places that remind us of the event. We might withdraw from others. We might not be interested in things we once found pleasure in. Some will seek comfort in alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.

Stress affects us physically. We might startle easily. We can experience exhaustion and fatigue. Our heart can race. We might not be able to sleep. We might experience aches and pains. We might be on constant alert for danger–hyper-vigilance we call it.

Stress affects us mentally: Feelings of fear, depression, guilt, shame, anger, anxiety, shock, numbness, panic.

These symptoms can appear immediately. But they might not appear for a while. We can be so busy surviving, and can live off the adrenaline, and find purpose from helping others, and only later do the symptoms set in.

These are all normal reactions.

That’s important to realize. That’s why we go over these symptoms whenever we teach about stress or trauma. You could be experiencing one or more but not connect them to what you’ve been through. You might feel like you are the only one feeling or acting like this. So we want to do what we call “normalization.” So that you can know it isn’t just you. We are all affected. And these are normal responses.

But if you are experiencing these things for more than a month, and they keep you from functioning normally, and it’s been six months since the event, you could be diagnosed as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In either case, please, reach out for help. Talk to your physician. Talk to your pastor. Talk to a mental health provider.

After a disaster, we can feel like we are on a roller coaster. And the ups and downs are predictable. They are described as six phases.

First is the pre-disaster phase. We know a hurricane is coming, or we hear a tornado warning, and we have some fear or anxiety. We can feel guilt if we don’t heed the warning.

Second is the impact phase. Confusion, shock, but a focus on survival and protecting your family.

Third is the heroic phase. We are clearing debris, rescuing people, getting people to shelter. We are getting by on adrenaline.

Fourth is the honeymoon phase. The community is coming together. Neighbors are helping neighbors. The Red Cross is there with shelter, the Salvation Army has food. Adventist Community Services has you volunteering. Businesses and community agencies and FEMA are coming together. This is the high.

And then comes a fall. We call it disillusionment. This is the fifth phase. You are exhausted. Tempers start to flare. You feel let down by all those promises of help. You see that the insurance and FEMA aren’t going to cover everything. Some people are back to normal but your neighborhood isn’t. You feel abandoned. This can go for months, and the emotions can be triggered anew by memories or by the anniversary of the disaster.

Finally comes the sixth phase, reconstruction. When you begin to feel you are back on track. You are grieving loss but feeling like some sense of normal has returned. It may kick in a year after the disaster.

Those are the things I learned in my disaster response training. They are helpful. They give us a big picture. They help us check our own feelings and emotions and give a sense that we are responding normally; they tell us there is a path forward.

But they miss something.

They miss the fact that disasters can pile one on top of another: a hurricane atop another hurricane on top of a pandemic.

They miss the fact that some neighborhoods are always getting hit. Some neighborhoods never get as much state or federal assistance. Some businesses seem to help some people but not others. Some resources are more plentiful in one town than in another, in one parish and not in another. Some get the loans and some don’t.

There are what we call disparities and inequities; they are part of our society, and they are revealed in times of crisis. They’ve been a big part of my studies in public health the last few months.

Consider the COVID19 pandemic. You probably know these numbers: you are nearly 4 times more likely to get it if you are African-American–and nearly three times more likely to die from it. You are also higher at risk if you are Hispanic or Native American. This was the theme of our 2020 NAD Health Sabbath on July 25. The materials were written by Dr. David Williams, a professor at the School of Public Health at Harvard University.

Social Determinants of Health

Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are more vulnerable because of what we call the Social Determinants of Health. These are, the CDC tells us, “the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.”

They include such things as: education access and quality, healthcare access and quality, neighborhood and built environment, and social and community context, and economic stability.

Neighborhoods most vulnerable to pandemics and to disasters often have poor schools, poor access to quality health care, a lack of businesses and community capital, a lack of playgrounds and green space, and what we call food deserts — neighborhoods with low income and lack of access to quality fresh foods.

The USDA’s online map of Lake Charles says that’s basically everything north of I-10 and, south of I-10, what’s east of Enterprise Avenue.

I looked up the maps showing racial demographics. What do you suppose I found? Same map. I was not surprised.

And what do you think I found when I looked on Google Maps to see where the hospitals are? Same thing.

Here’s the overlay of those last two maps:

Now let’s push this point just a little further. If we were to go back in time about sixty years, where do you suppose the “red lines” of segregated neighborhoods were? Same places.

When you start looking at questions of health disparities, and differences of neighborhoods, you come across this fact: we are still reaping the harvest of segregation. The law was changed. But neighborhoods for the most part still look the same. This is just one aspect of what we call systemic racism, or structural racism. And it is a poison that still sickens America.

If we are going to improve the nation’s health, if we are going to improve our resilience to pandemic and disaster, we have to fix this.

Our NAD president, Elder Alexander Bryant, reflected on this past week’s celebration of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and asked, “Has the dream been realized?

He went on:

“A paradox of our time is that there has been racial progress and yet it is obvious to most that we have a long way to go. On the one hand, we have sent a Black man to serve in the highest position in the land, and now we’re just a couple of days from sending the first Black woman to serve as vice president. On the other hand, we have watched George Floyd and other Black men murdered by those who were sworn to uphold and protect with rapidity. Another paradox is that on the one hand, the state of Georgia sent a Black man and a Jewish man to the U.S. Congress for the first time in the history of the South; but on the other hand, on the very next day, the U.S. Capitol was attacked because a significant number of whites feel they are losing their country and must take it back by force, and they felt like the presidential election was stolen. Another paradox is to watch how different groups of protesters are treated — for one group an overwhelming show of force; for another group hardly any force at all — and yet some people don’t understand why others look at those realities and see inequity and injustice. In our world today people are living in two different worlds, adhering to two different sets of facts and, of course, arriving at completely different conclusions. Has the dream been realized?”

My brothers and sisters, we have work to do today.

We need to have conversion of heart and a commitment to Jesus Christ, individually and as a church. We need that peace that passes all understanding that comes from trusting him. We need to hear again those precious promises such as those in Romans 8 that none of our trials and tragedies will ever separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. We need to stand on these promises, and they will give us a faith that can get us through today, and tomorrow, and keep us going forward.

How do we build resilience to help us endure pandemics and disasters? One way is by strengthening our spiritual resources. Strengthening our connections to one another. Renewing our sense of mission as a church to service to the community. Preparing ourselves to be ready.

But we need to look wider. We need to work to improve our communities. We need to be part of the long struggles to improve our neighborhoods, improve access to good food, good education, and good healthcare. We need to build bridges in our community, and get at the roots of our divisions and inequities.

And that means that we as a church have to see that the work for justice is our work. That our prayers need to include the petition of the prophet Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

What are small steps you can do today? Talk to the Red Cross. Get the materials they have on disaster mental health and distribute them to your friends and neighbors. Talk to the Calcasieu Parish Health Unit, and see how you can help them. Get people tested for COVID19. Get people vaccinated. I got my first vaccine on December 30 and I will get my second this coming Wednesday. I’m just 59, but I have preexisting conditions. I am a veteran. I have issues with cholesterol and blood pressure. I have type 2 diabetes. So I’m not taking any chances. I got my flu shot. I’m getting my COVID vaccine. Get yours, too.

We have a health message as Seventh-day Adventists. We know that good health is a critical part of resilience. Getting rest, exercise, fresh air, pure water, sunlight, eating right, avoiding harmful substances, having faith in God. Following those counsels will help us build up resilience and strengthen our immune system and our ability to handle stress. But we also believe in hospitals. We believe in evidence-based medicine. We believe in public health. And we believe in immunization.

We believe that we are to be as salt and as light in our communities. To be like Jesus, the word made flesh who dwelt among us so that sharing our weakness, our suffering, our temptations, he could be a faithful and merciful high priest.

We need to proclaim faith in Jesus Christ, but we also need to do the things he did: heal the sick and comfort the sorrowing. Take as your commission the text Jesus cited at the beginning of his ministry, as we read in Luke chapter 4:18–a passage from Isaiah chapter 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”