This past Sunday was our Hanging of the Greens service, a tradition going back decades. There is no sermon in this service, just readings and carols that accompany decorating the church and placing token of Advent on the altar table. It’s quite lovely.
I was happy to have a break from writing a sermon, since I was in Pennsylvania with my parents for most of the week. I did, however, take it upon myself to rewrite certain parts of the service, which, like old traditions, often reads like the disjointed pastiche, cobbled together by various voices over the years. Some of that is fine and good, and some of my attempts to replace incoherence might not have been on target. I welcome comments here. One particularly big change was replacing Joy to the World as the final hymn with “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” The change definitely marks the difference between a fasting Advent and a joyful Christmas. But I’d welcome comments from those who don’t find much meaning in my emphasis for Advent on awakening our sense of need, expectation, lack–all aimed at the coming joy with which we greet the birth of the Christ. I have my reasons for what I do, but it doesn’t mean that what I do works for everyone–far from it, I am sure.
But meanwhile, in lieu of posting a sermon, I took some time today to listen online to the sermons of a local pastor from an evangelical background. It was a good chance to check my prejudices. We mainline Protestants carry much animus against our evangelical cousins. Some of this is resentment, no doubt. Evangelicals have generally been more successful than mainline (or old-line, as Ted Campbell calls us) Protestants. Our churches shrink and theirs blossom. Then there are the politics. We tend leftward, emphasizing God’s care for the poor and outcast, God’s love for all people regardless of nationality. People on the right can speak to these concerns, but more often than not, the political views of liberals align with a concern for the poor, minorities, displaced people, and these same view resist a hard nationalism that would justify placing the interests of one’s own people over other nations, let alone exercising hostility and violence against other nations. White evangelicals, some 80% of whom voted for Trump, are known to align in a hard, partisan way with the Republican party (since the late 70s or so) by zeroing in on issues of morality, often tied to sexuality: abortion, homosexuality. Republicans promise, often in vain, to make conservative Christian moral positions on these issues once again “the law of the land,” returning Christianity to its supposed rightful place to reign in America. Hence the make-up of the Supreme Court can become the only defining issue, rather than more practical and humane ways of preventing abortion, say.
Anyway–I suppose it’s obvious that I have a hard time being charitable to these evangelical cousins without my resentment taking over, including real objections and differences–not just on politics, but also theology. I have often marked in my sermons my own differences with evangelicals over traditional theological issues; I think their Achilles’ heel comes down to the issue of authority. But THE POINT TODAY (yes, get back to it) is that I listened to a few sermons by a local evangelical and was mostly impressed. They are loud, to be sure–but for this pastor who was ordained in a black church, loud sermon delivery is not a problem. The sermons focused mainline on love and kindness. They avoided political content. (So let’s remember that not all evangelicals believe in preaching conservative politics from the pulpit.)
There was a directness of style and content in these sermons that laid it upon the congregation to really examine one’s own heart over whether we are being loving rather than spiteful. And the same directness was used to affirm the love shared within the church. The pastor unabashedly led the congregation to say “I love you” to each other. It was moving, even from the remoteness of listening online. Something prevents me from doing the same, and it can’t be for any good reason. We mainliners are too polite and remote. We fear the melting of our hearts. And for that reason, at least, we justly grow cold and dim. We are, for all our proud anti-racism and identification with the plight of people of color, much whiter than our evangelical cousins. No wonder their churches are usually more diverse than ours.
So let us be thankful for the witness of our evangelical brothers and sisters. We would be wrong to give up our witness and simply become evangelical. But when we stop trying to define ourselves as the opposite of all things evangelical, we will hopefully be ready to learn in humility from the portion of the Spirit that God has taken from us and given to them.