Rethinking Politics and Preaching

There are some dangers when preaching starts to sound like American political speeches. Here are a few reasons we need to rethink the way we talk about politics.

1)    There are significant sectors of the church (perhaps people from every church tradition and denomination) that have become convinced that their favorite American political philosophies are in alignment with scripture.

2)    The integrity of preaching is in danger if preaching does not sound any different than other forms of speech about political ideology.

3)    Listeners who trust preachers to proclaim the ways of God may be persuaded to think the bible encourages specific political positions.

4)    The one body of Christ is at risk when other allegiances become so important that followers of Christ debate political preferences to the point of division.

5)    The witness of the church is in danger when the world observes the church behaving as other entities in the world, clamoring for the same power and fighting one another in order to gain it.

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Preaching and Politics of Power

There is a strong possibility that preachers and congregants join with parties, positions, or rhetoric in order to belong to those who appear to hold the power. Although the gospel speaks about power differently than the world does, it remains a temptation for the church to hold some of that power. This is not the first century the church has decided to join the ways of the world in order to accomplish what it perceives to be good. The call to dwell in the world that God so loved in order to influence the world in the ways of God sometimes backfires. Whatever else may occur at this time, it is likely the world begins to see the church as just another group attempting to gain control by grabbing onto the world’s power structures.

The reasons preachers may be tempted to preach a political ideology that is something other than biblical may include; 1) a preacher’s own political bias. 2) an attempt to please congregants. 3) an effort to support a particular political effort. 4) a confusion that some political theory equals the gospel. 5) some other attempt to appear relevant. These may not be the only reasons but I suspect these occur frequently. All of them fall short of preaching the gospel.

A Present Problem

On a personal level, this preacher has experienced; 1) many instances of preaching that encouraged alignment with current political power structures. 2) frustration when preaching sounds like popular forms of political rhetoric. 3) concern about the direction of the church as it hears and responds to political rhetoric. 4) a conviction that preaching should reveal a biblical counter-politic to current political rhetoric.

What is your experience? Do you share these concerns? Do you disagree?

A Sermon about Hospitality

“Hospitality: A Dangerous Act with Strangers and Angels”

Hebrews 13.2

We have spent a lot of time talking about hospitality. In many ways it is like singing to the choir because we have some real hospitality skills. There is much we could teach others about hospitality. I suspect that when people join us here, they find themselves feeling welcomed. And yet, we cannot get away from the fact that the bible just keeps talking about hospitality. It will not do to read the bible as if we are to master some skill then we can pass on the passages that address that topic.

The fact is, hospitality is part of what identifies us, not only in our congregation, but in the church as a whole. This is true because it is a characteristic of God. God establishes what hospitality looks like and God has welcomed us into the family with open arms and seated us at the royal table.

Today we are in Hebrews. An interesting book, I suspect it is actually a sermon. Sometimes it seems to raise its voice and even pound on the pulpit to keep our attention. One of the messages found in Hebrews is certainly to stay awake, stay alert. And the reason for this is the people are living in a state of urgency.

The people who first heard the Hebrews sermon were in danger of dying and that causes some to lose faith. So we get a whole chapter about people who did die but kept the faith. Read chapter eleven, there is a long list of people mentioned as people who kept the faith even as they lost their life. We are reminded there is a dangerous history for those who have walked in faith.

But today we find ourselves in chapter 13, it begins clearly, “love your sisters and brothers…” This sounds ok, we’ve heard it before, it sounds like something Jesus might say. The text goes on to imply that we ought to ”love strangers.” This is a reminder that when we are practicing hospitality we do not pick and choose who the recipient is. This seems to go against societal advice. “Show hospitality to strangers.” While we do not hear that often, we do hear advice like “don’t talk to strangers” and phrases like “stranger danger.” These sayings are not without cause. Many, including children, have been harmed during interaction with strangers. Laws have been made in response to some of these encounters. Do not accept candy from someone you do not know. Do not get too close to an unfamiliar van. We are well aware of the dangers in situations like these.

Yet, here we have it, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers.” It almost sounds polite. As if the writer of Hebrews says “love your sisters and brothers” and oh, by the way, “don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers.” And then, the text tells us that any stranger out there could be an angel. This is interesting, “some of you have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Quite frankly, if we are entertaining angels, it is probably best we don’t know about it. Every time one shows up in the bible, someone falls to the ground, someone hides their face, someone becomes afraid. We have to wonder if angels are hideous or intimidating. Yet, Hebrews tells says that some have shown hospitality to them without knowing it. At the very least, this sounds dangerous.

Hebrews then mentions prisoners. Are prisoners an example of strangers that are worthy of our hospitality? Aren’t these the bad guys? I don’t have to remind you of the recent shooting here in PA. Twelve were shot in a bar with no clear motive. This is another reminder that someone needs to be demonstrating a different way. The bible makes clear that someone is the church. A people who will show hospitality in unlikely places and to unlikely people. Hebrews suggests “hospitality to strangers.” I can’t help but think how dangerous that sounds.

I am reminded of my oldest daughter. When five years old, playing with two others (also five) in a yard near the alley. One of the mothers was watching from the window when a pick-up truck pulled up. A gentleman began speaking to the children. The mother made her way outside and as she approached, the truck pulled away. When she asked the children who they were talking to, they replied they didn’t know who it was. And then, appropriately, this mother gave the speech about the danger of talking with strangers. I am told my daughter replied “we weren’t worried, we knew that God would protect us.” That did not impress the mother. I am not exactly sure of what I think about it. But it did remind me that Jesus told us that in order to enter the kingdom one must become as a child.

Hebrews says clearly “do not forget to show hospitality to strangers.” What are we to do with this? And it is not as if the Hebrews were safe. In fact, they were in danger of losing their lives. It is one of the reasons the writer reminds us to keep on assembling together. We can’t survive such dangerous territory on our own.

One day in the early pages of the bible, Abraham and Sarah were camping when they were approached by three travelers. They did not hide the valuables. They did not put out the fire and shut the door on the tent. They did not strategize a plan to pretend they weren’t home. Instead, they invited them to stay and eat. They entertained them and it is only later we learn that among the travelers were angels. We cannot help but think about Hebrews “do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, you might be showing hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

It might seem so contradictory to use our hospitality skills on a stranger. We might be reminded that one day Jesus was asked about a neighbor. He replied with a surprising story about a Samaritan’s hospitality. And those in the crowd would have been shocked. They would have thought it was impossible and contradictory for a neighbor and a Samaritan to be the same person. It is more likely they would have considered him to be a stranger.

Hospitality might seem so easy. But the fact is, it is a challenge. While showing hospitality, we can never be sure what we’re getting into. Hospitality is risky business. Why venture into something where you can be taken advantage of? Why risk people thinking that you are a pushover? Why enter such dangerous situations at all? All we know is that Hebrews says “do not forget to show hospitality to strangers” and we are reminded that hospitality is downright dangerous.

Goodbye Eugene Peterson

You have probably heard by now that Eugene Peterson died last month. Ever since my friend Dale told me to read A Long Obedience in the Same Direction I was reading everything from Eugene Peterson I could find. Peterson’s contemplative exegesis helped me at a stage when I was struggling to make connections between a biblical theology and a practical pastoral theology. I suspect it was the same for many. Peterson will not be remembered primarily as a preacher. Instead, he will likely be remembered as the guy responsible for The Message or as an author of many books. Yet, as evidenced by As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire, a book of sermons that were preached by Peterson, he was a preacher. I suspect there is a long list of preachers who considered Peterson to be their pastor.

As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire can be read as a devotional or as a sermon primer. It certainly helps us to understand a little how Peterson thought about scripture. It helps us understand a little bit about this one who desired to be like a kingfisher “catching and reflecting sun brightness.” It helps us to understand a little about this one who desired Christ to be “playing through our limbs” in ways that we can live the Christ life “almost in spite of ourselves.” He calls these written sermons “kingfisher sermons” because he knows that capturing a sermon on paper is like trying to “sketch a kingfisher in flight.”

I love what his son Leif Peterson said about his father at his recent funeral. “The writer of Genesis tells us that at the end of each day of creation, God looked around the world that He had done, and saw that it was good.” He goes on to say “I think my dad did that a lot. He was always looking around at the mountains, at the flowers, at the birds, at the relationships forming and playing all around him, and you could tell from that signature twinkle in his eyes, what he was thinking ‘oh man that’s good, that’s really good.'”

He continues by saying that he used to joke with his father and tell him that he “only had one sermon, one message… It’s almost laughable how you fooled them, how for 30 years every week you made them think you were saying something new… They thought you were a magician in your long black robe hiding so much in your ample sleeves, always pulling something fresh and making them think it was just for them… They didn’t know how simple it all was. They were blind to your secret.”

Leif Peterson said that he knew his father’s secret, however, as he had been telling him for 50 years. “For 50 years you steal into my room at night and whispered softly to my sleeping head. It’s the same message over and over: ‘God loves you. He’s on your side. He’s coming after you. He’s relentless.’”

I love that. Thank you, Eugene, for a life well lived.

Complaint and Hospitality

Acts 6.1-7: A Written Sermon

At the start of this text, things are good. Disciples are increasing and the word is spreading. At the end of this text, things are good. Disciples are increasing and the word is spreading, things continue to be good.

That tells us that whatever happens in between the beginning and end of this text doesn’t stop disciples from increasing and doesn’t stop the word from spreading. It might surprise us then to discover that what happens in between is a complaint.

Complaining? Grumbling? Disagreement? Is that supposed to happen at church? Isn’t the church supposed to be a grumble free zone? Should we be telling attenders to leave complaints outside? We already have a prominent “No Skateboarding” sign, should we add a sign that says “No Complaining?”

We are told what this complaint is about. It is about food. Some are being left out during the daily distribution of food. No wonder a complaint is made.

But no one holds up a sign that says “no complaining.” Instead, the complaint is heard and not only is it heard, it is treated with dignity. It becomes important enough that everyone pitches in and they decide to call seven people specifically to serve as table waiters. They call people to make sure no one gets left out at dinnertime again.

These aren’t adolescents coming home from school and rummaging through a pantry full of things they do not want and claiming “there’s nothing to eat.”

No, these are widows who are likely without income or assistance and likely not getting anything to eat. So, the church calls seven people to wait on tables. We get the feeling this is an important part of the church’s story because we get the names of the seven. These are not just seven anonymous bodies called to perform a necessary task because they are the only ones available.

We may tend to think of things like waiting on tables as something necessary but less important than other work. But the New Testament tends to measure things differently. We may tend to value jobs by the level of compensation they offer but the New Testament appears to consider some other factors.

So, in this text we find serving to be something important. Serving becomes a priority. As soon as the need becomes known, the church begins to take care of it. We do not know how many people were being considered as table waiter, but we do know the seven who were chosen had rather impressive qualifications… these table waiters are to be “full of the Spirit” and “full of wisdom” and of “good reputation.” If nothing else, we discover that waiting on tables is not menial activity.

Maybe we overlook the significance of those who serve. Maybe we should see the whole table gathering differently. There is something valuable going on here… it is much more than physical sustenance. It is more than vitamins and minerals and nutrients. It is more than proteins and carbohydrates and antioxidants. There is something going on here that causes the church to grow.

Maybe we should think differently of those who grow food, think differently of those who harvest food, think differently of those who prepare food… maybe we should think of those who serve food differently. Maybe we should think differently of those who sit with us at table. Gathering at table around food is a bigger event than when we first imagined.

I am currently enrolled in a class and we were given an assignment to write a paper on this very text. We were to write 7500 words, for those curious that comes out to 28 pages double spaced. While involved in this project, I read this text over and over. I read it in different rooms. I read it in the car. I read it in a different language. Upstairs, downstairs, I read it standing on my head. I read it as if I was an apostle and as if I were a complainer. I read it as a widow and as a priest. I read it as if I was auditioning to be a table waiter.

Have you ever been involved in a project that no matter what else you were doing, you were still working on that project? It was that kind of project. And what became very obvious was that everyone mentioned in the text is very important. Overlooking others is not an option.

The idea of serving at table is not a new phenomenon with Acts. In the Gospel we find a scene at a table. In this scene the apostles are arguing over “who is the greatest?” Jesus interrupts to say “I am here at the table with you as one who serves.” We realize that those called to serve at table are following in the steps of Jesus.

In the Gospel we have a scene where Jesus introduces “serving” in a conversation about being the greatest. Here in Acts we have a scene where the church hears a complaint and responds by making serving a priority. We can’t help but notice how important serving becomes in potentially divisive situations. We cannot help but notice here the priority given to serve those who have been overlooked.

From the beginning, God desired to dwell among his people. That started way back in Genesis. God called a people to show the world the ways of God. A people to show the world what it looks like when God dwells among them. What began so long ago grew to include a gathering in Jerusalem where some were being overlooked. This grants importance to that gathering. This is a gathering that is taking seriously God’s plan by hearing a complaint and by serving those in need. The church is God’s plan to show the world what it is like for God to live here.

This text reminds us that serving is to be a priority. It also reminds us that love is more than polite agreement. Speaking up on behalf of others is also evidence of love. The text brings with it a complaint but the world takes notice of the way the church responds and the church grows. Overlooked widows, Greeks and Jews, priests and apostles, and table servers are all equal in this episode because they are all equal at God’s table.

We are reminded that complaints do not stop the work of the church. Instead it seems things that are not going well become opportunities for the ways of God to be demonstrated in the world.

 

 

A Clash of Kings

In the Thessalonian correspondence we are saturated with reminders that Jesus is the coming king. This is significant considering our introduction to the Thessalonian church is that they are preaching a king other than Caesar (Acts 17). This is no less than treason. History tells us the city had some level of infatuation with Rome and Caesar. The close ties with Rome were evidenced by a shrine in Thessalonica for the emperor cult. The emperor was seen as the universal savior whose benefactions were declared as good news. Such benefactions were enjoyed and the residents were under some responsibility to protect such a favored status. Added to this was a decree from Caesar banning any predictions of a new king (Witherington, New Testament History, 262).

It was not enough for those raised to be faithful to Rome to hear that this Jesus who had been crucified had also been risen from the dead. Now there was talk about him coming as king. I and II Thessalonians, in fact, cannot stop talking about Jesus as coming king. For those who may have lived their lives desiring to experience a visit from Caesar, the portrayals of Jesus arrival are particularly interesting. What might a coming of Caesar look like? How would a royal entrance be announced? Perhaps with a herald’s proclamation and royal trumpets?

This should not be lost on us when we read about the coming of King Jesus in I Thessalonians 4. Jesus comes from heaven, with a loud command, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God. It sounds so royal. We are almost expecting the text to add that a red carpet is rolled out. On his best day, Caesar coming from the capital city, with a human herald, and roman trumpets is no match for that. And then, if that isn’t enough, II Thessalonians 1 tells us that he comes from heaven in blazing fire and powerful angels. Just saying, if this is a clash of kings, Caesar doesn’t stand much of a chance.