Tuesday, February 05, 2013

To Tell the Truth, Reverend Sir

Kendall Harmon quotes a passage from a recent article by Willimon:
My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them. But I found too many clergy who allowed congregational caregiving and maintenance to trump more important acts of ministry, like truth telling and mission leadership. These tired pastors dash about offering parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth. One pastor led a self-study of her congregation and found that 80 percent of them thought the minister’s primary job was to “care for me and my family.” Debilitation is predictable for a kleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos.

Most people in mainline churches meet biblically legitimate needs (food, clothing, housing) with their checkbooks. In the free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning or inner well-being—matters of unconcern to Jesus. In this environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.

Well, bully for them. I watch preaching in the Episcopal Church, and too much of the time it sounds like the parody of this. We can buy whatever we need, not with our checkbooks (how backward!) but with our credit cards. Or most probably we already own it. There is nothing else that needs to be done about us, and spirituality is after all unencumbered by theology, for we buy whatever spirituality we need in the "Affirmations" section of the on-line bookstore. Or really, we buy our affirmation through politics, which the preacher encourages through his "truth-telling", the truth being told, of course, being about other people.

I have heard sermons where the teaching seemed to be that the mission of Jesus was all about social action. It is tempting to conclude that Willimon intends the same lesson. And for those upper class, credit- and vote-wielding Episcopalians, faithful to their sense of entitlement to rule the world, it is the most comforting preaching possible, at least of a Sunday. After all, they are confident of being able to afford a contribution to those causes espoused by the preacher, and gratified in their hatred of those who stand in the way of the divine progress of the kingdom. Grace is thus made cheap, payable in installments to the Democratic Party.

In all of this, Martha is satisfied, and Mary turned away. I do not think that Jesus ever said that all anyone needs is to be fed, to be clothed, and to be sheltered. Even the hungry, the ill-clothed, and the homeless need more than that. "Give us today our daily bread" is but one petition. People do mourn, not just for those who die, but for their kin and friends who turn to malice or self-destruction. Those who have credit today find it wiped out tomorrow. Willimon's mocking of this pain, unintentional though it may be, is contemptible.

And still there is another truth. I hear tales of priests who cannot be bothered to comfort those who mourn, and guide those who are troubled, and teach those who have gone astray. Willimon is not entirely wrong, and his vision of a ministry consumed by the therapeutic is not unseen in practice; but there is an equal and opposite peril for preachers: to fall too much in love with their own self-image as a prophetic voice. Away goes any part of the gospel which would tell them to descend from the pulpit and listen to those who prophesize against them, or who even want nothing more than to gather up the crumbs from beneath the table. Eventually it is they who consume the laos in the feeding of their egos, and the people wither, to be blown away in storms of life.


Matt Marino said...

Heaven help us.
Willimon is spot on in describing the world I left- I would not care to go through old sermons with a fine tooth comb for all the times I have pandered to public opinion...or done a "purpose driven" book study. And you are spot on with descriptions of ego driven folks "speaking truth to power."

It is curious to me how quickly a prophetic voice can empty a church. It is also curious how no one seems to notice until after the place is empty, and then how often we try to replace one church-emptying prophet with another.

C. Wingate said...

Perhaps it is just a peculiarity of my experience, then. I would also note that in this activist age there isn't necessarily a conflict between pandering and "prophecy". I would think that in a socially liberal parish the preacher is expected to denounce the sins of the moneyed classes and decry the failure of the government to do enough about various social ills.

Kendal Harmon, BTW, had a post a couple of days back quoting from "Dangers of National Repentance" in Lewis's God in the Dock, which is quite apposite to the current discussion.