It’s been said many Christians have two things for Sunday lunch: fried chicken and fried pastor.
I once got a Sunday afternoon phone call lambasting me for a Memorial Day homily during which veterans lit a candle not only for fallen comrades but also for fallen enemy soldiers. Before the lighting of the candle for fallen enemies, I commented that the U.S. had waged some unjust wars, such as invading the Philippines. I concluded, “If you doubt this, look up the pictures of the piles of bodies of dead Filipinos killed in an unabashed land grab.”
The World War II veteran who then lit the candle had been shot in the ankle while crawling across a battlefield in Europe. When I had asked him if he would participate, he said, “I don’t hold anything against the Germans. Those boys were doing the same thing I was: Following orders.”
I told my angry caller that the veterans had been supportive of remembering fallen enemies. He said he didn’t care. Lighting the candle was one thing, but my criticism of the U.S. had been “disrespectful to veterans.” We disagreed and continue to do so, but we’re still close friends.
Years later at a national conference for professors, I spoke on how to address controversial issues in the classroom. Afterward, I was approached by a long line of well-wishers. One invited me to deliver the address to the faculty at Penn State. One said: “I loved your presentation. But I’m Jewish. Just so you know, we find references to ‘Old Testament’ offensive. It seems to invalidate our faith.” I apologized for my ignorance, thanked him for the feedback and ever since have referred to “Hebrew Scriptures.”
I know what it’s like to be under the microscope, but I relish honest and constructive feedback. I also know James 3:1 says ministers are held to a higher account. It is an influential position with much responsibility. Listening to feedback and making corrections when appropriate is a mark of good leadership. How do you know if it’s time to have a talk with your pastor?
In recent days, I listened to an online post of a pastor’s Sunday morning sermon (or address?) to a congregation on the subject of the war in Israel and how it might be a sign of the return of Jesus and, thus, the end of times. How do we know if such remarks represent a Christ-like message? We must weigh them not on cherry-picked, proof-texted passages but on Scripture as a whole. If statements of a scientific or secular-political nature are made, we must weigh them based on science and history.
Thus, let us assess messages by asking “What would Jesus preach?” and other questions like that. In terms of faith, after hearing the sermon:
- Was “What would Jesus DO?” addressed? (Yes / No)
- Do I feel better equipped to love those seen as enemies just as Jesus commanded us to love our enemies (Luke 6:27) and spoke positively of Samaritans (Luke 10)? (Yes / No)
- Since Luke 6:28 says to pray for those who mistreat us, did worship service prayers call for grace for terrorists/enemies? (Yes / No)
- Was I encouraged to pray for those seen as enemies? (Yes / No)
- Were other people besides Israelis mentioned? Specifically, was I encouraged to pray for and make donations to support innocent Palestinians? (Yes / No)
- If the pastor has been to the Holy Lands multiple times, were friends other than Israelis mentioned? (Yes / No) (I have a friend who has been to Israel/Palestine 14 times, and in his essay on this issue, he mentions friends in both people groups, just as Jesus interacted kindly with fellow Jews but also Samaritans and even Roman centurions.)
- As opposed to the only major point being making sure you are saved for the hereafter, did the pastor follow the example of Jesus by giving far more attention to peace and abundant life in the here and now? (Yes / No)
- If the pastor referred to Russia and Iran as possibly being Gog and Magog from the book of Revelation, was there an accounting as to how many countries that comparison has been made over the years? (Yes / No) (The first time I heard “this” sermon was in the 1980s, when the countries cited were China and the Soviet Union. Then, in 1998, I read a newspaper from a famous televangelist affiliated with a large Christian university. The cover of the paper had an article saying the coming year 2000 meant the anti-Christ had been born, and the pastor encouraged his congregation/listeners to stock up on food and ammunition. In the same newspaper, there was an ad to raise money for his university to build a new building to prepare the “next generation” of ministers. I was left feeling the message felt more like a hedged bet than Christian message. How are the current “signs” different this time?)
- Did the pastor distinguish the biblical covenantal people of biblical Israel from the modern secular state of Israel? (Yes / No) (If you don’t know the difference and you think God condemns homosexuality, how do you feel about there being eight openly gay/lesbian members of the Israeli knesset? Does that make the government biblical or secular in your eyes?)
- Was there a direct or implied message that, per Numbers 24:9, if we bless Israel, God will bless us? (Yes / No)
- If the pastor mentioned a spike in earthquakes around the same time as the attack by Hamas and used that as a possible sign of Jesus returning soon, was the number of earthquakes compared to other spikes? (Yes / No) (I searched “spike of earthquakes” and found an article that scientists didn’t know if a spike was a random cluster or not. But that article was from 2012. Another article from 2017 reported research indicated a pattern of earthquakes and predict such a spike over the subsequent five years.)
- In the 30 or so minutes of the time-limited message, if the word “Palestinian” was used at all in an expression of compassion, was it said more often than criticism of “woke” politics. (Yes / No)
- If your pastor mentioned modern Israel’s right to exist, was there mention of Palestinians’ right to exist? Was there a display of the originally agreed on borders and how often the borders have changed as a result of war or occupation? (Yes / No)
- Since Palestinians had lived on the land for centuries before the U.N. partitioned land for the modern Jewish state: If you are white, did your pastor ask, “How would you respond if the United Nations gave your land back to Native Americans or the descendants of slaves who farmed the land?” (Yes/ No)
If your answer to No. 10 is yes and/or your answer to most of the other questions is no, it’s time to have a constructive conversation with your pastor. Maybe follow the example of the church member once upset with me who took me to Red Lobster, where we made peace without surrendering our respective core convictions. If Red Lobster is too pricey, there’s always Bubba-Doos. If lunch-for-two would look shady, work out a small group or meet at the church office. Using some of the points made above, you might say something like this:
Pastor, I come to church to be fed spiritually. While I appreciate your passionate concern for my eternal soul, it seems like the sermon on Israel was more focused on politics and speculation than on an abundant life in Christ and ministry in the here and now. In fact, since the content of the message had more in common with a partisan U.S. political speech than anything Jesus ever said in the Sermon on the Mount, I’m having trouble seeing your message as a sermon at all.
“While I appreciate your passionate concern for my eternal soul, it seems like the sermon on Israel was more focused on politics and speculation than on an abundant life in Christ and ministry in the here and now.”
There are a number of problems with the notion that those who bless Israel will be blessed by God. First it, ignores the difference between covenantal Israel and the modern secular state of Israel. Second, and even if we do equate the two manifestations of Israel, “blessing” someone doesn’t mean blind approval of all they do. Parents bless their children by both affirming the best in them and by calling out their misbehavior.
What would Jesus say to Israel about the years they have deprived the people of Gaza of adequate water? I mean, don’t the prophets and Jesus spend a LOT of time calling out the leadership of Israel?
Since you did go political, let me ask you this: If we ignore the way Israel abuses the human rights and territory of Palestinians, doesn’t that just help radicalize terrorists and put more innocent people in harm’s way? Are you prepared to take responsibility for unnecessarily fomenting violence rather than promoting peace?
Furthermore, Scripture commands us to avoid being stumbling blocks. When we say and do things to help Israel at the expense of fairness because we think it will benefit us, we come off as self-centered. Our faith looks like superstition instead of faith. Likewise, when we try to use a routine spike in earthquakes to talk about the return of Christ, we make ourselves look silly to those who might otherwise be open to faith.
Yes, 1 Corinthians 1:25 says “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,” but I would hope the world sees us foolishly looking out for the “least of these” — whether Israeli or Palestinian — rather than just looking out for our own interests and selling feel-good snake oil.
Why does all this matter? Because there are signs of the times we need to observe. A key question is this: Are they signs of the fulfillment of prophecy, or are they signs of the church once again departing from Christ-likeness? In other words, if we are driving west but looking at east-bound signs, we are going to make the problem much, much worse.
On the political front, this is true if misguided, self-centered theology leads to an increase in violence from those vulnerable to being radicalized by our support of oppression. In terms of evangelism, if our message reflects bad science and history, it becomes a stumbling block to any who think critically about our message.
“No part of Jesus’ theology was self-centered.”
No part of Jesus’ theology was self-centered. Israelis hunger for safety. Palestinians have literally been and are thirsting for water. Matthew 25 reports Jesus clearly saying, “I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.” Jesus exists within all hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked and imprisoned people.
If we are concerned about the final judgment, in a sanctuary full of professing Christians, the emphasis must not be on “Are you saved?” The emphasis must be on “How shall we show care to all God’s children?”
But let’s not just hold our pastors responsible. They often just say what reinforces our putting money in the plate. We need to be clear we expect more.
If we find ourselves enjoying a sermon that scores low on the Christlike test, that good feeling we are having is likely jingoistic patriotism mistaken for spirituality. That is a stumbling block to ourselves and others. We must be careful lest, as warned in Luke 17, we wind up with the world being better off if there were a millstone tied around our necks and we were cast into the sea.
May it not be. May we instead be salt and light not just to the unsaved but first to ourselves and our churches that we may better be salt and light to all the peoples of the world.
Brad Bull is an ordained Baptist minister who holds a master of divinity degree and a Ph.D. in human ecology. He has served as a hospital chaplain, pastor, professor and private practice therapist. Guests at his house have included people from around the world, including at least one Jew and one Palestinian.
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