Preaching These Days
I’ll be preaching at Riverside Church (not in New York) in Hood River, Oregon this Sunday. This fall I’ve had the opportunity to preach a couple of times.
As is my practice, I have used the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary on these occasions. But despite the variety and variance of texts I’ve noticed that there is an overriding theme to my preaching these days.
Which is . . . keeping the faith in discouraging times, not surrendering to despair, being persistent in the practices of faith or faithfulness. Or, in a word, endurance.
The current situation is often discouraging, even overwhelmingly so. There are weather catastrophes, mega-fires, climate change challenges unmet, even unacknowledged. There is the degradation of American life by a President who has neither scruples nor shame, with his Republican enablers. And there are all sorts of big-name conservative and evangelical pastors willing to suck up to Trump, bringing Christianity into further ill-repute. There is the diminishment of liberal Christianity as an influence in our public life.
A recent article notes the ways that Trump’s use of religion as a cloak and cover is ramping up in direct proportion to impeachment pressures.
I could go on (and on).
So I find myself preaching hope to despair, to myself first of all. Most good preachers are preaching, at least in part, to themselves.
A couple weeks ago I had the gospel lesson from Luke about the corrupt judge and the persistent widow. She, like so many of the characters who embody faith in Luke’s gospel are unlikely. God seems to have a preferential option for the unlikely. They are the marginal, the outsider, the person without status or claim. Pretty much the opposite of “entitled.” And yet, in her, we see the persistence and courage of faith against the odds.
This Sunday I am preaching on the II Thessalonians text. The Thessalonians seem to have been entirely too fixated on “the end,” or on Christ’s second coming. In I Thessalonians they are tired of waiting. In II Thessalonians they have been shaken by rumors that the Second Coming has happened and they missed it, which would be a bummer.
Paul’s message is sort of the same one that was the watchword of Brits during the World War II bombing, “Keep calm and carry on.” My sermon is titled “Rules for Living in Anxious Times.”
Despair, from a theological point of view, is a sin. It is a sin I have been guilty of, and am trying to keep at bay in these discouraging times. And these Scriptures are helping.
I particularly find my heart warmed by the final words of Paul to the Church in Thessalonika in this week’s epistle lesson: “Now may the Lord Jesus Christ himself and God the Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” (II Thessalonians 2: 16 – 17).
Drawing on Scripture reminds us both the human race and people of faith have been through trying and discouraging — indeed evil — times before (often far worse). So we have a collective memory of hard times survived and better times experienced. That’s one of the values of having lived for a while — you’re gotten through some stuff.
Jurgen Moltmann, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, wrote the following in his book Theology of Hope:
“It is usually said that sin in its original form is man’s wanting to be as God. But this is only one side of sin. The other side of such pride is hopelessness, resignation, inertia and melancholy. From this arise the tristesse and frustration which fill all living things with the seeds of sweet decay.
“Among the sinners whose future is eternal death in Revelation 21: 8, the ‘fearful’ are mentioned before unbelievers, idolaters, murderers and the rest . . .
“Temptation (in our time) then consists not so much in the titanic desire to be as God, but in weakness, timidity, weariness, in not wanting to be what God requires of us.”
As Moltmann says, the conventional picture of sin is overweening pride, arrogance, claiming too much for ourselves. But there’s another side to the story, faintheartedness, despair — not wanting to be what God requires of us.
I’ve found this to be my homiletical theme this fall. We do not know what the future brings. There are many worrisome signs. The climate. The degradation of U.S. democracy. The willingness of people to flock to leaders who play on and amplify their fears. But we cannot, must not, surrender hope or the words and actions grounded in hope.
As my friend, Fleming Rutledge, related recently, “Toward the end of World War II, during the liberation of Europe, Allied troops found a crudely written inscription on the walls of a basement in Koln, Germany, by someone who was hiding from the Nazi Gestapo. Here’s what it said:
“I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.
I believe in love even when feeling it not.
I believe in God even when God is silent.”