Preaching remains at the heart of congregational life. Whether or not preaching has social significance depends upon the character of the minister, the relevance of the message, and the passion of delivery. Preaching is an art, and the wise pastor gives priority to this task, attentively honing the proclamation.
You know how it is when you preach. You try to get a jump on next Sunday by studying the texts, observing the ethos around you, lurking in coffee shops to overhear illustrations, and praying for the prompting of the Spirit. Just when you think the sermon is done, something shifts, and we scramble to expand our lectionary reflection to include current guidance on how to live in our time with both theological understanding and constructive action.
Well, something major has shifted! Around the nation on Saturday evening perceptive pastors were doing re-writes in light of the executive order by the president that reduces the number of refugees, bans persons from certain countries, and makes deportation a real threat to others. The singling out of Muslims, in particular, is egregious, and justice-oriented Christian pastors want religious liberty protection for all.
It appears that the recent executive actions are an attempt to move the United States away from being the religiously free country that the founders created toward becoming an aggressively Christian nation hostile to other religions. That the executive order was loosed on Holocaust Remembrance Day defies comprehension, and preparing an appropriate jeremiad is daunting.
The public square is teeming with marches, protests, and demonstrations, energizing movements of concerned citizens who will not abide demagoguery. They are wary of how the bully pulpit of the presidency is being commandeered for xenophobic purposes. While many may not want to hear a word from the church, the church dare not be invisible and silent on the roiling social landscape. And we have something to say.
From what I am hearing from preachers, fire in the bones is returning. The weight of this sacred task, proclaiming the Word, takes on new gravitas and urgency. Much like the challenge in the early Roman Empire, Christians knew that being a good citizen of the empire put them at odds with their confession that Jesus is Lord. Embracing the “America First” agenda and the shunning of those desperate to come to our shores violate the clear biblical mandate to welcome strangers and provide needed hospitality. Some of the sermons I heard live-streamed blazed with the righteous indignation of prophets of old.
Congregations are places of welcome for refugees, and we often are on the frontline of resettlement assistance. Functioning as a place of sanctuary is now under threat, and we must strongly resist government interference in the practice of our faith. Times like these require prophetic wisdom offered through courageous preaching.
Over the weekend, I met with religious leaders associated with the American Jewish Committee and the Shalom Hartman Institute, a leading educational resource for Jews in both Israel and North America. Christians and Muslims profit greatly from the scholarship and conversations convened by these two bodies.
For nearly five years I have participated in the Christian Leadership Initiative, which fosters greater understanding between Christians and Jews. Together we study texts, share perspectives on the relationship of U.S. Christians and Jews to the state of Israel, and practice respect for the lived religion of others. We gather with the awareness the peace among religions is essential to peace among nation-states, as Hans Küng has long observed.
Amidst the current political turmoil, our conversations took on an added resolve. We spoke about colliding interests of varied groups and pondered how to build coalitions, recognizing that these will always be uneasy alliances, but necessary means of social transformation. The privileged place held by Jews in the United States far outstrips that held by Muslims, and we seek to address this disparity, especially in this season of demonizing Islam.
This is a horizontal preaching moment, and the Baptist voice is crucial. Our historic witness to religious liberty remains essential, especially as we see new threats to this God-given and constitutional right. Surely persons of good will want Christians coming out of Syria to find refuge in the United States; however, this cannot occur at the expense of equally persecuted Muslims.
Prophetic preaching that spurs action can resist the evil unleashed in our nation. Neither pulpit nor people can ignore the damaging implications of protectionist and isolationist policies. Good preaching entails both warning and assurance. Usually we offer too much of the latter, while ignoring the peril of our time. Preaching in our time requires perceptive reading of the text and the political climate, courage, and a wellspring of hope. May God anoint and summon preachers to this irreplaceable work.