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franciscan - May 2004

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2004

Strategies For Preaching God’s Judgement

by Peter Bradley

My predecessor as Vicar of Sheffield, Parson James Wilkinson (1731-1805), was also a King's Justice of the Peace.  He is said to have 'administered the Law as he preached the Gospel,' 'with inflexible integrity'.  The unfortunate consequence was that in 1791 a mob rioted outside the Parish Church in protest at the vicar's cruel justice, subsequently proceeding to Broom Hall, where they burned down the vicarage library.  Parson Wilkinson had the leader of the mob who actually lit the fire sent to the Assizes in York to be hanged. 

I am on the side of the mob.  We should be suspicious of those who preach judgement easily, secure in the exercise of their own power.  While the rich praised Parson Wilkinson for his courage and zeal, the poor, in a remarkable protest song, portrayed their vicar as a harbinger of a 'Black Resurrection' which would seek to overturn the mercy and justice of God.  This insight of the poor of Sheffield, that preaching God's judgement should be liberation and mercy, not fear and control, holds good now.  For them, God's justice would come when 'the serpent [parson] will hang his head', ashamed to speak his cruel judgements aloud before his loving redeemer.

In this context, we might well be cautious about preaching God's judgement at all.  I suggest that there are three strategies we can use to preach judgement, while avoiding the danger of claiming God's justice as our justice.

The first strategy in preaching God's judgement on an issue is to allow the different perspectives in the situation addressed by the Gospel to emerge.  Preachers often try to unify these diverse voices in a single reasoned argument, to which they then give a clear answer: usually, God says ‘No!’  I have found that this is an unprofitable approach, irritating the congregation by giving a closed answer rather than helping them to hear the word of God which will lead them forward.  A dialogue sermon, in which the preacher discusses a problem with another member of the congregation, each questioning the other and exploring how the Scriptures bear on the situation, or a sermon delivered by a house group, in which different people relate their experience in the light of the Gospel, can be much more fruitful ways of listening for God's word of judgement.  We preach God's judgement best when we enact discovering that judgement together as a community, modelling the process of discernment in our sermons.

In his important recent book Shame (2000, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), Stephen Pattison explores how Christians have used shame to control others.  Shame here is to be distinguished from guilt.  Guilt has to do with doing wrong, for example breaking a rule that should be honoured, as when we tell a lie.  Shame is much more complex; it comes from a sense of being observed to be inadequate, of being fundamentally unacceptable to oneself or others.  We feel overwhelmed by shame when see ourselves as valueless, incapable of being loved.  Shame is a very frightening, confusing, and paralysing emotion.

However, some classic styles of preaching on judgement, both evangelical and catholic, play on our capacity to feel shame, subtly encouraging a sense of worthlessness in the congregation, in order to 'solve' the false problem the sermon has created with a call to repentance.  Preaching God's inescapable judgement as a source of terror, before which we are trapped, is all part of this crude game.

A second strategy for preaching God's judgement flows from this insight.  The Gospel heals us from shame; in Christ, we are all worthy of love.  If we can preach our worthiness and loveableness before God, then the judgement of God can be seen in its true perspective.  As part of our response to God's deep love, we are given a true understanding of ourselves as adults, able to take mature responsibility for the wrong choices we have made.  God's judgement is seen as part of God's love for us, actively seeking to help us take authentic responsibility for our lives.  Unlike the preaching of shame, which traps us, preaching judgement in the context of God's compassionate love for us frees us to act for justice.

Finally, there is a particular pastoral challenge in preaching God's judgement to those who have experienced violence, for example in communities where an act of violence has taken place.  The temptation for the preacher is to play safe with the expectations of the community, which would often mean blaming others for what has happened, effectively reassuring people that God will judge those who have done wrong.

More true to the Gospel is a double approach of 'speaking for' and 'speaking to' the community: 'speaking for' the community by acknowledging the complex feelings of the community, including perhaps a desire for revenge, or for God to destroy the wrongdoers, and 'speaking to' the community, by affirming how God hears their deep suffering, and showing how God's people have been led by God's grace to healing of their pain.  Over some months, perhaps years, the community can be led to pray for the perpetrators of violence.  An early preaching of God's judgement could close the way to such healing.

In his memorial in Sheffield Cathedral, Parson James Wilkinson is shown with a hangman's noose behind his head, a silent protest at the Parson's inflexible preaching of God's judgement and administration of the King's justice.  The poor, who refused in the end to hear him preach judgement, knew more truly what preaching God's judgement requires: listening to different voices, and giving up some of our power as preachers, so that we are sharing together in discerning God's judgement; helping people to receive healing from shame, so that they are set free to take on the adult responsibility of being Christian; refraining from judging even those who have manifestly done wrong in our communities, so that by God's grace we can receive a deeper healing and forgiveness f

The Very Reverend Peter Bradley is Dean of Sheffield.


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