In First Samuel, the people pester God for a King so they can be like all the other nations. God bitterly accedes to their request, warning them through Samuel that they will be sorry (1 Samuel 8). I guess we’ve come a long way. I offered to present a sermon series on faith and politics, and found it was roundly rejected….
What became clear to me is that. on the whole, we are not yet ready to hear anything regarding the meaning of faith for our political life. The very conjunction of the words “faith” and “politics” acts as (to use a buzzword) a dog whistle, prompting a strong reaction before people can even hear what I’ve said.
I made the case in a June 16 post that my approach to faith and politics would be very different from how most preachers do this. Most preachers try to sneak in political content and see how far they can get away with it. I suspect many preachers want to feel like they are making what political difference they can, but as I suggested in that post, the result is often a self-righteous and theologically irresponsible statement on a big, “hot-button” national issue that will mean nothing anyway. (Will you change the way one or two congregants vote in an election? And so what?) Others I think want to reorient the political values of the congregation on a larger and more meaningful scale, but this is done with manipulative rhetoric, typically forcing a political issue into the Bible or cherrypicking texts. How is this loving and respecting your congregation? Isn’t this just doing what our whole country is descending into: seeing each other as political obstacles to be manipulated by any means necessary?
Anyway, I already made the case that I will have no part in this kind of thing. But I also argued that just politely avoiding all political content is no solution. The Gospel is about a way of being a people, thus all that stuff about the “Kingdom of God.” We’ve already gone way too far into making the gospel a purely private, personal matter–about how I find personal peace and forgiveness and perhaps life after death. Jesus shows little interest in such a small scope of concern.
That aside, we have already been affected and changed by the growing polarization of our culture. We are more and more dividing into two tribes, Red and Blue, and that division goes right through our denominations and our own congregation. Must I say the obvious? Trustees are Red. Missions and CE are Blue. (Obviously there are exceptions, but the tendency is striking.) We have self-segregated, like the whole country is self-segregating. It would be naive to think that just staying the course is possible. If we don’t address this openly and transparently, then Red and Blue will only more and more become our new Jew and Greek.
As I said, I discerned that we are not yet ready to address this matter transparently. I received a kind note of concern to my previous post. But I also received a very different note. This one made its way to my inbox by accident. It was from a congregant who was writing someone else that the pastor is going to preach on faith and politics, and complaining that “looks like we are not going to church in the fall.” The message urged the friend to “READ his blog.” There was also a disparaging comment about my pastoral care, which–though I’ve never been proud of how much pastoral care I provide with my 25 hours a week–was misinformed.
First of all, I write this blog as a way to explore ideas with my congregation, with the advantage that here it is easy to get feedback and continue conversation. (I wish the “comment” feature was a little easier to use, but it is a free blog site.) I expect more from the congregation to just scanning the blog to find something incriminating about me. That’s how the Pharisees listened to Jesus (not to push the parallel too far). Instead, I expect that you either won’t have time to read everything I say, and it’s not like it’s all drops of golden sunshine; or that you will read in good faith, thoughtfully considering what I say and telling me very directly when you read something that you find disagreeable. You shouldn’t be trying to “catch” me. That’s not what a community founded on love and mutual respect does. I recognize the fact that pastoral authority can be frustratingly undemocratic; but you all have ways to express your disagreement directly and constructively, and many of you have seen how open and encouraging I am to this.
Second, the email I received exactly confirmed my point, that without addressing this issue head-on, we will simply continue to split more into Red and Blue. The author was using (perceived) political issues to build a coalition along political lines against me. But that’s exactly what I said was the problem that I was working on avoiding! We should not be confiding with the people we already agree with politically about how those other people are so wrong and dangerous. But that’s what was going on in that email, and I’ve heard people on the left in our congregation do the same thing. We are already poisoned, all of us.
But whenever we continue in our very bad habit of talking about each other in the third person, creating coalitions against one another, I will counter the only way I know how: by being even more direct. I went over to the household that produced that email; the author wasn’t in, but the spouse was, and I had a very good conversation–listening and talking–and explained how what I am trying to do is essential to what it means to be faithful to the Gospel, as well as to survive and thrive as a congregation.
I received no other strong reactions against my proposed sermon series. But I still am postponing it. (Note: not forever!) I received from church leaders cautionary words, which is fine. But no one said to me: “Yes, pastor, I hear what you are saying and see why this is so important. We need this.”
But I think we do. I can’t force it on you; that would be counterproductive and an abuse of authority. So I am going to push us onward in another way. Instead of the proposed series on faith and politics, this fall I’ll have a series on spiritual growth. I’m creating a spiritual self-evaluation that will call on each one of us to discern where we have yet to grow in our faithfulness to God and to each other as a church. I think we need to remember and put into practice the fact that our life in God is an endless path of growth and sanctification, even though we are already reconciled and united with God in Christ. But the ramifications of that necessarily take up a whole lifetime.
So we are not by any means off the hook, only all the more on it, and I’m going to start reeling you upward. Because we will not get anywhere in our need to become a people committed to a shared way of life before God, just by listening to what I have to say. Our only way forward is to rise up together toward Christ. Our whole life needs to be one of repenting and being converted by discerning Christ in each other. The goal will be something higher than any of us possess right now, but we can only get there with and through each other.
And the authority my words carry is nothing I own. It is never about just listening to my say-so. Even so, my life is a constant testing of myself before God, and constant striving with God for the blessing of truth, and I constantly come out limping. Even when I seem to have won a blessing, I am never sure whether God didn’t just pretend to let me win this one. (See my sermon on Jacob.) You also must wrestle with what I say, and put yourself to the test before God. And finally our strivings must not be done alone, but together. We are Congregational, which means no one else is going to help us figure out the truth of God. It’s all up to us. We should be terrified at this. But one thing is clear in the Bible: Where the terror is, there also is the glory of God.