Mystic Mondays January 9, 2017
“Remember, you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Ex. 22: 21
Today I preached a sermon at the church where I am currently serving as an interim pastor. I was preaching on the first part of their new mission statement, “Welcoming all, as God’s people, on our journeys of faith.” Speaking to the first phrase, “welcoming all” I reminded my congregation that it is an essential part of the Judeo-Christian narrative to be welcoming to the stranger, the different, the alien and the outcast among us.
In any other context and time I think my sermon would have been heard as a good reminder to what makes us church. It would have been heard as a purely spiritual message of how we learn to live more deeply into our Christian character. It would have been pulpit preaching at its most normative.
But a strange thing has been happening in my sermons. Despite no manipulative maneuvering on my part most of my sermons feel like they have a political angle to them. The pulpit is feeling political no matter what I say.
I have for years offered the same benediction at the end of the service. It used to be a feel good benediction and charge to the congregation to go out and live the words that we had prayed, sung and heard in the service. But now not so much. They sound political. They sound like a charge to go into battle.
I never intended it this way, but I can hear the words in my own head. With my arms raised in the typical blessing style I say, “Strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, and help the suffering,” and I can’t help but feel like I am making a political statement. I can’t help but to think I am drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Mr. Trump you can’t steal this from us. We are going to fight you on this one.”
And the funny thing is this happened with no change on my part. My preaching hasn’t changed at all. I am preaching the same messages I have preached for a twenty years. But now they sound different. The context has changed. Our ears hear a different message. New images pop up in our heads that weren’t there before.
When we sing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white…” it doesn’t sound so innocent anymore. It sounds like we are taking a stand. It sounds like we are facing off with a political figure and movement. It sounds like we are marching into war.
But WE haven’t changed the words. Mr. Trump changed the context (or at least exposed a hidden, festering underground people).
I say, “Jesus calls us to honor the dignity of every person” and it sounds like I am calling Trump out for mocking a disabled reporter.
I say, “Remember, we were once strangers in the land of Egypt” and it sounds like I am protesting the policies of Trump and his supporters.
I say, “Jesus had a way of treating each person like a human being,” and it sounds like I am looking for a way to embarrass this locker-room-talking, pussy-grabbing president elect.
I say, “We are our brother’s and sister’s keeper,” and it sounds like I am speaking specifically about the refugee and immigration crisis.
I say “Repay no one evil for evil,” and it sounds like I saying, “Don’t stoop to Mr. Trump’s lows.”
Some may accuse me of suddenly making my pulpit political and sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong. But I am struck by the fact that nothing has changed for me. I am still preaching the same gospel message:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Take care of the stranger among you because once you were that stranger and God took care of you.”
“Practice humility and mercy toward each other.”
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
I never intended for this to be political. But maybe that’s the power of gospel. It doesn’t care about the lines between religion and politics, convention and political correctness. The gospel just shines a light into dark places and exposes our fallen natures.
I don’t even mention Trump by name from the pulpit, but it’s as if he has found a way to get into the subtext of my sermons. I can’t keep him out if I tried. He has written himself into every home and every person’s subconscious. I didn’t invite him. He pushed his way in.
I am sorry Mr. Trump, I am not trying to single you out from the pulpit. You have singled yourself out with your behavior. And this gospel that I have been preaching is now pointing a great big ole’ floodlight in your orange-ish direction. And despite your love of the limelight this is one light that doesn’t make you look good. In fact it makes you look small, petty, and desperate.
Mr. Trump you haven’t changed me. I am a Christian minister. I will always be a Christian minister. Someday you may need my (or a colleague’s) services. And my hope is that when your final day comes that I can say with integrity, as I do at many memorial services, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
But Mr. Trump I won’t lie for you. My job is to preach the gospel. Your job is to make a good faith effort to live up to it. And then, on your final day, my job is to tell the story. Please give me a better story. I won’t make it up for you. You have to live it first.