Court Preachers

Court preachers

By William H. Willimon

(The Reverend Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at the Divinity School, Duke University)

There’s a history of preachers attempting to ingratiate themselves with the powerful; some clergy are always willing to sacrifice the gospel in exchange for proximity to the crown. Louis XIV had his pet court preachers like Bossuet and Massillon who came to Versailles and, in elegant sermons, told the Sun King what he wanted to hear. Encountering mild resistance from some German Protestant preachers, Hitler elevated a prominent pastor, Ludwig Müller, to the role of Reich bishop in his new German Church and the majority of the churches stepped into line behind the Nazis. I suppose we preachers ought to be flattered that even powerful tyrants, who never care much for Jesus Christ, still require the blessing of willing preachers.

And in every age, there are willing preachers.

There was an elegant dinner at the White House on August 27 in which Trump thanked his steadfast evangelical clergy supporters. He should have. One attendant at that sumptuous affair was the Reverend Franklin Graham. It is not simply that Graham has faithfully supported Trump; Graham’s uncritical support is unsurprising and justified considering his political commitments. What is reprehensible is that Graham gives specious support for Trump as a Christian preacher.

Check out Daniel 1. It’s salubrious to remember that there was a time when God’s servants like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah resolved not to defile themselves “with the royal food and wine” so they refused the king’s invitation to the royal table. These young men may not have known everything about the faith of Israel but they did know that the price was too high even for extravagant, royal fare.

In an interview with The New Yorker on September 4, Graham demonstrated that there is no sin Trump has committed (and for which he has refused to repent or even regret), no sexual misconduct (“that was years ago”), malfeasance, marital infidelity or bold deceit that cannot be excused by the exonerating words of a skillful preacher. When asked about Trump’s profanity and his derisive comments about African-Americans and immigrants, Graham explained, “He’s a New Yorker” with “a bit of an edge” who is sometimes “blunt.” When the interviewer said that Trump’s comments seem “mean,” Franklin said that people in the media were mean, but not Trump.

Graham is glad that Trump met with North Korea's Kim Jong-un and pleased that he made friends with Putin. “Pray for the president and Putin” because “the media” and the Democrats want conflict with Russia. When some of Putin’s crimes were mentioned, Graham said that the Russian people “love him” and that our hands aren’t clean either. Asked about the Russian attempts to disrupt American elections, Graham said he doesn’t know anything about that but he does know that America has interfered in many, many countries’ elections so there’s “enough wrong to go around on both sides.”

Graham draws a line when it comes to separating children from their parents. Why? “Government run facilities have pedophiles working in them.” However, Graham says that the worst aspect of the whole immigrant family controversy is that Trump’s opponents “try to use children to make him look bad.”

When the interviewer quoted evangelical Ed Stetzer’s comment that evangelicals have gained political advantage with this president but in the process have “lost our morality,” Graham responded with a dismissive laugh, “Some people think too much.”

Throughout the interview, Graham never refers to Jesus.

Stetzer is right; Trump has provoked a theological crisis among evangelicals, whether they know it or not. When asked (September 17) how she reconciles her conservative Christian beliefs with Trump’s lies and infidelities, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I’m not going to my office expecting it to be my church.” Fair enough. But do evangelicals like Huckabee Sanders and Graham really want to make so great a separation between their faith and their ethics, their lives as Christians and their role as public figures? Is Jesus Christ really so irrelevant to statecraft and nationhood?

It’s my conviction that the preachers who have sacrificed so much in order to gain a seat at the king’s banquet will soon discover that they have done grave damage to evangelicalism, to say nothing of the harm they have done to the profession of gospel preaching. When the time came for evangelicals to stand up and say, “No!” they had lost the theological ability even to know that there was something worth saying, “No” to.

Though Donald Trump and the marriage and family he has repeatedly betrayed have scant relationship with the church and apparently no commitment to living the principles of the Christian faith, the Trump presidency has become a test of clergy fidelity to our vocations. During World War I, when his congregation fell willingly into the hands of German nationalism and the war effort, Karl Barth repeatedly told them that this worst of times politically could be, in God’s hands, the best of times theologically, “an extraordinary time of God,” a time to recover the grand, though risky, adventure of discipleship.

This week, as I step into the pulpit, I must ask myself a basic theological question, “Is there any word from the Lord?” My delivery of that word to God’s people may not get me an invite to a dinner at the White House, but it’s the word I must serve above all other words.

I know a preacher who, after one of Jeff Session’s mean moves against immigrants, simply stood up in the Sunday service and read Leviticus 19:33, “If a resident alien lives with you in your land, you are not to mistreat him…” He read the passage without comment or application except for ending with, “This is the word of the Lord.” Then he sat down.

Two families (“and major givers too”) left his church saying we are “tired of these political sermons.”

Thanks, fellow gospel preachers, for demonstrating that our task, as preachers, at all times and places, is to be obedient to Jesus Christ as Lord rather than kowtowing and being obsequious to competing lordlets.

What a great time to be a gospel preacher.

Fixing Our Eyes

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.” Isaiah 55:8

“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory will be revealed in us.” Romans 8:18

I have never liked the idea that our troubles can automatically be compared to the troubles of Biblical characters who were facing death, imprisonment and torture. I don’t like the way we middle class western Christians constantly compare our plight with those who suffer in ways that we only touch from time to time. In short, it is not that we don’t suffer, we all suffer, but to exaggerate our plight and compare it to those around the world who struggle with the ever present reality of disease, oppression and despair only serves to mask our own situation and diminish what others face.

I also don’t want to create a narrative for people that challenges we face are outside our control, that we are martyrs or that the devil or evil forces are behind every person who gives us a hard time. All of us have some form of agency and we need to exercise it rather than run to a place of righteous martyrdom. Finally, all of us, not least of which myself, need to know we learnt things about ourselves in these matters. No challenge I have ever faced did not in some small way reveal a flaw in the way I live my life, in the way I think about the world and my place in it. Even in challenges where it was clear to me my part in the “mess” was not the largest there was enough of my fingerprints on the challenge to understand I had a lot to learn.

Still these four short verses of scripture do remind us there is a larger perspective in all of this, that despite the now there is a then, that in the midst of the gnawing present there will be a future. One of the greatest sources of hope for me is to remember times in my life when I woke up and did not want to go to work, did not want to engage the world that day but did so and day by day there were better days ahead. These better days did not necessarily happen the next day or the next or the next but they did come to be. For whatever reason all of my bad days seem to come in the autumn, the fall, and the winter is the season when the challenges settle in, when the new reality makes itself known.

I experience spring time not as new and exciting time but as the adjustment to the new normal. It is the time when spring is just about to become summer when I really start to appreciate and enjoy what life is and find the kind of joy I have been yearning for. Summer is icing on the cake. In short what I am saying is that while time does not heal all or solve all problems the cycle of the seasons so have a way of bringing us along to new days of understanding, acceptance and change, not to mention deep joy. Patience is my least developed virtue, actually I have next to none. So this lesson of seasonal cycles has come slow to me.

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Who Do You Welcome?

Amy Allen, New Testament professor at Vanderbilt University says of today’s Gospel text:

Children occupied an interesting place in the first century household (for Jews and Romans alike). They represented the future—they would carry on the family name, provide for their aging parents, and produce the next generation. But in the present, they were a liability. Small children, especially, were more likely to contract an illness and to die. They participated in the household labor, but were not yet fully productive, and still represented another mouth to feed. Many historians of this time period compare the status of children in such a situation to that of a slave. Children were insiders left on the outside. And they are the ones Jesus commands us to welcome. On the one hand, this is just another instance of Jesus turning the expectations of the world upside down. It is a great reversal in the name of justice, the kind of which Luke’s gospel is famous for—read the magnificat there. But on the other hand, here in Mark’s gospel we also experience something else. With children, at least, the power dynamics are not so black and white—it is not so much a question of who is great and who is not, but instead it is a question of welcome.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” (Mark 9:37)

When I was a boy there was an image in our Sunday School class of this story. Many of you have seen it too. That image depicts a very Caucasian Jesus with sweet angelic children nestled all around him. It’s a sweet picture, a comforting picture and a familiar picture. It looks like the image many of us had of Jesus in Sunday School; warm, friendly and loving. First, Jesus did not look like that image on our windows. He was a Palestinian Jew, with dark complexion, looking a lot like the kind of men who are detained at our airports. Second, as Amy Allen reminds us, children were not viewed then as angelic, they were as young children something of a burden, illness came to many and they could not work as adults could. They really carried no value until they matured to a physical stature that would make them independent and productive to the household. Jesus did not look like us and the children he wanted us to welcome were likely malnourished, disheveled, and dirty. You are not likely to see that window in your church any time soon.

The underlying message of this text was not “love those angelic little children who look like us and are so irresistibly cute”, instead it was “whoever welcomes one of these unkempt and uncared children welcomes me.” It’s calling on us to demonstrate our love for God, for Jesus, not by loving our own but by loving those likely to miss out on the love of our community. You don’t witness to God love by picking and choosing who you will welcome, namely people who look, talk, dress and behave, just like you, you walk in God’s light, in Christ’s love, when you welcome those our culture leaves in the shadows.

I have permission to share this next story. Hedley told me it was OK by him I share this with you. At one of our recent Faith Studies our usual 25 were there to share in conversation. The question I posed to the five small groups was this, “have you ever worshipped in another denomination other than the United Church of Canada and what was that experience like for you?” When we came back together a spokesperson reported back what her/his group had shared. Most had attended one or two other denominations. A few told us they had attended three. I asked Hedley about his church-going experience and he told me he had attended so many different denominations he had lost track, this in spite of the fact he calls himself “Hedley the human calculator”. Hedley was smiling when he said this so I assumed my next question, “why so many different churches” would not offend. It didn’t, Hedley matter-of-factly told us that his mother would always take him as a young child to church with her. “I was a handful back then” Hedley said with a knowing grin. I nodded with understanding, “I was a handful too”. And I was.

Hedley and I are the same age. So I know the era of church he is referencing. Each Sunday at a new church the Minister (always a man) would take Hedley’s mother aside and say, “You are welcome here any Sunday but you will need to leave your son behind.” Hedley looked up and with pride he told us, “my mother would say to the Minister, we are a package deal, I don’t go anywhere without him.” Thus Hedley went to a lot of different churches. I wonder what those Ministers would say today if they heard Hedley reading the Gospel as he did so beautifully this morning.

I confess I understand. I was “different” as a child, my doctor told my mother I was the first child in Halifax he put on Ritalin. (I have no idea if this story was true or if he just said that to make my mother feel she was breaking new ground.) I was very, very hyper, though I could focus like a laser beam, remember everything that was said and done but never be able to be still or stop talking. Not much has changed. Not everyone was thrilled when my mother took me along to attend a gathering.

I remember very well the moment I realized I was not like other children. We were watching the ATV News one night and there was a segment on a summer program being offered at Dalhousie for children with “challenges” and there I was, running around in circles, being encouraged by university students to slow down, follow the rules and be more patient. It was embarrassing for my family to see me watching myself. My father quickly changed the channel.

I assumed then that religion, church, the Minister, these institutions were for “normal” people, people who mattered, people who looked like those stained glass windows in the church, the pictures in my Sunday School room. That view did not change until I took a university class from an older professor named George Grant. The course was cross-listed in Religion-Political Science-Philosophy and one of the requirements was to read one of the four Gospels and share our immediate reactions to what we read. I don’t know why I chose Luke but when I was finished reading it in full I was very surprised. Jesus in Luke is a prophet-healer-God agent who spends most of this time with sinners, women, people with illness, people from other religions and other ethnicities, and moreover the heroes of most of his stories are these very people. It made an impression. This was not the Jesus I remembered from my Sunday School, this was not a message of follow the rules and you will be loved, this was a message of “because I am loved I want to follow Jesus’ rules”.

One more story. A few years ago the United Church of Canada sent a consultant to Brunswick Street United Church to determine if the congregation should be disbanded, given its small size (15) and unorthodox worship style (a chaotic circle). The consultant thought there was no reason for the church to exist, after all the existing 15 attendees could easily attend any number of other close by United Churches. But I remember the night we talked about that and how many in the circle shared their experience going to those churches, people were polite, some smiled but no one talked to them at coffee hour, much less in the church sanctuary.

When you hear me talk about welcoming others, about the value of hospitality and making new people feel at home here at Bethany, you might think I am talking about a marketing strategy, how to keep the church afloat, put more bums in the pews. The usual pep talk for welcome is self-interest, “unless you want this church to close we had best do a better job at making people feel welcome here”. But that is NOT the reason I make such a big deal about welcoming new people. Rather, I share the importance of welcome because Jesus explicitly says, over and over and over, when you welcome the least of these, when you welcome the stranger, when you welcome the child, you welcome me. In a way this is self-interest, I want you to experience Jesus, the life-giving, life-changing, transformative moment when you know God is with you. I want you to know that feeling. So I encourage you to welcome.

But welcome is not welcome when it is only to welcome someone just like me. That is not welcome, that is like a secret society where only the members know the password, the code, to get in. When we offer a welcome we are saying you belong as much as I belong and together we belong to something bigger than all of us.

So whether you are a “handful” like Hedley and me or whether you are a more subdued child of God know that your welcome is a game changer, not just for the one you welcome but also for you. Remember, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” Amen.

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